The Big Banana Problem An Incurable Banana Disease Points to the Need for More Variety

The incurable Panama Disease has wilted and wiped out banana crops in Australia and New Zealand, and there are growing concerns over whether it will spread to Latin America, the main importer of bananas to the U.S. Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World (Hudson Street Press), believes it’s the monoculture method in which bananas are grown that makes the popular fruit vulnerable to the quickly spreading virus. Monoculture banana plantations grow only the Cavendish variety of banana in order to produce a large harvest with minimal labor.

banana disease, Credit: Scot Nelson, FlickrCCKoeppel stresses the need for the banana industry to begin to grow diverse varieties of bananas that are immune to Panama disease in their fields, which they can then sell at various price points in supermarkets. As a banana expert, the author has tried numerous types of bananas, and he’s quick to note that many other varieties taste better than the bananas Americans typically slice into their breakfast cereal. “People will pay more for a great banana,” he says. “That doesn’t mean they’re not going to want the cheap banana, too, but you have to introduce variety.”

Growing and shipping new types of bananas would be a substantial investment for banana companies, but to Koeppel, that investment doesn’t compare to the enormous loss those companies will suffer should entire crops be destroyed by Panama disease. “They’re wasting their money in monoculture,” he added.

Consumer demand for more varieties of bananas could provide a much more stable future for the fruit and the lands used to grow it. “It doesn’t make any sense to say no one’s going to be interested in a better-tasting banana,” Koeppel says. “Right now, at my local Safeway, I can buy four kinds of peaches, five kinds of apples, four kinds of lettuce and more. Why not bananas?”