The Cavendish banana is dying. Can CRISPR save it?

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Cavendish bananas seem to be abundant in grocery stores, but a fungus has been threatening its existence for years, and saving it might become a technological endeavor.

The fungus that’s hunting the banana is Panama disease (aka Fusarium wilt), and about 10 years ago, it was mostly in Asia, but earlier this year, it made its first appearance in Columbia, where it directly affects the banana supply in the U.S. for the first time. That’s all according to Dan Koeppel, author of “ Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World .”

“If you buy a banana anywhere in the continental United States, it came from South or Central America, period,” he says. 

But more than 1000 breeds of bananas exist, so why concentrate on this one Cavendish variety? 

“The entire banana supply chain -- it's almost like a pipe coming from South America to the United States that only fits this one particular kind of banana. The Cavendish. And that's because the banana is so cheap,” Koeppel explains. “In order to make money, it's like the fast food business model. You just have to focus on cheap and actually not very good.”

So because of the infrastructure that's been created around the Cavendish, it’s better to invest in the technology to save it, rather than explore or substitute other banana varieties that aren’t affected by Panama disease. At least, that’s what banana producers would like consumers to think, says Koeppel. 

“This is a monoculture, and I think the time has come to stop looking at bananas as just one kind of fruit when there are thousands. I think the monoculture is environmentally devastating. It has a huge human cost in terms of pesticide use and the low margins that lead to labor exploitation. And it's also having a material cost in that it actually isn't working.”

Will CRISPR work? 

Scientists are now trying to use CRISPR technology to make the Cavendish more resistant to the fungus. 

However, Koeppel believes that route is problematic: “In the United States, we're okay with GM [genetic modification] because we probably don't know what food is and what food isn't. There are no labeling requirements. I personally don't think it's a problem. But there are people who do in Europe.”

He recently spoke with a banana scientist who said genetically modified bananas can’t be sold in half the world.  

Another challenge: bananas are weird. “They're weird to breed, whether you're breeding them in a lab or in the field. Bananas mutate quickly. And there has been experimentation with genetically modified bananas for more than a decade now, and when they get tested in the field, they don't seem to work as well,” Koeppel says. “Even if you use CRISPR, which will shorten the process that will get us to field testing, once you're back out on the field, you're using conventional growing methods, the disease can spread conventionally, and who knows what's going to happen.”

Koeppel says GM bananas will ultimately replace the Cavendish, but unless we tap into the wide diversity of bananas, it won’t be a long term success. 

What’s the tastiest banana in the world? 

Unripe Ybota Ybota bananas in the village of Yangambi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Photo credit: Dan Koeppel

Koeppel’s favorite is the Ybota Ybota banana from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

This variety has hundreds of fruit on a single tree, and the flavor is complex. “It's sour. Then it's sweet. It's a luscious honey sweetness… And the texture is like super premium ice cream,” Koeppel describes. 

He notes that Ybota Ybota bananas would be tough to ship because they bruise easily. 

One last interesting thing to know: this banana has only been in Africa for about 100 years, and scientists are uncertain of its origin. “It most likely is some variant on a Thai variety that was probably brought in by workers during the Belgian colonial era. But nobody knows that for sure,” Koeppel notes. 

-- Written by Amy Ta



Evan Kleiman