Bananas have their own pandemic to deal with

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Pile of supermarket bananas
Photo: Jack Taylor / Stringer (Getty Images)

A banana pandemic presumably looks a lot like a human pandemic. No banana nightclubs, no banana holiday gatherings, no indoor banana fitness classes. Indeed, there’s trouble on the banana front, and a fungus is to blame.

The Tropical Race Fungus, or TR4, may soon obliterate the Cavendish banana crop in South America, Eat This, Not That reports. The Cavendish banana accounts for nearly 99% of all global banana exports (think of the typical yellow banana you see in the supermarket). But because Cavendish bananas are a monoculture, they lack the genetic diversity seen in most other fruits and vegetables, and a single type of fungus can devastate the crop.


Enter TR4, which has been spreading since the 1990s. The fungus didn’t reach South American shores until 2019, but farmers have been struggling with containment ever since. The fungus causes banana leaves to turn yellow, wilt, then fall from the plant, eventually killing the plant entirely. It spreads rapidly and can linger undetected before wreaking havoc on a crop. Sound familiar?

We’re still a ways off from a global shortage, but a Cavendish collapse could be disastrous for farmers, exporters, and, yes, shoppers. (The American Journal of Transportation describes bananas as the world’s top-selling fruit or vegetable, accounting for about $14.7 billion in revenues in 2019.) Most importantly, TR4 may prove disastrous for the millions of Latin American, African, and Asian residents who rely on bananas as a primary food source. The big question: will farmers pivot to another, less familiar banana variety? Can they afford not to?