The pairing of two wild growing mismatched plant species in South Asia, led to the final birth of the hybrid banana we enjoy today. Thousands of years ago, early experiments showed that some of the results from cross pollinated the inedible fruit plants produced a tasty seedless bright yellow fruit in an unusual and amusing shape.
Fortunately, agriculturalists found they could cultivate the plant from suckering shoots and cuttings taken from the underground stem. The plant produced this way, remains sterile but can be widely propagated with help. Traders carried the fruit to other countries, sparing the tasty fruit from an otherwise evolutionary dead end.
The banana and its close relative the plantain grow in a number of different varieties with the most popular being the shapely sweet tasting dessert banana, ‘the Cavendish’ which is found in all supermarkets and milkshakes. The ‘Cavendish’ is exported all over the world on an industrial scale from commercial plantations in the tropics, with every one genetically identical, producing the same flavour, colour and shape.
Numerous varieties of banana and plantain are cultivated for local consumption in Asia and Africa, but none has the same world wide demand as the ‘Cavendish’. Bananas are prone to diseases and crop consuming insects and a severe outbreak could easily spread, destroying the whole genetic plantations and causing mass starvation in tropical regions.
Until the mid twentieth century, most bananas supplied to the developed world belong to the ‘Gros Michel’ cultivar were sweet and had a longer shelf life, making them more suitable for export, but from the early part of the century the large plantations of ‘Big Mike’ proved to be seriously fertile for a fungal affliction known as ‘Panama Disease’ which affected the crops of bananas and turned them into rotting piles of vegetation.
Big Mike found them selves in a race against time to reproduce and establish new crops in disease free areas of the rainforest with many producers on the edge of bankruptcy, but in the 1950’s the Vietnamese Cavendish appeared. By the 1960’s the distinct taste of Big Mike was extinct, lost to the public with the new Cavendish being given the thumbs up by the public.
In the 1070’s a disease called the Black Sigatoka was given vigorous doses of pesticides, but a new strain of the Panama disease has been wiping out the banana including the previously resistant Cavendish in Asia. It has not yet hit commercial planters in Southeast Africa, though it is believed to be only a matter time.
Few approaches to improving diseases have been provided. Although banana plants are cloned, occasionally they can be encouraged to produce seeds through hand pollination, but only one fruit in three will produce seeds and of these three, only one will have the correct chromosomes to allow germination. The seeds are extracted by straining tons of bananas through fine meshes.
Hopes for the Cavendish’s survival may lie in the form of genetic modification. The world center on banana research in Belgium has become skilled in using DNA transfer in order to produce disease resistant genes in a bid to develop a healthier disease resistant banana and hopefully overcome the sexual inadequacies.