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Climate Change And The Demise Of The Cavendish Banana


Climate change affects more than just the weather and news cycles. Vast ecological changes are creeping upon us … like a slowly rising proof. And our food, so dependant on a narrow range of factors – including temperature, rain and changing ecosystems – is under the grim auspices of this slow threat. 

In the U.S. we certainly aren’t in any imminent danger of vacant grocery store shelves or empty bellies, but we … and our kids … are going to have to make adjustments … moving farming to higher and cooler latitudes, and accepting the fact that some places may find it harder to grow anything at all.

Utah’s peaches are one of the big draws of roadside fruit stands every summer. Both Brigham City and Hurricane have held Peach Days for more than 100 years as a tribute to the sweet-fleshed fruit. Our hot days and cool nights give us a good climate for growing peaches. It’s actually the number of cold nights that signals to the peach tree to start production in the spring. If peach trees don't experience enough chill during wintertime, they get confused and don't bloom properly. And if there is no bloom, there is no harvest. As our climate changes, so will that predictable chilling. Even if plant breeders create peach varieties that need less chilling, there's another problem: Peach trees yield less fruit when it gets too hot in summer, and they lose their blooms to unpredictable freezes in the spring … another factor that comes with the unpredictability of climate change.

Now moving further from home … When thinking of climate change, people tend to consider the arc of centuries. But in the case of the Cavendish banana, its demise may come within a few short decades. Bananas are more than a sweet, potassium-loaded snack. Grown throughout the tropics and subtropics, bananas are a source of food, nutrition and income for millions of rural and urban households. They are a staple crop in many countries. In Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, people consume 3-11 bananas per day as part of their basic nutrition, and in Uganda, the local word for bananas – matooke – is also the word for food.

A big challenge for banana cultivation with warmer temperatures is the spread of pests and diseases. Agricultural experts caution that the most common type of bananas may actually go extinct due to a deadly tropical disease sweeping across crops around the world. The Panama disease originated in the 1950s. It's a fungus that attacks the plant’s roots. It can’t be chemically controlled and a particular strain is seen as a threat to the Cavendish bananas that grow the world over. So far the only way of containing the disease is by quarantining large swathes of farmland, but it has already spread to Africa, Asia, Australia, the Middle East, and Central America. Experts fear that if Panama disease reaches South America, the Cavendish banana is doomed.

A way to save the bananas could be in the form of a banana tree from Madagascar. It’s a wild species immune to the Panama disease – but it is also inedible, and researchers are trying to create a hybrid of the two species to produce an infection-resistant strain. The hitch? There are only five mature Madagascar banana trees in existence.

So your kids may never know the deep comfort of biting into a warm piece of banana bread … and their kids may only occasionally enjoy the unparallelled lusty bliss of biting into a fresh and ripe local peach at the end of a hot summer season. And for everything else on our plates, over the next century we’ll just have to hope for smart science, a society willing to change, and the survival of the wild banana trees.