Over 100 billion bananas are eaten globally every year, making bananas the fourth most important food crop in the world. Most bananas are consumed locally—only 15% are exported. Almost all the bananas grown for export are a variety known as Cavendish. New Zealand is said to have the highest per-capita consumption of Cavendish bananas in the world, at 18 kg per person per year.
The Cavendish was named for the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire—whose family name was Cavendish. Their head gardener imported a plant from Mauritius in 1830 and grew it in the family’s hothouse. The banana flourished and provided the duke’s guests with fresh bananas to eat. The Cavendish banana grew so well, the duke was able to supply two cases of plants to a missionary in Samoa. Those bananas were the start of the banana industry in Samoa.
Missionaries spread the Cavendish throughout the Pacific, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that the variety became popular commercially.
Until the 1950s, the most important banana for export was the Gros Michel, but in that decade, it was almost wiped out by a fungus known as Panama disease.
The Cavendish—smaller and not as flavourful as the Gros Michel—was immune, so growers switched largely to the Cavendish.
Almost all commercially grown bananas today are Cavendishes—clones of the plant grown by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.
Panama disease didn’t sit idly, though. By 1992, a strain evolved in Southeast Asia that was able to attack the Cavendish. And since the plants are all genetically identical, they are all susceptible to the new strain of the disease. At least 10,000 hectares of Cavendish bananas have been destroyed, and more will certainly fall as the fungus spreads.
For many of the nations that export bananas, it will be an economic disaster. For those of us who enjoy bananas…who knows?
There will likely be a time in which bananas become more expensive, even hard to find in our grocery stores.
But having lived in Panama, I know there are many banana varieties (about 1000, worldwide). And every single one I’ve eaten is better than the Cavendish. The Cavendish’s main selling point is its ability to survive transport, not its flavour.
In our village in Panama, everyone grew bananas. They came in many sizes, shapes, and colours. Some were more starchy, some were sweeter. Some tasted so much like banana, they seemed almost fake. Others tasted like a fruit salad, with tangy citrus overtones to the banana flavour.
I have to believe that as growers develop a replacement for the Cavendish, they will naturally end up with something more flavourful than the bland Cavendish. If we’re really lucky, they’ll develop more than one variety, providing greater insurance against the future evolution of Panama disease and more variety in our supermarkets. That has to be a good thing in the long run.
Want to know more? Visit the Panama Disease website.