Are Bananas Going Extinct?
Everyone's Favorite Fruit
While the banana may be the most widely grown and consumed fruit in the world, recent alarming reports have emerged that the banana is going extinct. What on earth will everyone do without ice cream sundaes and banana bread? All joking aside though, many countries rely on bananas as a staple food, even drying them and grinding them up to be used as flour. The impact of bananas going extinct could cause hunger and even starvation in many parts of the world. Just why are scientists so anxious about the imminent destruction of the banana, and is their concern worthwhile, or just a load of hot air?
The Origin of the Modern Banana
The lovely yellow bananas that grace supermarket shelves are the result of long years of human agricultural manipulation. Scientists think that banana cultivation may reach back to 5000 BCE, and began in New Guinea, Malaysia, and other tropical Southeast Asian locales. Certainly the natives had a reason to try to cultivate better bananas. Take a look at the picture to the right. Guess what that is...a wild banana! In its natural state bananas are filled with annoying seeds, making the fruit difficult to eat. Someone realized that there had to be a better way.
Getting Rid of the Seeds
In order to make the fruit more edible bananas were cultivated with smaller and smaller seeds. Now all you can see in your regular banana is the remnant of those seeds, which appear as teensy black specks in the fruit. However, in getting rid of the seeds cultivators took away the banana's ability to reproduce sexually. This means that when farmers want to grow new banana plants they must break off a corm (part of the root) to grow a new plant. So, essentially, all bananas are really just clones of the exact same plant.
Do you like bananas?
More on Banana Extinction
- Don't Kiss Bananas Goodbye
Science News: the bi-weekly news magazine of the Society for Science & the Public
- The Sterile Banana | Conservation Magazine
- Can This Fruit Be Saved? | Popular Science
The banana as we know it is on a crash course toward extinction. For scientists, the battle to resuscitate the world's favorite fruit has begun—a race against time that just may be too late to win
What does This Have to do With Extinction?
Well, as anyone who's ever learned about basic genetics knows, diversity is the spice of life, literally. The more diverse a species is the more resistant it is to disease and other adversity. Take humans for example. Some people have natural immunity to certain diseases (like my sister does to measles) and even if an outbreak happened some number (however small) of the population would survive to rebuild.
But, since bananas are all effectively the same plant, they have no immunity to certain diseases, which include Panama Disease (a soil fungus) and Black Sigatoka (a leaf fungus).
So Bananas ARE Going Extinct?
Well, not necessarily. (Gotcha). In this case what scientists are worried about is the extinction of a certain type of banana, namely the Cavendish. See, there are many banana varieties, ranging from yellow to red, small to large. However, the banana we know as bananais the Cavendish. Its long, bright yellow presence is a constant in our supermarkets and our homes. Losing the Cavendish to say, a red banana, would just be so weird that some people might not even consider them the same fruit. But, losing a banana type is not without precedence. Prior to the 1960s the main banana variety was the "Gros Michel", but it too succumbed to disease. It is entirely likely that our children may never know bananas in the form that we do. To them a yellow banana may just be plain weird. But we've lost our bananas before, and still made it out the other side intact. We can do so again.