CLAREMONT, California — Agriculture and food production are important facets of the world economy. The sector provides essential incomes and self-produced food opportunities for a significant part of the population.
Monoculture, growing a single crop over a wide area, is a needed practice for efficiency, but is also a worrisome problem. Many crops, like potatoes and soybeans, have a variety of different types around the world. However, one of the developing world’s most important and widely produced monocultures is the banana. Currently, the banana is facing serious threats from different strands of disease.
There are over 1,000 different types of bananas in the wild, but 95 percent of the world’s bananas are the Cavendish. This single cultivated species essentially provides bananas that are genetically identical to one another, making them an easier food to eat without seeds. As a monoculture, the Cavendish has shaped a standardized system of shipping, production and processing. This system has allowed bananas to become one of the most valuable crops in the world.
While the Cavendish make up 99 percent of the bananas eaten in the developing world, they are only a small fraction of banana growth across the globe. About nine-tenths of bananas are eaten in developing countries, where about 400 million people rely on them for 15-27 percent of their daily calories.
Ecuador is the world’s leading banana exporter, followed by Belize, Panama and Costa Rica. In these countries, bananas are the most important export product. Additionally, bananas are in the top three export commodities for Cameroon, the Philippines, Guatemala, Honduras and Colombia. Bananas play a pivotal role in these primarily Central American countries, as both a food source and integral piece of social and political culture.
However, the importance of bananas stretches beyond economics. Bananas are an important source of fiber and safe food product, as they can be consumed uncooked and are often the first food young children eat.
Bananas can also be used to combat other important issues in developing countries. Menstrual hygiene is often a rarely discussed issue in certain low-income countries, making the monthly period a disabling time for women. Since they do not know how to properly deal with it or lack sanitary products, they may miss multiple days of work or school.
Elizabeth Scharpf, a graduate student and former intern in Mozambique, noticed this issue during her time abroad and decided to act. Scharpf researched low-cost, environmentally friendly sanitary products for local production, and experimented with several different products. Ultimately, the leading option was banana fibers, or the inside layers of a banana tree trunk.
Scharpf developed her product in a factory in Rwanda, where sanitary pads are produced at a rate of approximately 600 pads per hour. Though production and wide-scale development will take time, Scharpf aims to hire women to sell the product in their prospective communities.
“I started this not to repeat the charity aid model,” Scharpf said in an interview with PBS News Hour. “I think to really change a country, and an individual’s life, people need jobs.”
Bananas are an incredibly important product in communities around the world, but they are also a threatened commodity. In recent years, banana species have faced serious threats from disease strands, which they have been unable to fight off. A disease called Black Sigatoka was found in bananas in Fiji in 1963, and was also found in Central American bananas in 1975. The standardized Cavendish has no resistance to this serious condition.
Similarly, Panama disease struck in the 1960s and completely eliminated the previous top banana species, called Gros Michel or “Big Mike.” The Panama disease is a potentially more serious threat because it attacks the roots of plants, and lives in the soil for years after, making it difficult to get rid of. The latest viral threat is the Foc Tropical Race (TR4), which spread from its initial discoveries in Asia and Australia to Mozambique and Jordan.
As these diseases are caused by a fungus, the primary solution is the dispersion of large, frequent doses of fungicide. However, the products are extremely expensive, costing up to $1,000 per hectare, which is equal to one-fifth the value of a single crop. Furthermore, the fungus appears to be increasingly resistant. While some diseases respond to the fungicide, others do not, leaving the banana business in an unstable spot.
These diseases appear to spread slowly, over the course of several years or even decades, but developing countries that are dependent on the banana industry are facing a serious future risk. Companies and farmers will have to weigh the risks of introducing a new wild species, with the possibility that it might not be as durable for exportation. While other agricultural issues may stand in the way, companies see this threat as an inevitable challenge.
“Bananas aren’t going to go extinct- they’re not going to disappear,” said University of Florida Professor Randy Ploetz.
– Julia Thomas
Sources: Quartz, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, The Economist, PBS NewsHour
Photo: HD Screen