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Going Bananas

The banana is the world’s most popular fruit. But it is threatened by disease.

Once upon a time, there was a banana plant.

This banana plant lived in an English estate in the 1830s, and was named “the Cavendish”, after the Cavendish Family who lived on this estate.

Thanks to the efforts of Joseph Paxton, the gardener in charge of the Cavendish, the plant flourished. An 1835 horticultural show even awarded the Cavendish with a nice shiny medal.

Proud of their plant, the owners sent a couple of cuttings to Samoa via a missionary. The missionary did not live very long. But the Cavendish did.

The plant was reasonably well-liked, but by far not the most popular type of banana. That title belonged to the Gros Michel, which was apparently sweeter and less likely to bruise. So, the Cavendish was quietly grown on a number of islands, while the Gros Michel was populararound the world.

Until disaster struck.

Before going further, something ought to be specified: bananas reproduce by making clones. Banana “trees” are actually thick clusters of leaves that sprout from an underground stem. Each “trunk” ends up flowering and producing a whole bunch of bananas, and when the bananas have been eaten or have fallen off, that “tree” dies off to leave room for another. Since all of them come from the same individual plant, it means that all of them are genetically identical.

Which is a problem. Because if every banana plant is the same, then the same disease will affect them all.

And that’s exactly what happened.

In the 1950s, the Panama disease struck. And the world watched in horror as the beloved Gros Michel all but disappeared, the fungus rotting countless banana plants, all susceptible to the same disease.

What would happen now? Was this the end of the banana?


For our Cavendish, quietly growing in the metaphorical shade, proved resistant to the Panama disease.

“Perfect,” thought banana growers and enthusiasts everywhere. “The Cavendish is not as good as the Gros Michel was, but it’ll do the trick. It’s good and it can travel. What more can we ask for?”

And so, for many years, the Cavendish became the new Gros Michel.

But the Panama disease was not yet done. Because, as is the nature of all living organisms, the fungus evolved and new strains developed. And one of those strains is currently threatening the Cavendish.

What will happen next is impossible to know. But the problem faced first by the Gros Michel, and now by our Cavendish, are cautionary tales warning us against monoculture: in agriculture, just as much as in ecology, evolution, society, and most other aspects of life, a resilient and strong community stems from one that is more diverse.

For more information, here are a few sources:

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