If you’ve ever had banana-flavored candy, you’ve probably noticed how it tastes quite a bit different than the actual fruit. Common myth holds this is because banana flavoring is based off an old type of banana that would later go extinct in America. But this is only part true. In reality, banana flavoring became popular in American markets before actual bananas would. People knew about bananas, but had largely never tried them. So when chemists were trying to find banana compounds to create a flavoring, they settled on the first “fruity” tasting one, as opposed to looking for the many smaller compounds that it would take to make a true banana flavor.
The banana death part is real though. That’s right, there really was a banana apocalypse that wiped out an entire cultivar of the plant in the Western Hemisphere. Which means you’re probably now asking us the question “what was the banana apocalypse?” Well, let’s find out!
What Was the Banana Apocalypse?
The first bananas that came to America were peeled only by a select few. Importing fruits with very finite lifespans was (and still is) pretty hard to say the least; so the banana started out as a luxury product for the American elite.
Then one day, the US was introduced to the Gros Michel, a strain of banana traceable to the Caribbean Islands (specifically Martinique). Americans would come to dub the Gros Michel “Big Mike,” and big did Mike become indeed.
It turns out, the Gros Michel was really good for commercial development. People thought it tasted good, for starters. But it ripened to the iconic banana yellow in almost perfect time to how long it took to get the Gros Michel overseas to America. Oh, and it was super efficient to grow–one bunch could grow way more individual bananas than other strains of the day. So the banana people called Big Mike would take its throne as one of America’s largest imports, the world’s darling export banana.
But Big Mike’s rule wouldn’t last forever. Despite all of its advantages, there was one critical flaw with Big Mike’s cultivation. The Gros Michel was a monoculture. We won’t get too far into how that all works, but in short, every Big Mike was actually just a clone of the first Gros Michel. This would herald the end for the Gros Michel, as being a monoculture gave the bananas zero genetic diversity. If even a single banana had a genetic vulnerability, every banana had that vulnerability.
The Gros Michel would be declared commercially extinct in the Americas by 1965 at the hands of the Panama disease.
What Is Panama Disease?
Alternatively known as Fusarium wilt, Panama disease is a fungus that’s basically just a banana-killer. It’s so deadly that when it affects a banana plantation, the entire plantation has to be razed and started anew. Like we said before, it didn’t help that the Gros Michel was a monoculture, with every single Big Mike being susceptible to this disease.
Having killed the Gros Michel, cultivators began searching for a new commercial banana. Such came the Cavendish. While it was generally deemed inferior, it was immune to the Panama disease so we all readopted a new banana to take the place of Big Mike.
You might be wondering why we couldn’t just use fungicides to keep Panama disease at bay; if it’s as effective as we claim it to be? It turns out Panama disease (aka the Four Horsemen of the Banana Apocalypse) is basically unaffected by fungicides.
Tired of all this disease talk? Well, Panama is actually a pretty incredible country. Learn what makes it so special in this post: Where Is Panama?
So How Did the Cavendish Fare?
Well, clearly we didn’t learn our monocultural lesson, as the Cavendish banana is also a monoculture. You can thank our conceptions of what is commercially viable for that (as well as the fact that we exclusively eat seedless bananas). So, as the biological arms race of evolution goes, something else would rise to become the Cavendish banana’s existential threat.
Panama disease came back, as a strain referred to as TR4. Like its predecessor, it is just as effective with the same immunities. TR4 can also remain dormant for a really long time, so farmers may carry on thinking their plantation is safe–until one banana gets sick. Not only that, but TR4 can be transported by the boots of farmers going between locations. One spore is all it can take, then it hits the fan and everything dies. This time the Cavendish isn’t immune to it though. And it doesn’t help that climate change is making survivability for TR4 easier.
While genetic engineering has provided success, it has also reduced the yield of the Cavendish plants. But facing anti-GMO lobbyists and legislators, the Cavendish grows on borrowed time until we can find a replacement–genetically modified or otherwise. Which means the banana could disappear from the market entirely within the next decade, and if it doesn’t, it’ll probably taste different. Might even be more expensive. This stuff is bananas!
Know all your banana facts now? See if you know which countries grow our favorite yellow buddy here.