Over the weekend, I stumbled over a great Damn Interesting post about the history and future of the banana. Some of you already know the basic story here: Bananas, as we know them, cannot reproduce. The ones we eat are sterile hybrids. Like mules. The only way that there are more bananas is that humans take offshoots from the stems of existing banana trees, transplant them, and allow them to grow into a tree of their own. It's basically a cheap, low-tech version of cloning, and it has a long history in agriculture. (Note: This would be why Christian evangelist Ray Comfort's video on bananas has become a classic Internet LOL. In the video, Comfort presents the banana—particularly its seedless flesh, handy shape, and easy-access peel&mash;as a testament to the perfection of supernatural design ... completely ignoring the fact that all those things are the result of human-directed agricultural selection.)
The downside to this is that clones are, shall we say, not terribly genetically diverse. Turns out, a lack of genetic diversity is a great way to make yourself vulnerable to disease. Back in the 1950s, a fungus all but wiped out a variety of banana called the Gros Michael. Up until then, the Gros Michel had been the top-selling banana in the world. It was the banana your grandparents ate. You eat the Cavendish, a different variety that replaced Gros Michael largely on the strength of its resistance to the killer fungus.
Gros Michel and Cavendish bananas both look and taste different from one another. Born in 1981, I've probably never eaten a Gros Michel banana. And chances are, my grandchildren won't know the flavor of a Cavendish. That's because the Cavendish still suffers from the same, basic weakness as its forebear. Just like Gros Michel, all Cavendishes are exactly alike. So a plantation full of Cavendishes is highly susceptible being wiped out by disease.
The disease banana plantations now fear: Black Sigatoka, a different fungus that can kill trees and reduce yields in the survivors. The solution: Goldfinger, a new banana clone bred to resist Black Sigatoka. It's surprisingly difficult to track down a verifiable photo of the Goldfinger online. The one used here comes from the website of a Vietnamese fruit company. Based on this, and other photos I found, it looks our grandchildren will know a banana that is decidedly squatter than the bananas we know today.
If you've got photos of Goldfinger bananas, or if you've tasted them, post in the comments! My understanding is that these bananas are already semi-popular in Australia, Singapore, and other places in that general vicinity. It'd be great if Happy Mutants from that part of the world could tell the rest of us what we have to look forward to.
Read the post at Damn Interesting that inspired my hunt for a picture of the Goldfinger.
Read a Popular Science article from 2005 about banana breeding, banana monoculture, and the threat of disease.
Image from Anh Vi Fruits.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.