For a variety of reasons, avocados aren’t cheap these days. Paying more for guacamole sucks now, but that might pale in comparison to a looming threat that could upend the world’s banana supply for some time.
According to National Geographic, Colombia’s agriculture and livestock authority confirmed that something called “Panama disease Tropical Race 4” has been detected on banana farms along the South American country’s Carribbean Sea coast. Despite its vague name, “TR4” is a very serious fungus that attacks the banana plant and cannot currently be eradicated through any fungicides or other measures. While bananas grown in soil infected with the fungus are perfectly safe to eat, any banana plant that contracts TR4 will eventually stop growing fruit altogether.
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TR4 has already affected banana plants across much of the eastern hemisphere, popping up in Southeast Asia as early as the ‘90s before making its way to Australia, the Middle East, and Africa in the years that followed. The Colombia case is so significant because it represents the first time the seemingly unstoppable fungus has popped up in the Americas, where a significant portion of the world’s banana supply is cultivated.
The situation has scared Colombian agricultural authorities enough to declare a state of emergency. Science says that containment measures have involved killing all plants on 170 hectares of quarantined farmland, while also instituting stricter sanitary controls at ports of entry/exit and other border checkpoints. Additionally, Latin American agricultural ministers met in Quito, Ecuador earlier this month to coordinate region-wide containment efforts to the extent that they can.
Despite the enhanced degree of caution, there’s reason to believe that current banana business practices will exacerbate the damage TR4 could cause. While growing one type of banana, the Cavendish, is useful for agribusinesses aiming for large-scale cultivation, the absence of genetic diversity means that almost all of the existing banana supply is genetically similar enough to be equally susceptible to the fungus. And even if growers did focus on the biodiversity of their banana crop, there’s a chance that the broadly-dangerous TR4 would still wreak havoc on other banana crops (and plantains) in the region.
Ironically enough, the emphasis on Cavendish cultivation developed in response to a previous strain of Panama disease (TR1), which almost wiped out the Gros Michel banana (a popular export) in the 1950s. This time around, however, it doesn’t appear that there’s a new breed of banana capable of saving the day: few existent banana varieties can both withstand TR4 and handle the rigors of both large-scale production and international exporting.
As Latin America’s fourth-largest banana exporter (doing more than $866 million in sales in 2018), the fungus could cause big problems for Colombia’s economy. With experts noting that TR4 can linger in infected soil for decades, this could be a serious problem for some time to come.
For consumers, the best case scenario is that TR4 is relatively quarantined, and bananas get a little more expensive for a while. In a nightmare scenario, TR4 spreads throughout Latin America and the banana as we know it would pretty much cease to exist. So start hoarding and freezing them now.