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Yes! We have no bananas – why the banana is facing extinction

We’ve heard about the pending extinction of the honey bees, but the humble banana also looks to be headed the way of the dinosaur.

For many years it was a fact that only your know-it-all uncle would share at parties, but the bananas we consume in the West are essentially clones made from the same strain, and are completely sterile. This strain is known as the Cavendish banana – or officially the ‘Dwarf Cavendish’ (as the trees of the real Cavendish banana can grow to around seven metres tall).

This made them much easier to reproduce, usually done through a process of cutting a shoot off an existing plant. Wherever in the world a banana was eaten it would taste the same – a practical necessity when a large portion of the bananas that come to the West are grown at giant ‘mega farms’ in South America, Asia and Africa and need to be almost identical for export.

However, as noted by Jeff Goldblum’s sleazy, leather-clad Dr Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park (and to a lesser extent by Michael Keaton in Multiplicity), there are inherent dangers with this form of engineering or cloning. In a word, ‘chaos’, baby.

Put simply, like an inbred European royal family, the Cavendish banana suffers from a lack of genetic diversity, making it vulnerable to diseases. And this is exactly what has happened.

There is real concern right now due to the outbreak of a disease on a farm in Mozambique, which has caused the death of seven million banana plants.

The disease, which can be spread just by a clump of dirt sticking to a shoe, has already spread across Asia. Closer to home, it has reached local shores, devastating the banana industry in Darwin.

While a worst-case scenario in the West would mean having to throw a different fruit in your fruit salad – and there would probably be flow-on consequences for next year’s Bananaman film adaptation – the extinction of the Cavendish banana would have real implications for many in developing nations, particularly Africa.

As noted by Dan Koeppel, many Africans rely on bananas as their main calorie source. Ugandans and Rwandans eat around 500 pounds (226 kilograms) of bananas every year – 20 times what most of us in the West eat. Not including, of course, those of us like Freelee, the banana-loving, raw-vegan Instagram ‘star’ who has argued that it is possible to exist completely on bananas, smugness, and ‘likes’.

While scientists are on the case and it isn’t quite time to buy out the last-remaining stocks from your local fruit shop and head for the hills in a tin-foil hat awaiting the bananapocalypse, for many, that may not be too far off.

The wipeout of a banana species has happened before. The Gros Michel (ask your grandparents) was a banana found on shelves across Europe and the United States in the first half of the 20th Century, which fell victim to Panama Disease, giving rise to the proliferation of the Cavendish.

Scarily for banana lovers, the circumstances surrounding the near extinction of the Gros Michel, or ‘Big Mike’ as it was known in the US of A, are eerily similar to the current plight of the Cavendish.

Even more scarily for music lovers, this shortage gave rise to the classic Yes! We Have No Bananas tune.

At this point, there is little that those of us outside the scientific world can do. Perhaps the time is right to start stocking up on bananas and practicing the stories you will tell your grandkids about the mystical yellow fruit.

At least the internet will prevent the extinction of this amazing gem – so your grandkids have that going for them, which is nice.

Oh, and in the interests of sanity, please, no-one tell Freelee. The last thing we need is bananasteria.

Based in Berlin, Dan Wighton is a part-time writer, full-time Australian who harbours ambitions of stand-up comedy and using the word ‘ubiquitous’ in a sentence.

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