A Potential Agricultural Economic and Food Disaster
Do you like bananas? I do. Bananas are generally regarded as a tasty high starch fruit. Here in North America we tend to associate eating bananas with breakfast meals or as part of desert. In other parts of the world, they play a significant role in overall core diet. In general, bananas are regarded as a healthy food. Bananas are a source of potassium, which may help with the risk of high blood pressure and other health issues. Bananas also contain considerable amounts of vitamin B6, vitamin C and electrolytes.
According to the UC-SC website on the History of the Banana:
“Bananas are both a major staple in the global tropical zone as well as an important cash crop and significant fruit varietal available for American and European consumption. They are the fourth most important crop worldwide for developing countries, where they provide an important starch source, especially in Africa and Asia. For instance, in Africa, as much as 400kg of plantain are consumed per year as a main source of calories. Bananas are produced mainly in tropical and sub-tropical areas of Africa, Asia, and America, as well as the Canary Islands and Australia. The fruit is non-seasonal, and thus available year round, where it provides key foodstuffs between seasonal harvests of other staple crops. The vast majority of bananas grown today are for consumption by the farmers or the local community, with only 15% of the global production of the fruit grown for export. India is the leading producer of bananas worldwide, accounting for 23% of the total banana production, though most of the Indian plantains are for domestic use. Bananas are of significant economic importance elsewhere, such as the French Caribbean and Central America. In the French Caribbean (Guadeloupe and Martinique), banana farming represents a huge industry, where about 260,000 plantains are produced each year. Ecuador, Costa Rica, the Philippine Islands, and Colombia account for two-thirds of the exported banana crops. Of the bananas grown for export, almost all are desert bananas grown for markets in the United States and Europe, of which the ‘Cavendish’ banana varietal is of supreme importance. In general, the United States consumes fruits from Central and South America, whereas consumers in the European Union receive most of their plantains from the Caribbean. Exported bananas are often picked in an unripened state, which makes for much easier transport to their countries of destination as ‘green’ bananas are more resistant to spoilage and bruising than ripened fruits. Upon the end of their journey, the immature fruit are placed in special rooms filled with ethylene gas, which ripens the fruit to maturity.”
Banana Monoculture Agricultural Risks Disease Disaster
A recent research study[i] (Worse Comes to Worst: Bananas and Panama Disease—When Plant and Pathogen Clones Meet) published November, 2015 in PLoS Pathogen warns that a new strain of the “Tropical Race 4” fungus (a more potent mutation of the “Panama Disease” fungus) is threatening the existence of the Cavendish banana, the world’s top banana export, (representing 99 percent of the global market), along with a number of other banana varieties produced and eaten locally around the world. According to Roberto A. Ferdman in the Washington Post there is no known way to stop it—or even contain it.
The reason the disease is so threatening to bananas is largely a result of the monoculture method in which agricultural industries have cultivated the fruit. While dozens of different varieties are grown around the world, often in close proximity to one another, commercially produced bananas are all the same (quite literally in fact, because they are effectively clones of each other).
As Fernman explains the rational and consequences of this agricultural monoculture cloning process further in the Washington Post essay:
“This helps companies like Dole and Chiquita control for consistency and produce massive amounts of bananas on the cheap without having to deal with imperfections (it’s the reason why the fruit is so easy to find at supermarkets everywhere). But it also makes their bananas incredibly vulnerable to attacks from pests and disease. When you get rid of variety entirely, you risk exposing a crop to something it can neither cope with nor evolve to defend itself against. The Irish Potato Blight is a perfect example of how monocultures can backfire. In the 1800s, Irish potato farmers came to favor a single potato variety, which backfired when a fungus-like organism entered the country and met no natural resistance. In 1846, the country, which depended heavily on potatoes for basic nutrition, lost most of its potato production, which, in turn, contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.”
The extinction of the Cavendish banana might create major economic disruptions for a number of businesses, their employees/communities, dependent infrastructure, suppliers, vendors, key stakeholders and local-national governments worldwide. NBC News has reported that:
“The problem has gotten so bad, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, that countries that grow bananas have been warned to step up monitoring, reporting and prevention in order to tackle what it calls “one of the world’s most destructive banana diseases, and threatens the income of millions of people.” Bananas are grown in more than 150 countries, which produce 105 million tons of fruit per year, while employing hundreds of thousands of people. The U.S. is the top importer of bananas in the world at nearly 4 million tons a year. The European Union is a close second. The largest exporters of the fruit are Ecuador, the Philippines, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Colombia.”
More than just an Economic Disaster
While collapse of the world-wide banana agricultural enterprises would undoubtedly ripple consequences in the global economic marketplace, the prospects of the extinction of the Cavendish banana and the agricultural economic engine that produces 100 billion bananas each year also would be a disaster on a much more direct human scale. In many parts of the globe, bananas and plantains are not just breakfast cereal topping or the basis for dessert. In fact, they constitute a primary part of the typical diet. In terms for food for people on the planet, bananas are one of the more significant subsistence food crops for millions. In some African nations, it is typical for people to spend 1/3 up to ½ of their food budget on bananas. Bananas are a key food that keeps widespread starvation and famine at bay. For tens of millions of people around the globe, the loss of bananas may be forerunner of a coming food disaster.
Food-security emergencies are complex disasters with multiple root causes. In such cases, food can be both unavailable (insufficient production) and inaccessible (distribution problems, beyond consumers’ purchasing power). Food shortage occurs when food supplies within a bounded region do not provide the energy and nutrients needed by that region’s population. Food shortage of the extinction of bananas would be a regional production problem – not enough food (in this case bananas) is grown to meet needs of the local and regional populations.
While replacement crops and perhaps even replacement bananas (see next section) might eventually be forthcoming, there is certainly a risk of a transitional global food disaster that has serious social, political and economic implications.
Is there any Hope for Bananas?
Based on this recent report, it is probable that the Cavendish banana will be lost as a major commercial crop. For most of the world, the Cavendish banana is the only widely available option.
Some believe that new synthetic biology and genetic modification could play a role in averting this coming banana disaster. However, these methods still present uncertainty and ambiguity with an unclear timeline or end-results. Furthermore, such efforts would undoubtedly be controversial and perhaps would spur active or passive resistance. It is also not clear that all consumers or investors would accept the prospect of a synthetic biological banana.
Where to start?
- Review supply chain global linkages for disruptions.
- Update your continuity plans.
- Consider business practices for unintended consequences or risks – while a technique might appear to be profitable or desirable – like clone bananas – there may be unforeseen vulnerabilities.
- Consider how a changed economic landscape might impact your customers or markets.
- Look for new business opportunities in the shifting global economic landscape.
Suggestions (Links) for Further Reading
[i] Citation: Ordonez N, Seidl MF, Waalwijk C, Drenth A, Kilian A, Thomma BPHJ, et al. (2015) Worse Comes to Worst: Bananas and Panama Disease—When Plant and Pathogen Clones Meet. PLoS Pathog 11(11): e1005197. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.1005197
Images: Nationofchange.org; CNN, CNN respectively