From breakfast staple to afternoon snack to dessert treat, bananas are a central part of the global food chain. However, while there are thousands of banana varieties, did you know that 99% of the bananas sold are of one variety, the Cavendish? Cavendish banana plants are grown from clippings rather than as seeds, meaning that almost all Cavendish bananas are genetically uniform.
This practice—called monoculture cultivation—might lead to consistency in taste, texture, and appearance, but it has scientists worried about the future of this dietary staple. Without variety, bananas are unable to develop natural immunities, leaving the crop incredibly susceptible to genetic diseases, fungi, and pests. Of particular concern is a type of fungus called Fusarium that can destroy banana plants while infecting the soil in which they are grown for decades. In fact, in the 1950s Fusarium nearly caused the prevailing banana variety at the time, the Gros Michel, to become extinct.
While Fusarium remains a threat to the Cavendish, scientists are working on a variety of solutions, including both looking at ways to grow Cavendish bananas that are more resistant to this newer strain of Fusarium, and looking into altogether different varieties that might resist the fungus. Regardless of which of these solutions ends up being the most successful in the short term, scientists agree that an important long-term solution is greater genetic diversity in the banana market. Reintroducing variety into the banana market would require significant changes to farming practices and for consumers to develop an interest in a greater variety of banana flavors, which may lead to a whole new world of banana cuisine.