Thursday, May 29, 2008

Bye Bye Banana?

When was the last time you ate a banana? This morning, sliced on your cereal? As a quick snack on the way to shul to tide you over until kiddush? According to an article in Plenty Magazine, finding a banana to eat might soon become a lot more difficult:

“Back in 2003, the magazine New Scientist ran a cover story declaring that the banana was on the brink of extinction. The problem, the article explained, was that commercial bananas were genetically bankrupt: sterile, seedless clones with no genetic diversity and no resistance to a new wave of virulent fungal diseases…Scientists say, the outlook is still pretty bleak for the banana. Commercial growers remain wedded to a single variety known as the Cavendish, the bright yellow fruit found on US supermarket shelves; meanwhile, a lethal and fungicide-resistant infection called Panama Disease has decimated plantations across Southeast Asia and is widely expected to spread into plantations in Latin America and Africa.”

Bananas rank above apples and oranges (two other highly-hybridized fruits) as America’s most beloved and purchased fruit. According to an article in the New York Times from 2004, more than 8 billion pounds of bananas were sold in the US in 2003, an average of 84 per person. And while they are hardly local or seasonal in America (with the exception of Hawaii and parts of Florida) - even many of the most die-hard locavores make exceptions for the banana, which is nourishing, tasty, and possibly the most convenient snack on the planet. (It comes in its own compostable wrapper, after all.) It’s hard to imagine walking into a supermarket and not finding piles of banana “six packs” ready to toss in the cart. But unless scientists can beat the clock, it seems they - at least the Cavendish banana - could disappear in a matter of decades.

According to Plenty, scientists in Honduras are currently attempting to breed the Cavendish (think the Paris Hilton of genetic variety) with older heirloom varieties. But the task is painstaking and has been only marginally successful. Furthermore, Cavendish bananas have become so ubiquitous, that even finding heirloom varieties to breed them with has been a struggle. And because bananas do not grow in most of the US, small sustainably-minded farmers cannot play a part in saving them.

If the situation is as dire as the scientists make it out to be, then it seems that bananas are going the way of the honey bee. Maybe Haagen-Dazs should look into making a Save the Banana ice cream too?

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