The banana as we know it is in danger. It’s slated to be extinct in 5 years unless scientists can figure out another way to engineer it to safety. And we’ve been here before. North Americans and Europeans used to eat a totally different (and apparently tastier) banana called the Gros Michel (known affectionately as Big Mike) until a fungus wiped them all out in the early 1960′s.
There are 1,200 varieties of bananas, but for the past 50 years bananas have meant just three things to people in the USA,Canada and Europe: yellow, sweet, and seedless. And you may not know this (I certainly didn’t) but it’s called the Cavendish.
The friendly, reproductively challenged Cavendish Bananas
Bananas are one of the first foods to be cultivated (we started growing and breeding bananas 15,000 years ago) and we love this fruit. We bred it to be as perfect as we can get it. It’s seedless, it’s sweet, and it never changes. And there in lies the problem :
“That sameness is the banana’s paradox. After 15,000 years of human cultivation, the banana is too perfect, lacking the genetic diversity that is key to species health. What can ail one banana can ail all. A fungus or bacterial disease that infects one plantation could march around the globe and destroy millions of bunches, leaving supermarket shelves empty.”- popsci.com
We’ve bred these bananas to always be the same, never evolving. Our Cavendish bananas don’t and can’t reproduce on their own, they don’t even have seeds. Which I had never even thought about until this conversation with Catie (in the video above). I’ve been eating bananas my whole life and I’ve never seen a seed. I just took it for granted that they must have seeds somewhere else, or they must naturally reproduce in some other way. It never occurred to me that they were engineered and produced. That they wouldn’t be able to exist in nature without us.
To be clear, I’m not against the traditional methods of hybridization. I really enjoy eating macoun apples, seedless watermelons, and navel oranges. But it’s the monoculture of our banana that is concerning to me. We are dependent upon one type of banana that can’t save itself. ”Biotech is literally the only way to save the Cavendish, which, because it is 100 percent seedless, can’t be improved on by traditional hybridization methods.” - popsci.com And the crazy thing is that we don’t have to be dependent upon the Cavendish! There are 1,200 other varieties out there we could try. There are 1,197 bananas out there that I have never tasted (I’ve had the Cavendish, plantains, and some tiny red ones). And that to me, is a problem. I want to know what it’s like to eat around a banana seed. I want to see the crazy colors, feel the different thicknesses of the banana skin. I want to know what these fruits taste like!
So, does this change how I see the bananas in my grocery store? Yes it does. I’m just not sure yet how.
So, should we let the Cavendish go the way of the Gros Michel? Should we fight it and genetically engineer a solution? Should we have more types of bananas available? Should we all get used to eating bananas with seeds? Does this change how you feel about bananas? What’s the answer? Anyone know? Please tell me what you think in the comments!
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Check out these great articles on bananas. I learned a lot from these two articles:
Filed in: Food Facts & Tips