What’s going on here?

The recent meeting of the World Banana Forum has highlighted some far reaching threats to global food production. The classic yellow fruit that we see on the shelves of supermarkets, perhaps epitomises the frailty of much of the world’s food systems.

What does this mean?

It is hard to estimate the true number of different cultivars (cultivated varieties) of banana that are grown worldwide, largely due to naming inconsistencies. However some estimates indicate that it is over 1000. What is not hard to estimate is which of these cultivars the global banana supply chain hinges on. The ‘Cavendish’ is by far the most widely grown and consumed banana globally, making up 99% of global banana exports. So why are so few other varieties of banana cultivated and consumed?

The Cavendish banana is not a-typical when it comes to growing produce. The plants used for growing the bananas are cloned, a practice which is used for other fruit such as apples, blueberries and grapes. A key benefit to cloning plants is that they produce a predictable and stable crop. Critically, the draw-back to growing produce in this way is that the genetic variation amongst crop fields and plantations is non-existent. Furthermore, they have no way of evolving in response to changes to their environment. 

Growing produce in monoculture does not reflect natural ecosystems. Therefore, crops lack the natural, intrinsic resilience that is the product of genetically varied and geographically disparate species groups. Resilience is needed to withstand the threats presented by diseases and pests. To combat these problems, farmers will often turn to pesticides and fungicides, or genetic modification. Panama disease (or Fusarium wilt) is a fungal pathogen which is resistant to fungicides and has caused huge devastation to banana production for many years. The problem it presents is seen as an existential threat to the banana supply chain.

Why should we care?

The issues facing the Cavendish banana are not unique to this particular species or this particular crop product. The top six plant crops which provide the majority of calories consumed globally are rice, wheat, sugarcane, maize, soybean and then potatoes – this is in terms of calories consumed per capita per day. Of the top six, three crop types are threatened by fungal pathogens: wheat, soybean, and potato. For the potato, there exists a well-known, tragic history in relation to crop failure. The Irish potato famine of 1845-49 led to the deaths of an estimated one million people as a result of starvation. 

Such strong dependence on a limited number of crops for world food supplies signals a clear lack of resilience. This presents a significant global concern to food security. Furthermore, the problem seems to be exacerbated by the climate crisis. Take for example, the rust fungus which impacts soybean production, which is known to travel on air currents. With more extreme and frequent weather events it is thought that its dispersal is accelerating.

There are ways we can be more resilient to the threats outlined above. An obvious one is to grow and consume a wider variety of plants. This was echoed during a speech given at the World Banana Forum conference recently, by the director general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, Dr Qu Dongyu. They pointed out that the over-reliance of the global banana supply chain on a single cultivar needs to change.

Be Curious!

  • Try seeking out alternative crop cultivars in your local shops
  • Learn more about the acceleration of the threat of crop diseases here.
  • Find out more about food security here.
  • Learn about seed banks in relation to global food security here.
  • Find out about polyculture and permaculture here.
  • Learn about regenerative farming here.

Photo by Alistair Smailes on Unsplash