A new strain of Panama disease, the fungus that wiped out the Gros Michel variety in the 1950s, has hit the world’s biggest export banana, Cavendish. If left unchecked it could wipe out the cultivar. So what does this mean for UK supply? Are new cultivars about to become common in the nation’s shops? Are the UK’s banana eaters ready to pay a premium for tastier bananas? Produce Business UK speaks to those with an expert opinion
Despite having his fingers in many revolutionary pies Karl Marx’s contribution to the world of fresh produce, as far as we’re aware, was negligible. However, his claim that all historical events happen twice – “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce” – seems remarkably apt when considering the current fate of the banana industry, and, in particular, the export banana market.
Today, the world’s most important banana is the Cavendish variety. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, 47% of bananas grown across the globe are the Cavendish cultivar. This amounts to 55m tonnes of Cavendish bananas grown each year. In the UK, 5bn bananas are eaten each year – nigh on all of these will be Cavendish.
The Cavendish’s rise to prominence in the Western export markets came in the 1950s after the previous king of bananas, Gros Michel, was decimated by Panama disease, a plant disease and type of fusarium wilt that attacks the roots of banana plants. Cavendish was resistant to this strain of the banana fungus – known as Tropical Race 1 (TR1) – and so became the export banana industry’s go-to banana.
That would be the end of the tale, but for the emergence of a new and far more virulent strain of the banana fungus, Tropical Race 4 (TR4). This soil-borne fungus has now got its teeth into the Cavendish cultivar, and while Cavendish was immune to TR1, it is helpless against TR4. Hence history repeating itself.
“We’re back to the same situation as the last century,” sighs Dr Gert Kema, an expert in global plant production from the Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “Cavendish is now collapsing, there is nothing to replace it and on top of that many local cultivars are equally susceptible to this strain.”
One of the principal problems within the banana industry is its monoculture. Yes, there are different varieties of bananas, concedes Dr Kema, but, in essence, they all go back to Cavendish.
“This monoculture is a highway for developing an epidemic,” he warns. “You slow down epidemics by diversity (of varieties) and that is lacking in bananas nowadays.”
Professor Altus Viljoen, a fusarium expert at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, echoes Kema’s cautionary tone when discussing the threat posed to monoculture Cavendish banana plantations by TR4.
“It can be devastating,” he says. “It cannot be eradicated from soils, so it will affect any susceptible banana being planted on that soil, even decades after its introduction.”
Is Panama disease headed for Latin America?
Professor Viljoen says the recent outbreak of Tropical Race 4 has seen the disease spread to five Asian countries (China, Taiwan Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines), Australia, the Middle East (Pakistan, Oman, Lebanon and Jordan), and Mozambique in Africa. Talk in the fresh produce industry concerns what happens if it reaches South and Central America?
As Dr Kema notes there is movement across the world in the banana industry. With awareness levels still being relatively low in some cases there is a fear it could reach the Americas.
“As far as we know it’s not there yet,” Dr Kema explains. “But that is the worst case scenario, because what we have already seen is that when it arrives somewhere the chance that it will stay there and will continue disseminating is extremely high.”
Work to counteract Tropical Race 4 takes on three strands: prevention of introduction, early detection and containment, and management. Professor Viljoen says countries in Latin America have introduced excellent strategies to prevent its introduction into the region, whereas Australia and Mozambique are trying to contain the disease at the sites of introduction. The disease is being managed in countries such as Philippines, mainland China and Taiwan with resource management (water and soil management) and the use of resistant Cavendish mutant plants.
The question that needs to be answered is whether the banana industry, in light of Gros Michel’s predicament, was short-sighted in placing all their, pardon the pun, bananas in one basket?
Dr Kema nods sanguinely. “In retrospect it’s always easy to say we were short-sighted, but, yes, we shouldn’t walk away from these conclusions. It’s remarkable, let’s put it that way, that there is so little genetic variation commercially available.”
Diversifying the marketplace
Jim Lorenzen, senior programme officer at The Gates Foundation, which has recently taken an interest in bananas, and a former banana breeder in East Africa, is another to state that while it’s easy to be critical in hindsight, there are other factors to take into consideration. Not least the export banana market business model that relies on low cost production.
“There’s very little flexibility in introducing other novel banana varieties because there’s a cost associated,” he says. “In partnership with the supermarket chains they like to have bananas as a low cost fruit without giving retail space for any other novel varieties. Retail space of course has a cost – so both sides have taken the low cost model. Do I think it was a good call? Probably not.”
The long term aim for the likes of Dr Kema, Professor Viljoen and Lorenzen is unquestionably disease resistance and biodiversity.
Professor Viljoen says: “Disease resistance is the only means to sustainably control the disease. A lot of work is being done in screening existing varieties for resistance, and developing resistant Cavendish bananas by means of mutation breeding and genetic modification. We need to diversify the market. It still remains a phenomenon that almost the entire banana export industry is based on a single variety. The market will have to change, and we also need to develop resistant varieties.”
