Image from Wikimedia Commons
Many of the worlds most well known and liked fruits and vegetables are at risk of going extinct due to their lack of genetic diversity. Take the banana for example. The delicious fruit enjoyed by many over the ten thousand years when the first edible banana was found, is a sterile, seedless mutant. The wild banana contains a mass of hard seeds that make the plant inedible, but occasionally one would come across a mutant with to seeds and a soft interior fruit, and this banana was cultivated and enjoyed. Unfortunately, since the bananas are sterile, they all share the same genetic material, meaning they all lack the genes to fight off pests and diseases that are invading banana plantations. “Because all edible varieties of bananas are sterile, introducing new genetic traits to help cope with pests and diseases are nearly impossible” (Pearce).
An example of how the banana is so at risk for disease is the extinction of one banana species, the Gros Michel, in the 1950s. The Gros Michel was a deliciously rich and sweet banana that dominated the world’s commercial banana business. This banana was vulnerable to the Panama disease, and died out. The replacement species, the Cavendish, was less tasty, was resistant to the disease and replaced the Gros Michel bananas almost overnight. Although in that case, there was a replacement, the Cavendish, the most popular and well-known, there won’t always be, especially with a new disease threatening the banana plantations, Black Sigatoka. Along with this disease, a new strand of the Panama disease, tropical race 4, is threatening the Cavendishes.
To fight the diseases threatening the banana populations, commercial growers spray the crops with fungicide. It is typical that one crop is sprayed forty times a year to help fight the Cavendishes from dying from Black Sigatoka. Because of the thick skin of the bananas, the fungicide doesn’t cause much harm to the consumer, but some have been found to lead to higher rates of birth defects and leukemia in women, and sterility in males working in banana packing pants.
Crop diversity is important in food, environmental, and economic stability. However, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, “75 percent of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost in the last century due to the abandonment of genetically diverse traditional crop landraces in favor of genetically uniform modern crop varieties” (Food).
Other plants that may share the bananas same fate are pineapples, mangos, sweet potatoes, peanuts, soybeans, tomatoes, coffee, hard wheat, grapes, and many more. There are six major types of pineapples but we only consume one type. By doing this, neglecting the other types, and ignoring the fruit’s genetic base in the wild, we could be subjecting the pineapple to the same fate as the banana. The fate situation is similar for mangos, sweet potatoes, and more. The peanut is a largely enjoyed food across the world, but diseases are threatening to wipe them out al well. Scientists are searching for the peanuts ancestor in order to add some diversity back into the nut and save it.
Because of the poor genetic diversity in many of the foods we eat, some of the most well-known and enjoyed foods may not be around much longer. Because many of the plants are grown to be clones of each other for ease with farming, the lack of diversity could have devastating effects on many plants, especially the banana. With many diseases coming to threaten crops and the lack of diversity, one disease could kill a whole species of plant.
- Pearce, Fred. “The Sterile Banana.” Conservation RSS. Conservation Magazine, 26 Sept. 2008. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
- Food Stores: Using Protected Areas to Secure Crop Genetic Diversity. A research report by WWF, Equilibrium, and the University of Birmingham, U.K., 2006