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The World’s Most Popular Banana Species Is at Risk

posted: 12/01/15
by: Danny Clemens

A destructive, quickly spreading fungus could leave the banana industry in crisis, scientists say.

The fungal strain, colloquially known as Tropical Race 4 (TR4), has been shown to easily infect Cavendish banana plants, which produce the majority of bananas sold in much of the world.

Infected pants develop a condition known as Panama disease, which has devastated large areas of plantations across Africa and Asia, with notable losses in Jordan, China, the Philippines, Pakistan and Australia.

Cavendish bananas
Shubert Ciencia/Flickr

"The soil-borne fungus enters the banana plant through the root and eventually kills the entire plant," researchers from Wageningen University explain in a news release.

"Banana-growing plots infested with the fungus remain contaminated for many years. It is then no longer possible to cultivate bananas on such a plot of land, as new banana plants become infected too."

TR4 has proven difficult to contain; it can spread through dirt stuck to shoes, tires and shipping containers, according to Smithsonian Magazine. There is presently no cure for the disease.

Widespread monoculture farming has left the banana trade especially vulnerable to decimation by fast-spreading diseases. Much of the Cavendish crop around the world is genetically identical; thus, a devastating fungus like TR4 spreads with ease because none of the monoculture is immune to its impacts.

In the 1960s, a similar fungus almost completely eradicated the Gros Michael banana, formerly one of the world's most popular varieties. Following the exit of the Gros Michael, the gap in the market was filled by the Cavendish, which was immune to the virulent fungal strain that wiped out its predecessor.

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