"Devastating" fungus may mean end of days for top banana

The song "Yes, we have no bananas" may reflect reality in a few years, if a "devastating" banana fungus isn't halted or new varieties aren't developed.

The fungus that attacks the popular Cavendish banana variety -- which counts for more than 80 percent of banana exports -- has now spread to Africa and the Middle East, Nature reports. 

Previously, the fungus had been only detected in Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, China and Australia, the science journal notes. But now the soil fungus, a strain of Fusarium oxysporum, has been found in Jordan and Mozambique, although it's not clear how it arrived in those countries. 

The fungus is nearly impossible to get out of the soil, Nature notes. The pathogen rots banana plants, turning their tissues into a "putrefying mixture of brown, black, and blood-red" that smells like garbage, according to a 2011 New Yorker article about the emerging blight. 

"It's a gigantic problem," Rony Swennen of the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, and a banana breeder at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Dar es Salaam, told Nature.

It's likely that the fungus will spread to Latin America "in the near future," researcher Gert Kema told the publication. That would be devastating to the banana industry and Americans' eating habits, given that Latin America and the Caribbean represent 80 percent of banana exports. 

If the fungus "takes root there, it could lead to the slow demise of industrial farming of the Cavendish variety," Nature notes. 

On top of the threat from the fungus, bananas are under attack from an outbreak of mealybugs and scale insects, with Costa Rica declaring a "banana emergency" last week. 

Cavendish is the variety most Americans buy at the supermarket. Already, there's been a rise in banana prices, with import prices more than doubling to $900 per ton in 2013 over the last decade. 

Scientists are working on varieties that are resistant to the strain, although progress has been limited, Nature notes. 

Bananas are Americans' favorite fruit, outpacing apples, watermelon, grapes, strawberries and other fruit, according to the Department of Agriculture. 

  • Aimee Picchi

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