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Are bananas going extinct? A deadly fungus is infecting new farms

The Cavendish banana is grown by giant produce companies like Dole and Chiquita.
BananasAFP/Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

A deadly plant fungus has begun to infect banana crops in a region experts have long feared would be especially susceptible to disease.

On Thursday, the Colombian agriculture and livestock authority (ICA) declared a national state of emergency after a new strain of the Panama disease (Tropical Race 4, which known in the science world as TR4), was identified at several banana farms on the country's coastal region. Since Central and South America are home to the world's biggest markets for growing and exporting bananas, the impact of a widespread infection would be detrimental to the fruit's global supply.

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This common banana is being threatened by a deadly disease.Alamy

What does this mean for American consumers' favorite fruit and the star ingredient to many a smoothie?

If TR4 is not contained, it has the capability to wipe out most large banana farms which mostly grow one type of banana: the Cavendish. According to the BBC, the Cavendish accounts for nearly half of bananas grown worldwide and nearly all of the bananas imported to the U.S., Europe and the U.K.

It's a sweet, somewhat bland banana closely associated with large-scale operations like Dole and Chiquita. While bananas grown in infected soil are not unsafe for humans to eat, banana plants that have been infected will stop bearing fruit, so as fewer plants thrive, it will become more costly and more difficult for the U.S. to import bananas.

According to Gert Kema, a professor of tropical phytopathology at Wageningen University whose lab leads research about the Panama disease, this is not the first time banana growers have been faced with a dire situation.

An earlier strain of Panama disease called Race 1 first devastated banana farms throughout South and Central America in the 1950s. Despite the availability of a tasty replacement, the disease still wiped out nearly all crop grown on Central and South American banana plantations and caused $2.3 billion in damage.

Back then, the most popular type of banana was the Gros Michel, so to combat the risk of infection to that type of banana, large growers like Chiquita and Dole switched to the Cavendish which, at the time, was immune to that strain of the disease. Today, however, no type of banana has appeared resistant to the super-deadly TR4 strain.

According to National Geographic, "A banana with those characteristics, a taste and appearance similar to the beloved Cavendish, and resistance to TR4 does not exist."

TR4, which grows in the soil, kills the fruit and prevents more fruit from growing, was first detected on Southeast Asian farms in 1992.

In 2016, the disease made global headlines after Gert and his team published a study demonstrating how quickly the disease had spread from Indonesia to Taiwan, China, the rest of Southeast Asia and the Middle East. The damage wrought by the disease has already cost those nations $400 million to date — and that was before it reached the world's biggest banana-growing region.

Fernando García-Bastidas, a Colombian phytopathologist, told National Geographic that for now, both the ICA and local Colombian farms are doing a good job at containing the infected crops. However, according to Gert, TR4 is extremely contagious among commercially-raised Cavendish bananas because they're all clones, so once a crop is infected, there's no way to save it and the disease will spread rapidly.

A potential savior, say researchers, would be to create a different type of banana through selective breeding that is a different species than the Cavendish. However, developing a plant that can endure the climate and terrain of South America, as well as mimic the appearance of a banana most people love, may take many, many years. And even then, it might not taste exactly like fruit we know today.