Breeding resistant varieties
For Dr Kema this is the long-term strategic goal – evaluating resistance to TR4 in as many banana varieties as possible.
“If we have screened for resistance and have found sources of resistance you can use that material in classical breeding or in genetically modified (GM) bananas, once you have the genes cloned. For us, there is no preference between GM and classical breeding. I think classical breeding is necessary, but we should also use the latest tools in a commercial setting for delivering new varieties.”
This is why the lack of lack of commercially driven banana breeding programmes worries Dr Kema. In his opinion the ideal scenario is to involve highly professional breeding companies and use the latest technology to explore and exploit genetic variation in a commercially driven banana breeding programme.
“That’s the key to bring more diversity to the market,” he says. “ And by doing that we can provide consumers with a different set of tastes and sizes – like we have in any other fruit. And of course from the pathology point of view make sure that we have diversity in the fields so that we are not confronted with these huge risks for epidemics.”
Involving the banana giants
So what about the big banana companies? When asked for comment for this article, Dole and Chiquita didn’t reply, while Fyffes said it wasn’t interested in commenting at this juncture. Dr Kema says the big boys are interested in what he’s doing. But this has yet to be backed up with any investment.
“The budget that we have generated comes from a lot of other stakeholders in the banana world,” he explains. “These companies have always been interested. I meet with them and discuss what we are doing, but the fact that is that so far, there is not a single dollar from them in our programme. Which is surprising. It’s also an indication too – even for the short-term issues… eventually you confirm your serious interest, I think, by joining these efforts. You can always say ‘very important, very interesting’ but if there are no financial contributions, eventually you have to question whether you’re really that serious.”
He continues: “It is truly surprising that the big companies have their business in one ship – Cavendish. But it’s sinking, and they haven’t invested anything in structural solutions. Apart from one company: Chiquita has been involved in a breeding programme in Honduras. I don’t know how much money it has spent, but the overall attitude is one of hardly investing. I see it as my duty to get these companies involved. We really should build a programme that is attractive to these companies that has promising ideas to eventually come up with a replacement for Cavendish and that is better than Cavendish.”
Marketing specialised varieties
And here there have to be opportunities. For instance, Lorenzen believes that eventually bananas are going to receive the same sort of specialised marketing that other fruits have benefitted from.
“There’s been tremendous change in the retail industry in the last 20 to 30 years in terms of variety-specific marketing,” he says. “Apples, cherries, lots of different fruits, so I think bananas will go that way.”
So will there be a wider price differentiation in bananas going forward? Will consumers be willing to pay a premium for quality bananas? Lorenzen points out that some of the upscale supermarket chains across the world do carry tropical and/or speciality bananas and they come at a higher cost, as do organic bananas.
“If you travel in the Tropics some of the speciality varieties have more of the sweet, acid taste – what are sometimes called apple bananas – and they are so tasty. Anybody who eats them remarks on how they’re better than what we get in the north, so, yes, I think there would be potential for price differential for superior quality bananas. We don’t often see much of the colour variants but you can have red bananas or dark green bananas that are actually ripe, orange bananas… there’s a lot of diversity that hasn’t been tapped.”
And as Dr Kema says: “From a breeding perspective I’m not interested in Cavendish at all. The reality, of course, is that in the Western world consumers eat Cavendish. But I think they eat Cavendish because they don’t know anything else.”
Perhaps the high profile work of The Gates Foundation can push consumers towards new varieties. It recently began investing in banana breeding for East Africa, a major project through the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). And while its primary focus, according to Jim Lorenzen, is the staple food bananas of Africa (of which there are two varieties – the East African Highland banana and the African plantains) – there are conscious by-products of this work too.
“Breeding bananas is breeding bananas,” he says, “and part of our goal is to also develop global goods. So if our project develops parents with good resistance to Tropical Race 4, those are available to breeders anywhere in the world and we expect they can and will be used for breeding better dessert bananas. While we’re not directly investing in breeding better dessert bananas we expect the global goods arising from our investment would be available to those that aren’t.”
Shifting times ahead
In conclusion then, the banana industry – the export banana industry in particular – is on the precipice of great change.
“It’s hard to imagine that it won’t change in the next 50 years,” concludes Lorenzen. “I would really hope that the main players and the global industry would step up and help define that future in a proactive way. So that there is funding for breeding for other ways to deal with these types of situations. Because in the long run, genetic uniformity is inherently unstable.”
Within this state of flux opportunities will appear – can the market encourage a take up of bananas that aren’t mass-produced but everyone recognises taste better? Will consumers accept genetically modified bananas?
As Marx himself might have said were he still alive today: Banana lovers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but a monoculture that encourages devastating epidemics.