How the World's Favorite Banana Became Extinct (And the Odds It Will Happen Again)

cultivated gros michel bananas branch ripe
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Sweet, filling, reliable bananas are the most popular fruit in the United States, outselling apples and oranges. But our modern bananas are threatened by a disease that has already taken out an entire previous type of this easy-snacking fruit.

If you ate bananas before the 1950s, you most likely would have been eating the Gros Michel type—but by the early 1960s, they had all been replaced by the Cavendish, which we are still eating today. The Cavendish is less tough than the Gros Michel, and according to executives at the time who were worried about rejection of the Cavendish, less flavorful.

So how—and why—did this great banana switcheroo take place? It has to do with clones, international trade, and a very persistent fungus.

All About the Gros Michel

Gros Michel Banana Bunch

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The banana called Gros Michel, AKA Big Mike, was first brought from Southeast Asia to the Caribbean island of Martinique by French naturalist Nicolas Boudin, and then taken to Jamaica by French botanist Jean Francois Pouyat, according to the book, Banana, The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, by Dan Koeppel.

As early as the 1830s, bananas were being shipped to port cities in the U.S. from the Caribbean, and by the end of the century, improvements in the speed of getting the fruit from field to customer (thanks to railroads, roads, cablecars, and faster ships) meant the once-luxurious food was commonly available, even inland.

By the early 20th century, banana plantations were exporting the thick-skinned, easy-to-ship Gros Michel fruit around the world, and the fruit was key to several countries' economies.

The Gros Michel is the variety that popularized and normalized bananas in areas where they can't be grown, and it was an integral part of early international trade.

Panama Disease Changes an Industry

But problems with Panama disease, a fungus that made the banana plant leaves unable to photosynthesize and caused them to wilt, showed up in the late 1800s and spread. Named for the first place where it caused major devastation, the fungus spread north from Panama also causing massive losses of banana plants in Honduras, Suriname, and Costa Rica, throughout the first half of the 20th century.

"Yes! We Have No Bananas," a song many of us would recognize even in the 21st century, was about a grocer out of bananas due to the devastation that Panama disease caused.

Panama disease, Race 1 (the term scientists use to differentiate between different variants of the fungus) caused the loss of tens of thousands of acres of banana plantations, with infested soils that could not be replanted with banana trees again.

Even though it was incredibly costly, there was no choice for the banana business but to start over with a totally new cultivar, the Cavendish, which was chosen specifically for its resistance to Panama disease. The transition took some time, but by the 1960s it was complete.

But now there's Race 4 of the disease, and it does the same thing to the bananas we eat today. (Panama disease doesn't make people sick if they eat bananas from affected trees, but it does eventually prevent the plant from being able to make bananas as it slowly dies.)

The Cavendish's Days Might Be Numbered

Cavendish bananas on a supermarket shelf

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Cavendish bananas feel so ubiquitous these days—you can even find them at the gas station next to the candy bars sometimes—so it's hard to imagine them disappearing.

But Race 4 (also known as TR4 or fusarium wilt), the new version of Panama disease that started affecting crops in Asia in the 1980s and wiping them out, has since moved to infect crops in the Philippines, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Africa, and Australia. And in 2019, Colombia declared a national disaster when it was discovered there. As it inches closer to Latin America, the likelihood of losing the Cavendish entirely increases.

Like the Gros Michel, Cavendish bananas are a monoculture, reproducing via cloning rather than seeds—which makes them less able to fight pathogens. Basically, any disease, fungus, or pest that can attack and kill one plant can kill them all.

Plants that reproduce via seeds have more genetic diversity, which creates a more uneven product—but also a more disease-resistant plant. The reason bananas are so consistent in flavor, so predictable in the way they ripen, and turn the exact same color when they are ready to be eaten, is because they are all clones. But those very traits make them much more vulnerable.

While losing the Cavendish could mean higher prices (and a lot fewer bananas) in the U.S., it could be especially devastating to the millions of people in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean who depend on them to meet basic nutrition needs. And of course, many countries in these areas also rely on bananas as an important export crop.

To date, there aren't any pesticides or other treatments that have been found that can stop Panama Disease.

Is there anything we can do to prevent the fate of the Cavendish from following that of the Gros Michel? Well, scientists are working on different options to save the banana, like finding a more disease-resistant variety.

Other Kinds of Bananas

Red Banana -Musa Acuminata Red Dacca
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Bananas that are tolerant of Panama Disease have been developed, most notable at the Honduran Foundation for Agricultural Research, but when some new varieties of these fruits, called Goldfinger and Mona Lisa, were introduced to Canadian consumers in the 1990s, they didn't prove popular.

However, quite a lot has changed since the '90s, especially when it comes to food culture, and it might be the case that if you want a banana, you won't be able to get a Cavendish at some point in the near future, which will force a new perspective on the fruit.

But another answer is that we could all get used to banana meaning more than the cloned Cavendish. As anyone who has shopped at markets in Latin America or the Caribbean knows, there are many more types of fruit—including bananas—to try than are available at even gourmet grocery stores in the U.S. Worldwide there are hundreds of varieties of bananas, including many that are much more flavorful than the Cavendish, though most of them are tougher to ship because they are more fragile.

Tasty and sweet Ladyfinger bananas, which are about the size of a human thumb but a bit thicker, are just one type that could expand what we think of this fruit. There are also red-skinned bananas that turn pink with spots when ripe, called red guineo morado, which have a creamy texture and are orange in the center. There are even bananas that are tart and some say taste like apples.

So, just like we usually choose from several sizes, colors, and flavors of apples or potatoes, a more biodiverse banana supply, which wouldn't rely on a monoculture, would expand both the flavor possibilities and allow options for banana producers. Eating a wider variety of bananas has other benefits as well, including being healthier for soils.

If you enjoy plantains, a delicious staple food that's starchier than bananas and meant to be eaten cooked, they seem to be much less susceptible to diseases in general, so they are likely safe from the fungus.