(Image credit: Zwifree, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Bananas belong to the genus Musa from the family Musaceae. They originate from Southeast Asian tropical regions and due to this present a strong protection from oxidative stress caused by ropical climate conditions such has high temperate, high humidity, and intense direct sunlight (1). This protection stems from the production of bioactive compounds with antioxidant activity (2). Despite contemporary Western misconceptions of there being only one kind of banana, there are actually over 1,000, with most varieties found in Africa and Southeast Asia (3). This diversity occurred because somewhere along the evolutionary process the Banana trees has their basic number of chromosomes increased, resulting in polyploid groups.
Most banana cultivars originated in Southeast Asia through human selection and cross breeding of wild varieties. These crossings have generated diploid (2n), triploid (3n) and tetraploid (4n) varieties with 22,33, o4 44 Chromosomes (4). The combinations of these genomes resulted in the creation of AA, BB, AB, AAA, AAB, ABB, AAAA, AAAB, AABB, and ABBB genome groups, which lead to the diversion into different species (5). Despite the existence of multiple species, 99% of export bananas and 47% of bananas grown today are the Cavendish (6). Though they are they are now the standard, the Cavendish banana was once considered by Europeans to be inferior to the sweeter creamier Gros Michel (aka “Big Mike”) (7).
In the early 1800s French naturalist Nicolas Baudin carried a few corms of this banana from southeast Asia to a botanical garden on the Caribbean island of Martinique (8). Then in 1835 French botanist Jean François Pouyat transported the fruit from Martinique to Jamaica (9). From there the Big Mike’s popularity exploded and they were soon grown on massive plantation in Honduras, Costa Rica, and elsewhere in Central America (10). Until the closing decades of the 19th century Bananas were quite rare in the United States. Most Americans wouldn’t get a taste of bananas until the centennial exhibition in 1876 in Philadelphia. Here over 10 million people got the chance to buy a piece of banana wrapped in foil for the price of a dime (11). Export from Central American in the 19th century was not easy, and this is one reason Gros Michel bananas became the strain of choice. Big Mike’s physical properties made them excellent for export. Their thick peel made them resilient to bruising, and their dense bunches make them easy to ship (12).
For almost 100 years this variety was the dominant export, but in 1950s Panama Disease, a wilt caused by the fungus Fusarium oxyporum F. Sp. Cubense wiped out several plantations in central America (13). This fungal disease had no cure. Even once a crop was infected it may not show symptoms for months. Then the leaves would start to yellow, as the plant’s oxygen supply was chocked off. The thick trunk at the base of the plant would split, revealing its blackened interior (14). This blight was a direct result of monocropping – a heavy reliance on a single variety of banana (15).
Commercial Bananas are seedless and thus grown by cloning. Intensive monoculture and the interconnectedness of global trade further assured the spread of pathogens. Infected crops devastating local banana economies (16). By the 1960s the United Fruit Company and other growers were unable to keep trading such a susceptible cultivar, and most started growing resistant cultivars belonging to the Cavendish subgroup (17). Cavendish were an adequate replacement thanks to their ability to withstand the long journey. However, they required different and gentler measures for harvesting, handing, and shipping than did the Gros Michel (17). For nearly 30 years the Cavendish seemed to remain highly resistant to the Panama Disease as they thrived in the same soil that produced the Gros Michel. Yet that illusion was shattered in the early 1990s when they began to get infected as well (18). The world is currently at risk of repeating banana history and though fungicides have helped maintain production, a longer-term solution would be to increase biodiversity and hence limit the risk of a single pathogen devastating the entire industry.
1- Valerie Pearson, Bananas: Cultivation, Consumption, and Crop Disease (Hauppauge New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2016).
2- Pearson, Bananas: Cultivation, Consumption, and Crop Disease.
3- Megan Tatum, “Why Are Bananas Dying and What Are We Going to Do About It?,” Small Buisness Reference Center, no. 00174351 (June 1, 2019).
4- Pearson, Bananas: Cultivation, Consumption, and Crop Disease.
5- Pearson, Bananas: Cultivation, Consumption, and Crop Disease.
6- Tatum, “Why Are Bananas Dying and What Are We Going to Do About It?”
7- Tatum, “Why Are Bananas Dying and What Are We Going to Do About It?”
8-Wikipedia, “Gros Michel Banana,” March 27, 2020.
8- Wikipedia, “Gros Michel Banana.”
9- Wikipedia, “Gros Michel Banana.”
10- Wikipedia, “Gros Michel Banana.”
11- Nadia Berenstein, “The History of Banana Flavoring,” Flavor Added: A Blog (blog), February 15, 2016.
12- Wikipedia, “Gros Michel Banana.”
13- Wikipedia, “Gros Michel Banana.”
14- Tatum, “Why Are Bananas Dying and What Are We Going to Do About It?”
15- Tatum, “Why Are Bananas Dying and What Are We Going to Do About It?”
16- Berenstein, “The History of Banana Flavoring.”
17- Wikipedia, “Gros Michel Banana.”
18- Randy C. Ploetz, “Panama Disease: An Old Nemesis Reaers Its Ugly Head Part 1. The Beginnings of the Banana Export Trades,” University of Florida, December 21, 2005.
19- Ploetz, “Panama Disease: An Old Nemesis Reaers Its Ugly Head Part 1. The Beginnings of the Banana Export Trades.”
Berenstein, Nadia. 2016. “The History of Banana Flavoring.” Flavor Added: A Blog (blog). February 15, 2016.
Pearson, Valerie. 2016. Bananas: Cultivation, Consumption, and Crop Disease. Hauppauge New York: Nova Science Publishers.
Ploetz, Randy C. 2005. “Panama Disease: An Old Nemesis Reaers Its Ugly Head Part 1. The Beginnings of the Banana Export Trades.” University of Florida, December.
Tatum, Megan. 2019. “Why Are Bananas Dying and What Are We Going to Do About It?” Small Buisness Reference Center, no. 00174351 (June).