Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
The Cavendish banana is under threat from a fungus (washingtonpost.com)
66 points by lisper 4 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 45 comments

This story seems to get republished every six months or so, and without fail it always hews closely to the storyline "only genetic engineering can save the banana!"

Here are a couple from all the way back in 2011, for example: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/01/10/we-have-no-ban... http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/30953/...

James Dale's publicist is certainly earning their pay...

Ha! I take it back: some of them aren't about "only genetic engineering can save the banana", here's one that's about "only genetic engineering can improve the banana" -- which happens to use the exact same photo presumably supplied by the exact same hard-working publicist: http://newatlas.com/golden-banana/50389/

whether or not there's a subtheme that genetic engineering is required to save it, i've been hearing this story about the imminent decline of the Cavendish for about a decade.

maybe LA shoppers are just lucky, but i've seen plentiful alternative varieties in grocery stores here, including "Cuban/Jamaican Red", "Thai" (a little bit like Hawaii's "Ice Cream Banana"), and "Burro." they usually taste better than the Cavendish. and, on sale, you can get 3 pounds for a dollar.

i occasionally see fruit-bearing banana plants growing in Los Angeles itself. i've tried some of these and they also taste better than the Cavendish.

I grew up eating at least 10 different varieties of bananas. US is a banana desert in comparison - no variety or choice. US multinational corporations via their Latin American banana farms control much of the trade.

I don’t know what a “Thai” banana in LA is like but a “thai” banana in Thailand is a horrible thing compared to a cavendish.

if i'm not mistaken, the "Thai" bananas i saw in LA were grown in Guatemala.

I haven't looked (literally the only thing I use them for is making smoothies when our Cavendish plants aren't producing) but I believe the "Thai" ones (or similar) are available in other SE Asian countries too, so it's possible they're very similar/the same thing.

They look very similar (very much like 3rd from the left in https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/de/Bananava...) when peeled (apart from size - they're generally 1/2 or 1/3 the length of an average Cavendish and a little fatter, relative to length) but they're much 'juicier' and probably a little sweeter too.

The taste itself isn't enough to put me off (see above about smoothies) but the texture is unbearable, it's like an over-ripe Cavendish.

Edit: for some growing-bananas-in-thailand trivia:

Here at least, the little horrible ones grow a lot faster and are much more durable than Cavendish. The tallest Cavendish plant we've had so far is maybe 2.5m tall - I can always grab the bunch when cutting them, and generally I can carry the bunch one handed.

The "Thai" ones are giant plants by comparison - usually 4-5M when they produce, and the biggest bunches I can't carry at all.

Then you have the giant Thai ones (the name translates as "Elephant banana") - the plant is as big as the regular Thai ones, but slower to produce fruit. The fruit itself are like a Cavendish on steroids - easily 2x the size, but horrible to eat, not even any good for smoothies. Even my in-laws don't know anyone who actually eats these ones.

Then there's the even tinier Thai ones (the name translates as "Egg banana") which have a quite short, but very leafy plant (maybe 2-2.5M tall at most) with lots of offshoots. The fruit itself are tiny - most plants here the bunch never drops down to 'hang' because it's not heavy enough, and the bananas are, as the name suggests, comparable in size to a large chicken or duck egg, and almost egg shaped too.

Thus concludes my tale.

That was my thinking as well. Here's an article from 2005 [1]. I remember hearing about it in the early 2000s.

[1] https://www.popsci.com/scitech/article/2008-06/can-fruit-be-...

I was going to mention this as well. I've wondered over the years who benefits from scaring people into believing bananas are going to all go away.

I hear suits are making a comeback.

This is a story from my own hometown ("Humpty Doo" IS in fact a real place down the road from where I live). We had some wild bananas growing in our back yard, and I remember the day that the 'Banana Inspector' turned up at my door step and announced that they would be destroying every single one of the banana trees in the neighbourhood. (To prevent the spread of Banana Freckle disease).

Not much I could do in the face of bureaucracy, official forms and red ID badges, so I let them go ahead. I'll never forget when they finished, he poked his head in the door again to say "We've destroyed the plants and salted the earth to prevent them coming back". The only other time I had seen the phrase 'salted the earth' was when I read stories of Genghis Khan wiping out entire villages and salting the earth for miles around so that any survivors couldn't plant crops to survive!

Probably a bit much to compare a Banana Freckle Inspector to someone who reputedly conquered the world in ancient times, but I bet the power went to his head more than once. :)

A year later, I got a call from a much nicer chap who offered government assistance to plant some new (non infected) banana trees in my yard, but that also required a slew of government forms and waiting period, so I never went ahead.

A lot of folks don't seem to know that there is more than one type of banana. The Cavendish is routinely all we are presented with in the UK. People have usually heard of plantains, but outside of the communities that have them as a staple, most folks think of them as a savoury cooking banana, and go no further.

The banana cultivar complex is massive, and full ofninteresting varieties. In certain parts of Oceania and the South Pacific there is a banana called the Fe'i which is used in stews or cooked in coconut milk as a dessert. Ive tried these and also apple bananas and ladyfinger bananas. I'd love to try red daccas, ice-cream bananas and all the others.

"Plantain" is almost as bad a descriptor as "banana" AFAICT with dozens of cultivars, mainly concentrated in East Africa, but also in parts of Asia and Central America.

I find the whole thing fascinating. While I enjoy a Cavendish now and then, I do wish we wouldn't standardise quite so much. But then we have industrial-scale production to think about.

A world without diversity is fragile. This is true for vegetables, cattle and even us. Genetic diversity is a barrier to the spread of virus, bacteria and other parasites that cause diseases.

