Cavendish bananas, the most commonly available variety, at risk of extinction due to fungus outbreak, scientists warn

Ripe yellow bananas in the hands of a woman, bought at a shopping market - stock photo
The most popular variety of banana is at risk of extinction. Photo credit: Getty Images

The world's most consumed banana, the Cavendish, is facing possible extinction as a fungal disease spreads throughout its plantations.   

Although there are over 1000 varieties of banana, 47 percent of those eaten by humans are Cavendish - dominating the global market due to its abundance, long shelf-life, and resistance to several major diseases.   

The Cavendish is currently under threat from a fungal infection known as Panama Disease tropical race 4 (TR4), an infection that begins by ravaging the roots of the tree before spreading - disabling its ability to absorb water or conduct photosynthesis, resulting in the tree's death.    

TR4 was first detected by scientists near Darwin, Australia in 1997: by 2015 it had travelled to banana farms in Queensland, the country's primary producer of the fruit. TR4 subsequently spread to India and China, the world's largest producers of bananas, and has since been found in the Middle East, Africa and very recently in South America, according to Insider.   

Some scientists are now saying the Cavendish could face a similar fate to that of its predecessor, the Gros Michel banana, which by the 1950s had been eradicated by tropical race 1. Following the decimation of the Gros Michel, the Cavendish replaced it as the leading export banana due to its immunity to TR1, James Dale, a professor and leader of the banana biotechnology programme at Queensland University of Technology, told Insider.    

Dale told the outlet that as the disease moves slowly, there is at least a decade before the impact on the Cavendish becomes dire. In the meantime, many scientists are proposing solutions to the Cavendish plight: a genetically modified version that is resistant to TR4 has already been developed, while other teams are exploring alternative options that don't involve genetic modification.    

"I would say with certainty there will be a solution before the export market for Cavendish is severely affected," Dale told Insider.    

Others have suggested the production of bananas should be drastically overhauled, with farmers instead mass producing a wide variety of the fruit rather than growing just one. These scientists have argued that the more genetically diverse bananas are, the less susceptible they'll be to diseases while reducing dependence on only one type. This could, however, drive up costs.   

"For anyone who's growing Cavendish bananas as a monopoly, my opinion is that they're doomed eventually, if they get that virus into their plantations," Hugh Rose, a Northland banana grower and chair of Tropical Fruit Growers of New Zealand, told RNZ's Morning Report on Thursday.  

He agrees that farmers and producers of bananas shouldn't be putting all their eggs in one basket, adding: "The Cavendish is a laboratory-grown banana, and each one is a clone, a direct replica, of the other. So, when you plant 100,000 trees, they're all identical - along comes a disease and wipes out the plantation.  

"There are so many varieties to choose from: ask anyone who knows bananas and they won't go near a Cavendish - they'll prefer one of the Lady Finger varieties."