a killer disease appears suddenly. It is transmitted through “latent transmission” before symptoms appear. Once it’s caught, it’s already too late to stop it – it can’t be cured. Life will never be the same again. Sound familiar?
Although it may sound like Covid-19, I’m actually talking about Tropical Race 4 (TR4), a disease that affects bananas. Known as Panama disease, this fungus has been spreading in banana farms for the past 30 years. But the epidemic has suddenly accelerated over the past decade, spreading from Asia to Australia, the Middle East, Africa and, more recently, to Latin America, where the majority of bananas supplied to supermarkets in the global north have spread. To date, it is in more than 20 countries, fearing the “banana epidemic” and the shortage of the world’s favorite fruit.
Scientists around the world are working around the clock to find solutions such as genetically modified (GM) bananas and vaccines. But just like with Covid-19, the question is not only whether we can find a cure, but also how to live with the “new normal” that will change bananas forever.
The first thing to discover is that we all know the origin of the modern banana. His story shows what can happen if this disease is ignored.
This isn’t the first time bananas have been wiped out, explained Fernando García-Bastidas, a plant health researcher who studied TR4 at Wageningen University in the Netherlands before moving to a Dutch plant genetics company. When Panama disease first appeared in the 1950s, the industry was devastated by what he called “the worst botanical epidemic in history.” The fungal disease originated in Asia, where it co-evolved with bananas before spreading to the vast plantations of Central America.
García-Bastidas said the reason it was so devastating was because of all the banana varieties, Gros Michel or “Big Mike.” This variety was chosen for the developing banana industry because it produces large, tasty fruits that can be harvested from mature trees, perish quickly when ripe, and can be transported long distances for exotic foods. Each plant was a clone of roughly the same size and shape, and the suckers—the side shoots that grow from the rootstock—facilitate mass production. This means that each banana plant is genetically almost identical and produces a reliably consistent fruit yield. From a business perspective, it was a license to print money, but from an epidemiological perspective, it was an outbreak waiting to happen.