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Banana drama: favourite fruit faces global extinction threat

Every year, the UK consumes a staggering five billion bananas. However, the widely favoured Cavendish banana is facing a potential threat of extinction due to a devastating fungal disease that's impacting plantations globally.

This fungal menace, known as the Panama disease, is a soil-borne fungus that affects the plant's ability to absorb water, causing it to wilt. The disease has already wreaked havoc on Cavendish crops in regions such as Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Australia, and Central America.

Alarmingly, early indications of this fungus have been spotted in South America, the primary source of Cavendish bananas for many UK supermarkets. For instance, Tesco primarily sources its bananas from countries like Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Colombia, while Sainsbury’s imports from nations including Cameroon, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic.

Historically, the Gros Michel banana variety was the primary type consumed until the 1950s when it was decimated by a similar disease. The Cavendish variety, introduced in 1947, was initially immune to the disease. However, by 1977, a new strain capable of infecting the Cavendish was discovered in Australia, and by 2015, it had spread across the continent.

James Dale, a leading figure in banana biotechnology at the Queensland University of Technology, highlighted the rapid spread of this strain to major banana-producing regions, including India, China, the Middle East, and Africa.

The disease can be easily transmitted through infected plants, soil, water, and even by humans, vehicles, and animals.

Efforts are underway to combat this threat. Scientists are exploring the possibility of a TR4-resistant Cavendish banana or an alternative resistant variety. One such endeavour involves creating a genetically modified version of the banana.

A team at the Queensland University of Technology is also working on a modified Cavendish variety, which has shown resistance to the Panama Disease in field trials.

Dale remains optimistic, stating, "I'm confident that we'll find a solution before the Cavendish export market faces significant impacts."


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