Bananas: my part in their downfall

Yes!  We have bananas!

Two and a half years after planting my first “cool banana”, it looks like we have a crop on the way. With luck and a tail wind, we might get a few home grown smoothies before the upcoming banana apocalypse.

In fact, our fruitful plant isn’t the first one I acquired – a tiny carefully selected, soil-free, tissue-cultured plantlet sent by mail-order from Queensland.  It’s one of a job-lot grubbed up and bundled into the back of the car when my sister decided to give her backyard jungle in Newcastle a makeover.  This particular tree seems to have the right kind of humid micro-environment, protected from the wind by the tamarillo tree and surrounded in a companionable way by monstera deliciosa, ginger and tumeric plants.   It gets some winter sunlight, and some gifts of love from the chickens in the form of dung-encrusted sugar cane mulch.

For all my attempts to recreate a tropical ambience, I haven’t gone quite as far as using my bananas as a living shower screen.  This idea seems strangely popular in permaculture circles, due I think, to the banana’s love of phosphorous, frequent watering and good drainage.  I’m no stranger to nakedness in the outdoors thanks to many happy  hours in childhood spent camping on nude beaches (in retrospect I witnessed surprisingly few cooking-related injuries).   But I’m not really sure how practical backyard ablutions are in suburbia, even in the sub-tropics.  There seems to some wishful thinking about unfettered encounters between man and nature (or, more specifically if disturbingly, woman and banana) going on here.

While I’m on the theme of soft-focus fantasies of interspecies coexistence, I have to confess to one of mine – that our backyard is a little island of biodiversity.   This is the kind of thing plant-hoarders tell themselves as they croon and mumble over on-line nursery catalogues.  But thanks to my impatience to start growing the world’s largest herb, three long years ago, I didn’t order any of the more intriguing possibilitiesBluggoe or Blue Java or Goldfinger – but just common or garden dwarf Cavendish – the world’s most widely grown variety.

It wasn’t always so.  In the early twentieth century, the dominant variety was the Gros Michel – by all accounts sweeter and more flavoursome than the Cavendish (if less productive).  Your grandparents were right – everything did taste better in the good old days.

But in the middle part of the twentieth century Panama Disease, a fusarium fungus, wiped out most of the commercial plantations of Gros Michel in Central and South America.  Panama disease is a doozy – transmissible through infected soil, water or equipment and impossible to eliminate or treat.  Once the ground in an area is infected it stays that way for decades.  Over the years, the big banana producers kept moving from country to country to keep the banana plantations going but eventually, thanks in part to multinationals and agricultural monocultures, the disease had spanned the globe.

So in the 1950s, the world switched over to a less tasty variety of banana – Cavendish – more resistant to Panama disease, or at least its early twentieth century incarnation, Tropical Race 1.

It’s not just Panama Disease.  There’s Black Sigatoka, as well, and Bunchy Top, the latter hard to take seriously since it sounds more like a Loony Tunes character than than a devastating agricultural blight.  Bananas are particularly susceptible to disease because we’ve bred them to be sterile: seedless mutants that replicate through their genetically identical “daughters” and “granddaughters”.  Commercial bananas have three sets of chromosones – they’re triploids, just like our old friends, the herpes-ridden Pacific Oysters of Broken Bay.

Genetic mutations can happen without sex but it’s a painfully slow process. And retrofitting disease-resistance without recourse to selective breeding is equally tricky, unless you want to go GMO. An article in Conservation Magazine described an attempt to do it the old fashioned way:

Every day for a year, workers laboriously hand-pollinated thirty thousand banana plants with pollen from wild fertile Asian bananas. The resulting fruit, some 440 tons, had to be peeled and sieved in search of any seeds. “I’ll let you guess how many seeds they collected,” says Emile [Frison, head of International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Rome]. “About fifteen. And of those, only four or five germinated.

Those of us who enjoy a banana with breakfast should really be fearful of an attack on the clones.

And sure enough, Tropical Race 4 Panama disease, unstoppable killer of Cavendishes and pretty much every single variety of bananas and plantains, appeared in Asia and the Northern Territory in Australia for the first time in the 1990s.  And in March this year, it turned up  in Tully in far north Queensland, the place that around half Australia’s bananas call home.

The fact that TR4 attacks so many varieties of banana makes it a threat not just to first world breakfasts but to hungry people across the globe, for whom plantains, in particular, are often a staple.  After a couple of decades in a holding pattern, TR4 has in the last year cropped up for the first time in the Middle East and in Africa, which is worrying – if you have any mental space left for additional worry about the general direction the world is going.

Given the kick-arse nature of Tropical Race 4, perhaps my unimaginative choice of varieties and ad-hoc acquisition of plants isn’t such a big deal.  Newcastle may one day be a commercial banana growing area – in fact, this would seem an entirely appropriate fate for the world’s largest coal export port.  In the meantime, moving these suckers around isn’t a criminal offense like it would be in Queensland, where your backyard banana should spring from a test-tube and come with a permit from the Department of Primary Industries.

I may be the handmaiden of monopoly capitalism, monocultural agriculture and globetrotting disease, but despite all that I think I’ll chill and allow myself to enjoy however many bland tasting Cavendish bananas escape the indiscriminate attentions of the possums, the fruit bats and the grasshoppers.

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