As Bananas Face Extinction, a Retrospective on the Global Food System

trade routes and easy cultivation helped bananas go global

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The Cavendish banana is facing extinction, HuffPost reported. Bananas are an $8-billion-a-year industry and are sent to countries all over the world. Bananas are a great example of how foods are delocalized and introduced to the global food market.

A large amount of bananas
Two main species of bananas may become extinct due to fungal diseases that ravage the banana plants. Photo by Baloncici/Shutterstock

A fungal disease known as Black Sigatoka is responsible for eating and rotting an inordinately large amount of banana trees. A second cause of dwindling banana supplies is a new strain of Panama Disease, which already wiped out a different kind of banana—Gros Michel. Like countless other foods, bananas were once a very localized commodity that have spread around the world. In the bananas’ case, their non-seasonal nature and quickly spreading trade routes helped make them a staple of the fruit family.

Where Do Bananas Come from?

“Bananas were first domesticated approximately 8,000 years ago, with the earliest evidence coming from Southeast Asia and surrounding areas like Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific,” said Dr. Alyssa Crittenden, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Bananas then dispersed widely from New Guinea and the Philippines, traveling across the tropics in all directions and to the rest of the world. By the 1200s, bananas were in North Africa and Europe and throughout Asia.”

Dr. Crittenden also said that by the 15th century, Brazilian sailors were growing the crop throughout the country. Soon this was followed by the banana’s introduction to the Caribbean and North America. But how did they spread? Wild bananas have seeds, but cultivated bananas don’t. “This means that the fruit can be easily cultivated and subsequently transported,” she said. Cavendish bananas were first successfully cultivated by the Duke of Devonshire William Cavendish in 1836, then sent back to the tropics to spread. However, it wasn’t until the Gros Michel—or “Big Mike”—succumbed to the soil fungus Panama Disease that the Cavendish became our go-to banana species.

The Big Bucks of Bananas

“Closely linked with the idea of delocalization is the idea of food commoditization—treating food and nutrition as a market economy,” Dr. Crittenden said. “The process of delocalization is the main characteristic of the global diet that we know of today. By the time the 13th century started, large-scale trade was underway and new foods were being disseminated throughout the world.”

It’s said that over 100 billion bananas are eaten globally every year. “They’re the fourth largest crop, following wheat, rice, and corn,” Dr. Crittenden said. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that in 2013, bananas ranked as “the top export crop in terms of value” in Ecuador, where over $2.3 billion worth of bananas were exported. The Philippines were second on the list of top banana exporters, sending $963 million of bananas out into the world. The Philippines also ranked as the top Cavendish banana-consuming country according to the FAO, with an average Filipino eating 132 pounds of bananas annually.

If Cavendish bananas go extinct due to Panama Disease or Black Sigatoka, they’ll follow the Big Mike into history books. Fortunately, there are other species of banana currently proliferating in certain parts of the world, and with the global food system in the state it is, those species could be everywhere in no time.

Dr. Alyssa Crittenden contributed to this article. Dr. Crittenden is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Dr. Alyssa Crittenden contributed to this article. Dr. Crittenden is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Medicine. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California, San Diego.