Banana bread has become the unofficial baked good of lockdown. But there is a more important reason why, for me, the banana should be the official fruit of the pandemic. For the last 30 years the banana has been in the teeth of its own global epidemic, and bizarre as it may seem, a humble fruit may have some answers for all of us on how we return to a ‘new normal’.
I first made a comparison between the banana and the pandemic, when I was interviewing Fernando García-Bastidas, a researcher into plant disease based in the Netherlands, for an article I was writing for the BBC Future Food series.
Over Zoom, Fernando was describing the inexorable spread of a deadly plant disease, Tropical Race 4 (TR4), a soil-borne fungus that can be spread on the shoes of people moving between plantations. Banana plants can be infected for up to a year before showing signs of the disease in yellow wilted leaves and eventual death.
“It moves by stealth transmission,” he told me. “By the time you know you have it, it will already have been present long enough to spread to others.”
Trapped in my house, unable to go out because of a silent disease that I could unknowingly spread if I come into close contact with others, I felt a jolt of recognition.
“So, it is like a banana pandemic?”
“Yes!” Fernando first described TR4 as a pandemic in his doctorate for the University of Wageningen. He chartered its spread from Asia to Australia, the Middle East and Africa. Tragically, for him, he was recently the first to identify TR4 in his home country of Colombia, a major banana exporter. “That was a nightmare,” he adds.
To prevent further spread of the disease, most countries currently have measures in place such as disinfecting boots and preventing the movement of plants between farms, the banana equivalent to washing your hands and social distancing.
Fernando is now working at Keygene, a research company in the Netherlands, trying to find a non-GM solution to the ‘banana pandemic’. He points out that one of the reasons TR4 has taken hold is that most commercial bananas are not only the same variety, but the same plant. The Cavendish banana is the dominant variety and each individual banana plant is a clone planted in a vast monoculture.
Fernando and others are looking at other varieties, including wild bananas, that may show resistance to the disease. Through plant breeding it is hoped a new variety will emerge with some resistance to TR4. Other projects have recently had success with GM bananas. But in the long term it is the whole system of banana farming that needs to change to prevent disease.
Dan Bebber, associate professor of ecology at the University of Exeter, has spent the last three years looking at ways to protect our bananas against disease and climate change as part of a UK government-funded project Bananex. He says better care of the environment is key. Like most crops, bananas need healthy soil to fight disease and that means cutting down on chemical use.
Allowing wildlife back into plantations will also help with the control of disease, as predatory insects will eat the pests. Diversifying the crop so we eat different varieties is another way of blocking spread of disease.
Bebber says that organic and Fairtrade bananas go some way to implementing these measures, but ultimately the whole industry needs to change to face a chance of surviving the TR4 pandemic. It is a ‘new normal’ that will mean more expensive bananas in the future, but hopefully at less expense to the environment.