Threat to banana crop teaches a lesson on lack of crop diversity

BananaFungusSixty years ago a banana-killing fungus decimated plantations across Latin America. Today a new strain threatens to wipe out world production once again.

It may turn out to be concern over nothing. Free markets have proven to be quite resilient in the face of crop scares that frequently make headline news.

In recent years the media has reported weather and disease-related challenges for citrus, coffee, coconuts, chicken and olives—yet somehow the free market finds ways to continue to deliver the products with only temporary price increases or shortages.

Then again, some of the scares play out into a worst-case scenario.

Such was the case in the 1950s when the fungus plague was so bad the top-selling type of banana, the Gros Michel, was literally eliminated from the market.

It was only by doing an expensive shift in planting and production and concentrating farming efforts on a new type of banana—the Cavendish—that markets were able to recover and the fruit became readily available worldwide.

And it is the insight that the entire industry was reliant on a single banana type that should cause us all a little consternation.

The fact is this: while there are almost one-thousand types of bananas, the entire industry depends on the success of a single type. This has happened because today’s foods don’t come from local sources; they come from large companies that need efficiency and consistency in the entire process.

In short, everything is standardized. Even between competitors. The news reports state emphatically: “To make money on exports, growers have to rely on a single variety to ensure uniformity and keep production costs low.”

And this standardization is not just in bananas. It occurs with most of the produce we consume; and it includes the foods we consider staples.

This is why today we once again face a threat to banana crops.

Over the past two decades, a new strain of the Fusarium wilt fungus—called Panama disease Tropical Race 4— emerged to threaten the Cavendish type of banana. The fungus has wreaked havoc in the Philippines and China and in parts of Africa.

This year it was found in Queensland, Australia, where more than 90 percent of Australia’s A$600 million ($467 million) crop is grown

Unfortunately, because there is a lack of diversity among the large corporate owned banana plantations—which represents the vast majority of production—this single fungus is able to threaten it all.

One more reason to encourage small farmers, and the diversity in crops they bring to the table.

Sources: Bloomberg, MSN.com.

Read full news article here.

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