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Yes, We May Have No Bananas

I like to have a banana with my breakfast pretty much every day, and evidently I am not alone. Bananas are America’s most-consumed fresh fruit, and the nation’s third-most consumed fruit overall.

So maybe a crisis in the global banana business will be just the catalyst we need to think clearly about the costs, benefits and alleged risks of genetically modified organisms.

The Washington Post recently reported on a growing threat to bananas as we know them. The Cavendish, which has been the most popular banana variety for export since the mid-1900s, is at risk of disappearing due to a new strain of Panama Disease. The fungal malady effectively wiped out the Cavendish’s predecessor, the Gros Michel, which has now all but disappeared. This disaster inspired the popular 1920s tune, “Yes! We Have No Bananas,” but also caused huge economic disruption for banana farmers and consumers worldwide.

The new strain of Panama Disease, known as Tropical Race 4, has already spread from Southeast Asia across the rest of the continent, as well as to Africa, the Middle East and Australia. Whenever it makes what researchers say is an inevitable jump to Latin America, it will devastate commercial banana production. And right now, banana growers have no way to prevent the oncoming disaster.

We know that the effects will be so widespread mainly because commercial bananas are effectively clones. Creating a monoculture let big companies like Dole and Chiquita cultivate a consistent product. It is so consistent that many people who are only familiar with exported bananas remain unaware that other banana species exist, much less how diverse they are in size and shape. But monocultures also deprive a population of the natural variation that might let a species fight back against an invader like Tropical Race 4.

Even diversity might not have been enough, however. As an article at Quartz explained, it has become clear that locally consumed, non-Cavendish bananas are also at risk from the fungus. And that could have a serious economic and humanitarian impact on the developing world as well. Compounding the problem is that, unlike the Gros Michel, the Cavendish does not have a backup variety waiting in the wings to take over in a worst-case scenario.

That means that if we want to keep eating bananas on our cereal - and supporting populations for whom it serves as a staple or cash crop - we may need a more creative solution. Potentially, that solution could be to develop GMO banana varieties resistant to the disease.

The Genetic Literacy Project has presented a thoughtful discussion of the issues surrounding this course of action. Yet the fact that the organization does not routinely condemn GMOs in its writing naturally means that the organization has long been attacked by the segment of the political left who believe that all GMO activity must be inherently bad. They particularly believe this proposition since the corporations who must develop and finance studies of GMO products to prove their safety and efficacy are, well… corporations.

The Genetic Literacy Project’s founder and executive director, Jon Entine, has faced pointed criticism from Mother Jones, and the nonprofit organization itself came under fire in Bloomberg earlier this year. Kevin Folta, a professor at the University of Florida whose writing the organization has published, lamented the “rabid activism and religion” of those who vilify any person or group with the temerity to support biotechnology’s role in crop development.

Opponents of developing genetically modified banana varieties say that seeking bioengineered solutions will only promote a continuation of monoculture, though the Genetic Literacy Project’s coverage has pointed out the flaws in this argument. Modified crops are not a hurdle to pursuing greater biodiversity; indeed, multiple researchers have emphasized that both increased diversity and genetic modification will probably be necessary to save commercial banana production. And some researchers want to go so far as using modification to introduce a wider variety of banana crops for export, meaning genetic engineering would actively promote the diversity GMO opponents say they want.

It is also worth noting that there is nothing terribly “natural” about the current banana monocrop threatened by Race 4. As Gwynn Guilford wrote at Quartz, “[…] it’s hard to argue against modifying an already pretty heavily genetically tweaked fruit given the scale of malnourishment or perhaps even starvation, if that’s what it comes down to.” Given the lack of alternatives and how carefully commercial banana growers have already controlled their product, introducing a genetically modified variety does not seem much of a leap.

Yet for now, Dole and Chiquita do not even want to attempt to plant GMO bananas because of the difficulty selling them, particularly in Europe, but also because of the mindless activism of opponents in the United States. Whenever the new and deadly strain of fungus spreads to this hemisphere, either the companies will change their minds or they won’t. If they do not, someone else may displace them as leading banana suppliers.

Or not. Maybe only people who are willing to eat genetically modified foods will be able to afford bananas with their breakfasts in the future. Or maybe even GMO-friendly folks like me will be unable to get them, turning bananas into a pricy luxury for North Americans, like Fiji water.

Yes, we may have no bananas. So what are we going to do about it?

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