Can Anything Stop the Bananapocalypse?

How It Works
Dec. 20 2013 3:03 PM

World's Top Banana Under Threat

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If Cavendish bananas go extinct, it'll be bananas.

Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images

A new article in Nature brings the alarming news that the fungus threatening the global banana supply—or at least what most Americans think of as bananas—is spreading to more counties:

A variant of a fungus that rots and kills the main variety of export banana has been found in plantations in Mozambique and Jordan, raising fears that it could spread to major producers and decimate supplies. The pathogen, which was until now limited to parts of Asia and a region of Australia, has a particularly devastating effect on the popular Cavendish cultivar, which accounts for almost all of the multibillion-dollar banana export trade. Expansion of the disease worldwide could be disastrous, say researchers.
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The fungus has now been found in Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, China, and Australia, and it seems likely that it will soon spread to Latin America, producer of 80 percent of the world’s bananas.  

Producers in some countries are experimenting with genetic modifications to protect Cavendishes from the fungus, but if the fungus jumps the Atlantic, it could devastate supplies pretty quickly, researchers say.

The fungus is particularly devastating to Cavendish bananas, the big yellow ones best known to U.S. consumers, though these account for only about 13 percent of bananas and plaintains produced annually. A previous strain on the fungus completely wiped out the Gros Michel variety, which was the most popular type of banana around the world until the 1950s.

So the bananapocalypse may not actually be nigh, but it could be time to start getting used to manzanos and burros.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. Follow him on Twitter.