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  • The deadly Panama disease fungus has arrived in South America, threatening the world banana trade and highlighting species vulnerability amid climate change
  • The Cavendish banana is in the vanguard of a food security challenge that can only get more severe. Apec food ministers silence on this in Chile was inexplicable.

For Apec food ministers returning to their capitals last week from the first Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Food Security meeting in three years, all full of earnest commitments to better fisheries management, the use of technology to boost productivity, and reductions in food loss along global food supply chains, I offer just one word: bananas.

Just a couple of days ahead of the summit, held in the charming southern Chilean city of Puerto Varas, Colombia’s agriculture and fisheries institute confirmed that the deadly fusarium fungus had arrived in Latin America, spelling 
probable death to the Cavendish banana – and with it almost 95 per cent of the world’s banana trade.
Fusarium, which unleashes the Tropical Race 4 strain of Panama disease (TR4 for short), first appeared in the early 1990s in Taiwanese soil samples, and quickly spread through Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, China and eventually into Australia in 2015. 

Each effort to quarantine the plague has failed, and now that it is in South America – the world’s biggest exporting region for Cavendish bananas – the game is up. The region’s biggest exporter, Ecuador, is right next door to Colombia, as are other leading exporters Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama.

Perhaps the one glimmer of good news is that the Philippines, which first found fusarium crucifying its Cavendish crops in the late 1990s, is still a massive banana producer, and remains the world’s second banana exporter after Ecuador, trading almost half of its annual crop of 7.5 million tonnes.

Fusarium may be fatal and incurable when it strikes, but it moves slowly, giving some breathing space for readjustment. 

Take the Gros Michel banana, which until the 1950s dominated the world’s banana trade. It was said to be much more flavourful than the relatively bland Cavendish. But it was struck by the first Panama disease strain – TR1 – and, as its plantations wilted and died, farmers were able to adjust, introducing the Cavendish in its place.

The problem today is that, as we learn the Cavendish is set also to wilt and die like its predecessor, there is no clear substitute, despite massive scientific efforts to discover one.

      The FAO says that 75 per cent of the world’s food now comes from just 12 plants and five animal species      

The TR4 plague is disastrous not just because it is destroying one of the world’s most important food crops, but because we have allowed ourselves to become so extremely reliant on a single banana variety.

Not that there are no other banana species. On the contrary, there are still around 1,500 species worldwide, including large numbers of savoury bananas that we tend to call plantains. But there are none with the characteristics needed to meet global mass demand (worldwide, it is estimated we eat at least 100 billion bananas a year). Big importers like the European Union (which accounts for about a third of world imports) and the US (25 per cent) are set to be particularly vulnerable.

Combine such species vulnerability, which has been actively encouraged by many of the world’s leading agro-industry conglomerates, with climate change, and questions roil over our future food security.

Pity, then, that the Apec food ministers had nothing to say about it in Puerto Varas, because bananas, after tomatoes, are the most widely grown fruit in the world (114 million tonnes produced in 2017, and over 17 million tonnes traded). Many countries, in particular in Africa, rely on bananas for over a quarter of their daily calorie intake. Mercifully, many rely on locally produced and untraded banana species, and so may be spared the worst impacts of the disappearance of the ubiquitous Cavendish.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), around 75 per cent of plant genetic diversity has been lost as local varieties have been lost, and as big farm businesses have developed genetically uniform, high-yielding food varieties.

The FAO says that 75 per cent of the world’s food now comes from just 12 plants (sugar cane, maize, rice, wheat, potatoes, soybeans, cassava, tomatoes, bananas, onions, apples and grapes) and five animal species (pigs, chickens, cattle, sheep and goats), and that, since 1900, around 90 per cent of crop varieties have disappeared from our fields.

A study from the Kew Botanic Gardens near London found in 2015 that thousands of plant species are today at risk of extinction from threats ranging from disease to climate change, habitat loss and invasive species. As Brazil’s 
forests burn , they may well be revising their numbers upwards.

Everywhere you turn, our food sources are at risk. Water shortages and higher temperatures are expected to greatly reduce corn production in the US, with strong spillover impacts on meat production.

Ocean acidification, as carbon dioxide is absorbed in the seas, is already hitting shellfish, while lobsters are migrating away from the tropics in search of cooler waters, eating everything in sight. Fish populations are being disrupted. No wonder so many are pinning their hopes on exploitation of fisheries in the Arctic Ocean as sea ice melts.

The flowering and seed production of beans, which feed a majority of people in Latin America and much of Africa, has already been disrupted, with experts predicting yields to fall by as much as 25 per cent.

Cherries and other crops that need chill seasons and cold nights to bear fruit are also showing signs of disruption, in particular on the US west coast.

While global warming is predicted to help emerging wineries in northern countries like the UK, many existing wine producers face serious challenges as temperatures rise and droughts spread. Australia and California in particular are vulnerable, with some industry experts forecasting that over 70 per cent of existing grape-growing land will be unsuitable for grapes by 2050.

While coffee and cocoa are not essential to life, they certainly contribute powerfully to many peoples’ pleasures in life, and both face massive challenges as those limited parts of the world where they are able to grow are lost to global warming.

So our beloved Cavendish banana is in the vanguard of a food security 
challenge that can only get more severe as fungi like fusarium combine with climate change to create “mass species dislocation”.

Science might save us without resort to mushed insects and genetically engineered protein, but our Apec food ministers have no space for complacency.

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