Bye Bye Banana?

Before I begin, here is a simple assignment for you: Open a banana and extract the seeds.

Now, I recently returned from a week of conducting research in Bushenyi, in western Uganda. If you’re interested in the subject of the study, you should read Faith’s previous post.

As we were wandering deep into the villages, many people we encountered were talking about the menace of Banana Wilt, which is increasing poverty and food insecurity in the area.

The challenge with the wilt and indeed any bacteria or virus that afflicts banana plants is that bananas aren’t planted from seeds (you are hereby relieved of your assignment). If you want to plant a new banana tree, you have to make a “clone” by cutting a shoot off an existing plant and then transplanting it.

Dolly the Bananas

Why is that such a challenge you ask? Well, since banana plants aren’t the product of one plant pollinating another, bananas don’t develop any new genes. That means they can’t develop a resistance to any bacteria or virus. And since each plant is genetically identitical to every other plant from its cultivar group, any bacteria that’s capable of killing one individual plant is capable of killing them all. And the poor banana can’t keep up with the bacteria either — while the banana is sterile and stuck with the genetic makeup it has, the bacteria is capable of new mutations.

So while a crop such as maize — a sexual libertine if ever there was — can breed stronger, bacteria-resistant offspring, the banana — the cloistered nun of fruits — is doomed by its lack of reproductivity.

Now, I had read before about how the previous banana cultivar sold in North America (Gros Michel) was driven to near-extinction by its own ubiquity  (and with help from Panama Disease) and how the cultivar that replaced it (Cavendish) and is now sold in North American supermarkets might soon follow suit. But to me, the inevitable extinction of the banana didn’t seem all that tragic –not just because I don’t consume many myself, but because the banana business has a dark history and moreover, the banana seems dietarily unnecessary — any climate that can support banana production can support the production of other fruits containing the same nutrients.

But let us now return to the villages in Bushenyi…

In Bushenyi, as in most of central and western Uganda, the staple food is matooke, a green banana, that is much more like a potato than anything we recognise as bananas in the West. Matooke is skinned (the skin is too thick to peel), steamed and often mashed, then served at every single meal.

Matooke

Because of the important place it occupies in the Ugandan diet, a disease that affects bananas is a culinarily existential threat, not just a blight on a novelty fruit. And as mentioned, the genetic homogeneity of banana plants makes it very easy for the bacteria to spread and very difficult to contain. Indeed, in the very same year that the Banana Wilt was discovered in Uganda, it had already spread to Congo-Kinshasa.

Theoretically, Banana Wilt can be contained, if growers sterilise their panga knives and any other farming implements after each individual plant that they touch. But in villages where there is no piped water, this is an absurdly idealistic proposition.

So what are the villagers in Bushenyi (and the many other areas that the wilt has reached) to do? Many farmers in the villages I surveyed had switched to growing coffee, a cash crop.

Perhaps this switch will prove to be a decisive step in the farmers’ transition from mere subsistence to commercial agriculture — from peasants to producers. Or perhaps the aggregate decrease in food production (in favour of inedible cash crops), will only aggravate food insecurity.

In either case, the predicament of Bushenyi’s farmers might also be decisive as an important closing chapter in the story of humanity’s millennia-long relationship with the banana.

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