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Is The Banana Going Extinct?

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The bananas in your kitchen are genetically vulnerable clones and, after years of threatening it, they might finally be heading towards extinction.

The latest banana to stock your shelves is a particularly bland variety known to banana geeks by its proper name: The Cavendish. But to everybody else it’s known more simply as the only banana readily available. Fifty years ago, though, that spot was held by a different top banana: The Gros Michel (by all accounts a significantly less bland variety than our current), which was completely wiped out by a fungal infection that slowly spread worldwide, clearing the way for the Cavendish.


Now it looks like that same process is happening again.

CNN reports that a variation on that same fungus that took out the Gros Michel is continuing its march across the globe. Tropical Race 4 (TR4) has been around for at least 25 years, but its global march is picking up—and it’s now showing up in new places:

Since its “second coming,” TP4 has spread to South-east Asia, then across thousands of miles of open ocean to Australia and finally, in 2013, to Africa. “Its recent discovery in the Middle East and in Nampula, Mozambique, indicates that the disease is spreading and threatening bananas worldwide,” George Mahuku, Senior plant pathologist for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, told CNN.


But, hey, the Cavendish is genuinely pretty gross—flavorless and a little bit gummy, with an oddly string cheese-like consistency. Can’t we just move to a new variety, like we did when the Gros Michel died out, perhaps even a tastier one? Probably not.

Even if the Cavendish itself isn’t a particularly missable fruit, the jump to a replacement variety is hardly simple. Estimates of how many wild banana varieties there are today tend to vary wildly, with some people saying they number in the hundreds and others insisting that there are thousands. But many of these varieties are so different as to be almost unrecognizable, others are finicky about how they grow, still others are almost impossible to transport, some need to be cooked before they are eaten.

And then there’s the question of how safe these new varieties would even be. Mahuku also shared with CNN the preliminary results of a study to see if TR4 could jump from the Cavendish to local varieties and so far he’s only seen one that failed to pick it up.

Image: Baloncici / Shutterstock.