'"Another danger of a more homogeneous global food basket is that it makes agriculture more vulnerable to major threats like drought, insect pests and diseases, which are likely to become worse in many parts of the world as a result of climate change." As the global population rises and the pressure increases on our global food system, so does our dependence on the global crops and production system that feeds us.'

* "Crop diversity decline 'threatens food security'. BBC news" http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-26382067

* "REPORT on plant breeding: what options to increase quality and yields? Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development. EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT" http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//...

* "Increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security" http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/02/26/1313490111

It's not just the food supply.

Plantation forestry consists of genetically identical trees grown for miles and miles. Not only would the economic effects of an introduced fungus be bad, but the ecological effects of having entire forests die off could be disastrous.

As far as biodiversity goes, those "forests" are already pretty much dead.

Unsurprisingly, pine trees with all the lower branches stripped, laid out in a 5x5 metre grid, are not a great environment for promoting biodiversity.

The Cavendish that we eat today wasn't eaten in the 50's. Back then, you'd eat the Gros Michel. I think they were all wiped out so we swapped to the Cavendish some time ago. It is cyclical when we focus on one variety like that. Source: IEEE Spectrum article I recall from a long time ago ~2003?


One fascinating aspect of this that I only learned recently is that the artificial "banana" flavor in candies mimics the flavor of Gros Michel bananas not Cavendishes, which is why it may seem a bit un-banana like to modern sensibilities.


Also, I think banana flavor candy is gross so I think I will pass on trying Gros Michel.

Awesome factoid!

Gros Michel bananas are still around.

They went from being THE banana for much of the western world to being extremely rare as in available on a few farms in Florida & Hawaii and Asia. I was inaccurate in saying they were all wiped out.

you can buy either the Gros Michel or a very similar variety in Chinatown and Flushing in NYC. And the local green markets have several other varieties as well. There are definitely other bananas around, most people just don't care that much.

awesome. have you seen these for sale anywhere?

Bogoya bananas are Gros Michel (aka Big Mike): http://www.promusa.org/Bogoya

Tropical Wholefoods (http://www.tropicalwholefoods.com) sell packets of dried ones in the UK.

This story been around for decades. When banana yields start materially dropping and price goes up from $1.39 per bunch at costco, then maybe.

For anyone who is interested in the rise of the Cavendish and the banana industry there is a book "The Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World" that is well worth a read:


I've never really liked Cavendish bananas personally. I find them to taste a bit chalky and bland. I much prefer lady finger bananas, which seem to be the standard around Southeast Asia.

That's great! People die producing those bananas https://vimeo.com/81230547

It's likely that the Cavendish would be replaced by a cultivar resistant to the (current strains of the) fungus.

I wonder how disruptive a switch of dominant commercial banana type will be? Do farms have to cut down the old plants and start a new variety?

They would, but banana plants aren't all that long lived to begin with, a couple sources say ~5 years.

It has been for several years now and this is how we went from the Big Mike to the Cavendish.

I wonder what the next popular banana clone will be?

And nothing of note will be lost. Cavendish bananas are disgusting, and I am proud to say that I haven't eaten one since accidentally biting into one on my first day of school in the US over a decade and a half ago.

That seems a little extremist. You had one bite from a banana which could have even gone bad. And suddenly you know that it's entire line is horrible and never thought to test that theory, instead sticking to your own form of dogma. :)

That's a stupid thing to be proud of.

Quite. Sadly, idiots like him/her somehow survive. Being “proud” of the fruits they like/hate, the technology they use, the country they just happened to be born into.

It’s all rather disgraceful. :/

Username checks out.

one of the problems with losing the Cavendish is that it's an abundant producer and a lot of people depend upon it for sustenance. losing the Cavendish would mean losing an important food stock in certain parts of the world.

Boo hoo. How do you know it wasn't just a bad banana?

“Worlds most popular banana” is a tall claim. In my part of the world, where the large population on the planet lives, we haven’t heard or eaten a Cavendish. How could Cavendish be world’s popular ? It might be popular in North America and Europe. This article is probably not in the best interest for readers. Perhaps to achieve some goals for United Fruit. And no bananas are not going to be extinct. This one is a genetically engineered one. So it’s not even an original one that evolved through natural selection. I won’t be concerned. The lobbyists and companies behind it should be.

I haven’t eaten a Cavendish variety yet. We call those plantains in our part of the world and use it for cooking, as a morning breakfast steamed, as a fruit, as well as deep fried snacks.

You're pretty hard on something you evidently don't understand. A Cavendish banana is definitely not a plantain (and doesn't cook particularly well, imo)

India is the world's largest producer of Cavendish bananas, but they are grown in the Americas too, and according to this report http://www.fao.org/docrep/007/y5102e/y5102e04.htm Cavendish is the largest produced type worldwide.

The Cavendish evolved through human cultivation like most varieties consumed by humans. It's an entirely different cultivar from the plantain.

One of my traveling joys is the different types of bananas.

Entirely anecdotal, but I've traveled a great deal. The cavendish cultivar seems to be the most common across the globe but I'd not be surprised to find out that it is more a plurality than a true majority.

There are quite a few different types of banana, despite the claims if Western media, so it may be that this particular cultivar is the most popular while only being something like 35% of the total market.

Either way, there are lots of different cultivars and some of them are more appealing, to me, than the cavendish. I don't know the real name, but there is a red banana that I ate in Peru. It was not that large but tasty. They don't sell it anywhere near where I live.

From the link above: Cavendish sub-group is prominent with a 47 percent share of global banana production. Almost all bananas traded worldwide are Cavendish.

Applications are open for YC Summer 2018

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact