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The “Tropical Race Four” fungus has been described as the HIV of the banana universe – an incurable blight threatening farms around the globe. Scientists are hoping to save crops by developing genetically modified varietals, but their work is raising ethical concerns. We explore why bananas are that the forefront of an international debate about food, science and ethics.
- Mike Peed Writer, The New Yorker
New Yorker writer Mike Peed discusses a fungus that is killing banana crops in Asia, Australia, and the Pacific:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBehold the banana, the humble fruit that conquered America. Every year in the United States, we eat as many of them as we do apples and oranges combined. But it's not just the banana's popularity or its taste that is making it special right now, it's that the fruit has been thrust into the center of a burning debate about the ethical implications of genetically modified food. That's because the worldwide banana population is actually under siege. A fungus that's been described as the HIV of food blight is wiping out plantations across the globe. And the scramble to help crops resist it is coming down to a fight over whether we should deploy cutting-edge science and genetically engineer our way to better bananas. Joining us to talk about this is Mike Peed. He writes for The New Yorker. Mike Peed, thank you very much for joining us.
MR. MIKE PEEDThank you for having me. It's nice to be here.
NNAMDIMike, Americans are crazy about bananas. But before we go any further, we should be clear that out of the thousands of different kinds of bananas, American consumers are actually crazy about one specific variety of banana that represents roughly 99 percent of the world's export market. Why is it that when we shop for apples, we have dozens of choices, from Fujis to Granny Smiths, but when we stop for bananas, we have only one choice, the Cavendish?
PEEDWell, that's a very good question. First of all, you say that Americans are crazy about one -- it's -- Americans -- if you want to be crazy about bananas, you only have one choice. So, you know, it's not as though they surveyed the world and decided this was the best one. The problem is, of course, is that we don't grow -- we can't grow bananas in the continental United States. They need 14 months of frost-free weather. And so that means they have to be grown, essentially, in the tropics. And when you grow something elsewhere, it has to be transported into the country. And so that raises all sorts of questions about can the banana survive that trip.
PEEDI mean, it's not very hard to figure out that bananas are very fragile. I mean, we buy them and then quickly forget about them, and fruit flies are flying around our kitchen and then they end up in our freezer, hoping that one day we'll make banana bread out of them or something. (laugh) So the main thing is that the skin -- there is one banana that has a thick enough skin, that ripens at an okay pace, that doesn't bruise so easily, and that provides -- another key factor is that it provides farmers with a big enough harvest that it makes commercial sense to grow it. And, of course, it tastes okay. And when you put all those factors together, you come down to one banana, and that's called the Cavendish. Absolutely.
NNAMDIWell, Mike, isn't okay too mild a word to use for how bananas taste? But I digress. It's my understanding that bananas didn't even make their way into the United States until the late 19th century.
PEEDYes, that's right. And that again, that's part of that their having to be discovered and there needs to be the technology to transport them. Back to your digression, if I can digress myself, I said okay because there are other bananas that taste much better. That's the idea. And there have been lots of calls by people and publications in various places for Americans to begin to eat some of those ones that are a little sweeter and taste better. But that's right. So bananas showed up in America sometime in the late 1800s, and that's just because industrialists were sort of traveling around and discovered these things.
PEEDBananas are originally from Asia, that part of the world, and then they sort of slowly made a journey across and ended up in Central America. Again, they need to be in places where they can grow, so they never made their way to the Continental United States. But the first bananas came from -- that we ate in America came from Jamaica. They had been taken there as a slave food actually because they're so cheap and so easy to grow. And then they were discovered and brought to New York City and sold there.
NNAMDILet's digress again because I should (laugh) be the last person to talk about bananas...
PEEDThe program is digression. Sure.
NNAMDI...tasting better than okay because I was born in South America in Guyana, so I have tasted...
NNAMDI...some of those sweeter bananas...
NNAMDI...of which you speak. (laugh) This story begins in Australia where a business appropriately named the Darwin Banana Farming Company is fighting frantically against a fungus called Tropical Race 4, which has been labeled the HIV of banana plantations. What is Tropical Race 4, Mike, and why is it such a threat to this fruit?
PEEDWell, Tropical Race 4 is a fungus that lives in the soil and it attacks banana plants from their roots. And then once it gets into a plant, it very quickly kills the plant, is the easiest way to say it, I guess. Basically, the fungus blocks the plants' vascular tissue, and so the plants sort of have drought-like symptoms because they can't pull up water and nutrients up from the ground into their systems. And it wipes out -- the key, of course, is that it's incredibly virulent. It wipes out plants and crops plantations very, very quickly. You can see a plant -- a singular plant go down in two months. You can see a crop go down in six months. Of course, it all depends on the general health of the plant to begin with and the health of the soil and that sort of thing, but it's very, very fast moving. And, yeah...
NNAMDISo far -- you mentioned fast-moving, so far, Latin American crops have been safe from Tropical Race 4. Since it's so fast-moving, what are the chances the fungus could leap across oceans and find its way to the fruit that we buy in the United States?
PEEDWell, that's, of course, the key question. I mean, that's what everybody's concerned about is right now -- you mentioned Australia -- the fungus showed up in the late '80s in Taiwan and it's in Malaysia and Indonesia and the Philippines and China and then now it's in Australia. Every scientist I talk to, they're all -- they're scientists so they're rational and they wanna be careful, but nobody said that -- everybody thought that it's gonna make its way to Central America. The question is, is when. It lives in the soil, as I said earlier, and so it can be transported in a variety of ways. I mean, of course, if you uproot a plant that's infected and re-plant it somewhere else, that's the easiest way to do it. But it can just stick to the bottom of someone's shoe or on a tire on a car or something like that.
PEEDPeople often mention migrating birds, that a bird lands on a muddy place and then takes off again and flies and lands somewhere. So everybody thinks it will move. The question is when. And as I write in The New Yorker, will scientists be ready to fight it when does show up. That's the other big question.
NNAMDIWhat has Tropical Race 4 done to the crops at the Darwin Banana Farms in Australia?
PEED(laugh) They've completely wiped them out.
PEEDThat's a pretty easy answer. They -- it showed up and they were -- I focus on this one company called the Darwin Banana Farming Company, but there were lots of other companies there and they are all gone now. They all got infected. They all saw their crops wiped out. They razed their fields and now grow things like melons or don't grow anything at all. There's a lot of empty land up there. The reason the person that I wrote about is still getting a crop, but in an incredibly taxing way, it's mainly because he has the financial resources to sort of force it out so he can shift his crop around and sort of use some of -- well, for a while, he was using the virgin land that hadn't been infected yet, and he ran out of that, and now he plants cover crops like sorghum and pinto peanuts, not to harvest, not to make any money off of them, but simply to hope to rejuvenate the soil.
PEEDBut a banana plant is a very interesting -- the way banana plants work they can sort of reproduce on their own for generations. But he can't do that. His plants, he gets one crop if he's lucky and then maybe he'll get a sort of small kind of half-second crop and then he's out. It's very -- I will tell you something that's really interesting. I went to both Australia and Honduras, and I had never been to a banana plantation before I started reporting the story. And I went to Honduras first, and the plantations there really, to me, felt like the jungle. I mean, I was sort of used to driving across the Midwest America and you see corn or wheat, and they're in very neat rows.
PEEDBanana plantations aren't like that at all. The banana leaves are wide and you can stand underneath them and you're in the shade, and they're sort of -- plants everywhere. And you really feel like you're in the jungle, and that's because bananas sort of grow and then little suckers grow up next to them and new plants grow. And so, the plantation is always kind of shifting in this way. When I went to Australia, I was then caught off guard that his plantations were, in fact, actually in rows.
PEEDAnd I thought, why is that? You know, I'm so used to -- I've just wrapped my head around this idea that banana plantations don't work that way and here they are in rows. And the reason is, is because his plants don't last very long. They -- if he's lucky, like I said, he gets one bunch or maybe one and a half bunches, and then he has to cut the tree down and plant new trees again. So he's able to keep his plantations in very neat rows because his plants don't last very long.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Mike Peed, he writes for The New Yorker. He joins us from studios in New York to talk about the threat facing bananas. We're interested in your contributions to this conversation. You can call us at 800-433-8850. How would your diet change if soil-borne diseases wipe out the crops of banana that sell in American markets? 800-433-8850. Mike, you write that the Darwin Company is now fighting against Tropical Race 4 by essentially trying to shortcut the natural selection process by supporting scientific research to develop genetically modified crops that are bred to resist the fungus. Where is this research taking place and what kind of progress are they making?
PEEDThe research is taking place also in Australia, not in Darwin, but much farther south in Queensland. And it's taking -- there's a scientist there at Queensland University of Technology named James Dale, who has been doing genetic research into genetic modification for quite a long time. He got interested in bananas and does various other things on other banana diseases as well, but other things with bananas. And it was quite just a sort of serendipitous connection, this farmer in Darwin has made a decent amount of money off bananas, so he's, again, he's able to put money into it and he just sort of began to research and found this scientist, and they've begun to collaborate and try to solve this problem.
PEEDThey really -- he is adamant that the only way that -- the only way to solve this problem is through a new banana, a new disease-resistant banana. There are lots of diseases that affect bananas. In fact, of course, there are lots of diseases that affect crops in general, and we use pesticides or we use chemicals and other ways to control that -- those pesticides. There is no chemical control. That's sort of the key factor with Tropical Race 4. So he is investing in this genetically modified scientist -- scientific research in Queensland.
PEEDThey're coming along. They -- they're at the stage where they can begin a field trial. In fact, it's not in my story because it had not been reported at the time, but I got an e-mail just before -- just this morning, saying that the field trial had been approved. So in a couple of months, they're gonna take these plants that they've genetically modified in Queensland and transport them up to Darwin. The plants are coddled very much. They get their own airplane seats and they're flown up. And they are just gonna stick them in the ground, where it's heavily infected with this fungus, and see what happens. They're pretty confident. They think that -- well, I shouldn't say. I mean, they're careful to say we have to see what happens. But all of my reporting indicated that they all sound pretty confident this can work, so...
NNAMDIThey're also pretty optimistic that the public will be more willing to accept this work because they're using a plant gene in this case rather than an animal gene. Why does this matter?
PEEDWell, genetic research GMOs are very, very controversial, as I'm sure you and your listeners know. And people -- some of it is sort of knee-jerk and comes sort of more from a visceral level than a scientific level, I think. But nonetheless, people -- it just -- on some level, it just makes people uncomfortable that we're sort of playing God in this way, that we think we know what we're doing when we take a foreign organism and stick it in something else. That makes people uncomfortable. There are other -- we can get into it perhaps a little later or whenever you like, but there are other more serious reasons to be careful with.
PEEDBananas are sort of unique in this way because, as I write about bananas are actually sterile. They don't -- their plant -- they reproduce without exchanging pollen, and they don't -- we're able to eat the Cavendish because it doesn't have seeds in it. There are lots of wild bananas that have lots and lots of seeds that are really hard that would chip your tooth. Cavendish does not have seeds. It does not accept pollen. So part of the -- why people feel more comfortable with genetically modified bananas is that they -- whatever they put into a banana is not going to get out into the wider world, and that's a big fear. As far as the animal versus the plant, they just -- people just like that at least we're dealing with two plants. You know, at least they're, on some level, in the same...
PEED...you know, in the same area of the wide biologic -- biology.
NNAMDIThere are callers who would like to talk with you. Let's start with Shawn in Annapolis, Md. Shawn, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHAWNYes. Hi. I'm actually -- I was a resident of the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas, and, you know, obviously, I had a bunch of different bananas that grew in my yard, with like the short banana. And it kind of got me thinking with your conversation back to, like, the winemakers of the United States when -- I can't recall the name of the disease that came over from France. And they used the root of a certain resilient Indian -- Native American root, like the wild grapes, and spliced the other -- you know, Chardonnays and whatnot onto that root that was resilient from the disease. And I was wondering, you know, with the plantain being like a close cousin and the short banana and all the different species of bananas, if they could use that to protect the banana plant.
NNAMDIHere's Mike Peed.
PEEDI'm not really sure. I mean, I haven't heard anything -- as far as I know, there aren't any efforts to do something like that. I mean, there are other ways. People are approaching this problem in a way that's not playing with genes or manipulating genetic material in that way. But as far as I know, there aren't -- there isn't a splicing mechanism in that way or...
NNAMDIBut you traveled to Honduras where farmers are trying to naturally engineer fungus-resistant bananas. What...
NNAMDI...what does that natural way involve?
PEEDWell, this is sort of I think what the questioner was getting at, is there a way to do it that's not GM? So that involves, in a sort of simple way, crossing two bananas -- probably wild bananas, or at least one of them would be a wild banana that has the characteristics that you want -- and then, in turn, producing a third fruit that is disease-resistant. That work was really started 19 -- late '50s, 1960, and it's proven very, very, very hard, which, even with all those barriers, is probably still an understatement.
PEEDThere has never been a commercially viable banana that has been produced from that work. And the reason is back to where we started this conversation, is that in order to have something that Americans will accept, both that they like, but also that can be sort of flown and works in the American market, has to have all of these characteristics. It has to taste good. It has to be a certain length. It has to look like what we want it to look like. It has to have thin skin. It can't bruise easily. It has to survive that trip. It has to be -- the bunches need to be large enough to -- so that farmers can make money off of them.
PEEDAll of those things.
NNAMDI...allow me to digress again. It should probably taste okay. (laugh) Here -- it's my understanding that Chiquita or United Fruit has been trying to develop the perfect export banana for decades, and that the farmer they hired to identify an alternative to the Cavendish grew thousands of hybrid bananas over decades and grew so frustrated that he ultimately hanged himself from one of his fruit trees.
PEEDYes, that's true. And it's a tragic story. It really is. I mean, I talked to a lot of people who knew him. The gentleman you referenced there is named Phil Rowe. He was a rice breeder that -- he was an American. He was from Arkansas, and he was hired by, at the time, it was called United Fruit -- now it's Chiquita -- to move to Honduras and to try to -- there was a first round of this disease, which is really almost most fascinating part of the story, that all of this has sort of happened before.
PEEDWe're talking about Tropical Race 4. Now there was a Tropical Race 1 in the first half of the 20th century. This gentleman was hired to produce a disease-resistant fruit for that. He spent about 40 years of his life crossing tens of thousands of bananas, growing 20,000 different fruits. He became -- he got very close. There was a banana called Goldfinger that looks like a very nice banana, and it grows big bunches and it was -- and it's disease-resistant. That is the key. But -- I've never had a Goldfinger, actually. But consumers rejected it because it was a little starchy and it was too acidic. The taste just didn't sell in the marketplace.
NNAMDIAnd we're running out of time very quickly, but how do you see the genetically modified push working against the popularity of organic fruits and vegetables in the United States?
PEEDWell, that's a big debate, an important one. I think bananas are a little tricky in terms of -- there are -- you can get organic bananas. Part of the reason that bananas are so popular, of course, is that they're very inexpensive. You know, you mentioned in the prologue here that we eat as many bananas as we do apples and oranges combined. A large part of that -- people like bananas and they taste good and they can -- you know, they're coming out with...
NNAMDINo, they taste okay.
PEED(laugh) They taste okay. We can't -- yeah, okay. Well -- and they come in this nice germ-proof wrapper which people like. But they're also about 60 cents a pound. I mean, that's about half the price as those apples and oranges. Organic makes it a lot more expensive, so you really have to be committed to it. And the reason is that if you take away the fungus that I'm talking about, that I've written about, there are still lots of banana -- there are lots of diseases that affect bananas, and those have to be controlled with chemicals. You can do that organically, but it's -- it costs more money and you get less fruit out of it. So your harvest is not as large. There are profit lines. So people will pay more. That's the thing.
PEEDEveryone I talk to, it seems that sooner or later that the GM will work and that people -- that the consumers will come around it. They will accept it. We'll see if that happens.
NNAMDIMike Peed writes for The New Yorker. He and I have concluded that bananas taste somewhere between okay and great. (laugh) Mike Peed, thank you very much for joining us.
PEEDThank you so much for having me. Yeah. It was very enjoyable, thank you.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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