Marisa Morby logo

Design & Nature Reimagined: Going Bananas

I really believe there is something about climate change that changes all of us and can incite us into action. For some people, it's preserving beautiful pieces of nature, for others it's safe streets and urban planning, and for some people it's bananas. Literally.

Climate change is impacting and will continue impacting food production. As weather patterns become more erratic, storms become more intense, and desertification grows, we are seeing increased instability in food production.

And this instability may be coming for bananas.

A quick history of bananas

The banana (also called the plantain) is currently the most consumed fruit in the world, with about 100 billion (with a b!) bananas eaten every year. It's hard to know for sure exactly when the banana became domesticated. Researchers think that it started to be intentionally planted and harvested, between 8,000 and 5,000 BCE (before common era). There are currently over 1,000 different banana varieties.

Today, 47% of the bananas grown are Cavendish bananas, and this specific variety makes up 99% of banana exports.

But this wasn't always the case.

The "original" commercially exported banana was the Gros Michel. It was sweeter, larger, and less prone to bruising than the bananas we see on shelves today.

But in 1950 it's time was up. Panama disease swept through one farm, then another, then another, and pretty soon there were very few Gros Michel bananas left. Panama disease is caused by a fungus that lives in soil. Once this fungus is in the soil, it can spread through all parts of the plant, slowly killing it.

As the disease spread, producers quickly pivoted and focused on growing and exporting the Cavendish banana; a smaller, less delicious fruit that happened to be resistant to Panama disease.

While at first this seems like a great solution, the problem with Cavendish bananas is that now they're not genetically diverse. Cavendish bananas can't reproduce on their own and new plants have to be offshoots of a parent plant. Every plant is genetically identical to the generation before it, and that makes it extremely fragile.

One disease is all it will take to wipe out the Cavendish banana. And in 2020 a new strain of Panama disease was found in South America. A strain that Cavendish bananas aren't resistant to. Additionally, farmers are seeing an increase in black leaf streak, another fungus that slowly kills the banana plant. These specific types of fungi in the soil aren't harmful to humans, but they will greatly impact the amount of crop that farmers are able to produce.

Climate change is making fungal pathogens more prevalent

So how is all this connected to climate change?

As the climate warms, areas that typically grow bananas are seeing alterations in their climate that are more favorable for fungi. They're also experiencing more wet conditions, which these fungi also prefer.

In fact, scientists and researchers are finding that, as the climate warms, fungal pathogens are becoming more prevalent. A lot of research is being down right now to understand the increase of fungal pathogens in humans and possible treatment for those pathogens.

In the past, the human body was warm enough to kill any fungi spores that might enter our body. But as the earth warms, fungi must learn to adapt to higher temperatures. As they adapt, that means some fungi are able to withstand our body heat and infect us. (trigger warning: pandemics, death).

Genetic testing and sustainable farming practices for the future of bananas

To ensure we've got bananas in the future, scientists are working on creating disease-resistant bananas that can withstand newer strains of fungal diseases in the future.

Currently, bananas are a monoculture crop, meaning that farmers are only producing one kind of crop on their land. This, mixed with the lack of genetic diversity, makes the crop extremely fragile. One bad storm or one virulent disease can wipe out the entire crop for that season or possibly for seasons to come.

Another solution is regenerative farming, which focuses on increasing biodiversity and improving soil quality. Some farms are focusing on improving their soil quality through the use of ground cover to reduce erosion, and reducing herbicides to decrease harmful runoff into local streams and rivers.

Additionally increasing genetic diversity of bananas means that we've got options to choose from. And a system with genetic diversity is more robust. If one type of banana struggles one year, there are still some bananas that will make it.

As with everything in climate change, we need to take a "yes and" approach. Yes, improve the soil, and let's increase genetic diversity, and also let's look at making the gene structure of bananas more disease resistant. We don't have to worry about the banana going extinct just yet, but we've got a lot of work to do to make sure it's got a solid future.

Yellow, green, and red bananas hang from ropes in a dark red market stall.

Several types of bananas hang from a stall in an outdoor market. Photo by Alistair Smailes on Unsplash.

Join the Design & Nature Reimagined Newsletter