Bananas are cheap (at less than 80 cents per pound, they're one of the lowest-cost fruits available). They're convenient to eat, and you can buy them almost everywhere. But it hasn't always been so – in fact, it's a marvel that they ever became a supermarket staple.
The bananas we eat today are the result of 7,000 years of cultivation. The history of commercial banana production is rife with accounts of environmental degradation, and labour and human rights abuses. Some fear the banana industry faces another daunting problem– therisk of pestilence that could wipe it out..
It's a scenario banana producers have experienced before. The bananas early Canadians ate weren't the ubiquitous Cavendish variety of today. They were the Gros Michel, a thicker-skinned and, some claim, more robust-tasting variety. The Gros Michel were replaced by the Cavendish after they were hit by a fungus called Panama Disease in the 1930s, according to researcher Edmond De Langhe of the Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium.
Because of the lack of genetic diversity in commercial banana crops, some fear the Cavendish may suffer the same fate.
Dr. De Langhe and Tim Denham of Monash University's School of Geography and Environmental Science in Australia, along with other international researchers, have tracked the roots of banana domestication and examined relatives of the Cavendish in the hope that other varieties, or cultivars, will offer clues to diversifying and improving banana breeding. Their findings were recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
We reached Dr. Denham by phone in Australia.
How much of a risk is there of the Cavendish becoming extinct?
That's hard to say. There are a lot of people trying to work on ways to prevent that from happening. The problem is, with any plant or animal, if you're relying too much on a particular strain it makes it susceptible to major pestilence of one form or another.
Part of the rationale for investigating banana domestication is to include new genetic material to make the existing main cultivar groups more robust.
How far back does banana cultivation date?
At the moment, the earliest archeological and archeobotanical evidence comes from the highlands of Papua New Guinea, and that dates to around 7,000 to 6,500 years ago. But there are earlier records of bananas being exploited. The earliest records of people seemingly eating bananas would be from a cave in Sri Lanka, and that dates to 11,000 or 12,000 years ago, but there's no evidence of them being cultivated at that time. It's believed those were just wild bananas, which grew throughout the region.
What were those early bananas like?
It's likely the earliest cultivars would've had quite a lot of seeds in them. They would've been much smaller, you know, like apple bananas, and they would've been full of buckshot-type seeds, kind of like the seeds of a papaya. But the seeds would be much harder and scattered throughout, so there would have been much less edible pulp.
When you eat a Cavendish banana today, and you see the little black specks down the middle? Those are the vestigial seeds. People have bred them so the seed size reduces over time.
How many banana cultivars are people currently growing?
Hundreds. If you go to the South Pacific islands, like when I do field work in New Guinea, people grow 40 types of cultivars in a particular plot or area. They'll grow a great diversity of different bananas, and I presume that would be true of places from New Guinea all the way to parts of India.
What were some of the more unusual bananas you encountered through your research?
Well, people don't always just cultivate bananas for food. They cultivate them for fibre and for other reasons. This is particularly true in places like India, where you have various fibres made from banana stems and things like that.
On the east coast of Africa, you tend to have bananas that are eaten raw or used for brewing [a type of African Highland bananas, referred to as "beer bananas," are fermented to make alcohol], whereas on the west side of Africa they're almost exclusively plantains, which are cooked. For me, what's interesting is the historical aspects of their cultivation rather than necessarily the weirdness of particular bananas. Because in our mind's eye, we often imagine things like a chimpanzee eating a banana, but of course that's a completely recent phenomenon.
Given the variety out there, how difficult would it be to breed a new commercial banana?
You may be able to quickly come up with a new cultivar, but the big problem for the commercial sector is not just coming up with something that provides carbohydrates, or whatever: People are used to a certain type of taste, texture – even visual appearance. When you're breeding, the great difficulty is to develop a new cultivar that may be resistant to, say, the fungus that wiped out the previous variety, but also has many of the qualities consumers anticipate.
Is there a future for the commercial banana?
Yeah. What we try to do in modern agrotechnology is to try to manage any new problem or pestilence that emerges by developing a chemical or pesticide. But at some point, often we're outsmarted in a way.
My guess is maybe in 20 years it won't be the Cavendish any more. Maybe it will be a different cultivar. There probably will be an alternative. I don't have a doomsday scenario view of it. I imagine the commercial sector will be able to introduce a new strain that people eventually feel happy about if there was a catastrophe.
This interview has been condensed and edited.