The end of the banana as we know it may be near.
Far be it from me to be alarmist, but have you ever noticed that artificial banana flavor doesn’t really taste like a banana? That’s because this fruit used to taste different and when the artificial flavor was created, it was based on this “old-time” flavor. This fruit, the Gros Michel banana from Martinique, which inspired the taste of candy and sweets, has now almost disappeared… just as our current Cavendish banana is in danger of dying out.
Dramatic sound: TAN TAN!
Today, I’m talking about plant cloning, and the ecological and food disaster that can result from it. Don’t worry, I promise you a touch of humor to liven things up, as well as a link to your vegetable garden (even if you don’t have a banana tree!).
Cloning… Like in the Movies?
No. Simpler and more complex at the same time!
First of all, it’s necessary to differentiate the “wild” banana from the “selected” banana. The first one makes inedible fruits, full of hard seeds and with very little flesh. The second one is the one you find in the grocery store.
The wild banana reproduces sexually, that is to say that there is a fruit resulting from the fertilization of a flower by the pollen of another tree. In this fruit, there will be one or, in the case of bananas, several seeds that will develop and mature. They can then be dislodged (or not) from the fruit to germinate (with the help of the wind, an animal eating the fruit, etc.).
We replace a few words and we have the same reproductive cycle as humans. And yes, a fruit is like a uterus-ovary of a tree! Enjoy your meal.
This is how genes mix and create offspring. Life must mix attributes in this way to evolve. This is how new individuals are created that will hopefully be better than the previous ones. Stronger, more enduring, more resistant to disease, etc. This is the natural cycle of things. And that’s also what leads to species diversity.
Cloning means copying an individual 100%. We remove all this genetic mixing, this possibility of evolving, and we keep a single individual, in several copies.
The Human Being and Its Tendency to Take Itself for a God
Who wants an inedible banana? Without human intervention, we wouldn’t have this fruit at all! Artificial selection has been done on so many plants, why not arrange to have great bananas? So far, so good.
There is nothing dangerous or chemical about artificial selection. It is simply choosing which parents have the best characteristics to produce the next generation.
A tomato is particularly beautiful? The mother plant had good genes and 50% of these are found in the seeds of the beautiful tomato: we will plant its seeds next year!
A cucumber plant has been particularly resistant to the cold? Let’s save its seeds and try to make a less cold-resistant variety.
Same thing with animals; we want a new breed of curly dog? We take the ones from the litter with the most waves in their hair to be the next breeders and we create the poodle.
You know what I mean? There’s nothing strange about artificial selection. In fact, it’s quite logical! If you like red flowers, you plant seeds from a red flower. If you like sweet, seedless bananas, you choose the fruit with the fewest seeds for the next generation.
After several rounds of selection, we end up with offspring that are very different from the original species, the so-called “wild“ species. We even manage to obtain fruits without any stone! But the question arises: when we have succeeded in obtaining a fruit that has no seeds, how can we ensure its production? Indeed, without seeds, this plant is sterile.
Clones: A Guarantee of Stability
Again, although the word “clone” is often associated with science fiction, there is nothing so complex about bananas. Have you ever cut a plant? You put a branch with some leaves in the ground, it makes roots and boom! Two plants! This newcomer that makes you proud is in fact… a clone of your mother plant.
If Dr. Frankenstein had been interested in making plants live from severed limbs, the story would have been much less impressive… This novel would have been called a reference book in botany.
In short, all our bananas are genetically identical to each other because there is only one individual that has been cloned hundreds of thousands of times. Why bother making several lines if we don’t need to reproduce them sexually after all? We cut the bulb in several pieces, we keep the rejects, all means are good to have a banana clone.
At the grocery store, you will find Spartan, Gala, Empire apples…
Butternut, Pepper, Pink banana squash…
But you will only ever find bananas of the one kind of banana, the banana species, the banana cultivar.
A banana is a banana!
When Clones Have a Weak Point
The big problem with plant clones is that they all have the same weakness, no matter what it is. All it takes is one new disease, one new fungus, or one record-breaking cold spell in a region to kill all the clones indiscriminately.
Indeed, how to resist a disease if the neighbor dies of it? They have exactly the same means of defense, they are neither stronger nor weaker. As soon as a new disturbance arrives in the environment and can affect the banana tree, all, all, all the banana trees will be sensitive to it.
In the whole world, there is only one individual banana tree that gives our Cavendish bananas from the grocery store. When will a new disease arrive and decimate them?
Tragedy Strikes Again
At the end of the 20th century, the fungus Fusarium oxysporum attacked Gros Michel bananas, killing almost all the banana trees. A few crops in isolated areas were saved, but the Cavendish, more resistant to the fungus, replaced it in world production.
If you want to try the Gros Michel, you should know that production continues in Thailand, where the fungus has never reached the crops. If not, there is always the artificial banana flavour, which was created from the Gros Michel variety!
But the banana is not the only plant that reproduces in this way. Think of a potato that sprouts in your cupboard, which you cut into several pieces and replant. Not only are all those potatoes you harvest clones, but the original potato was also a clone of the other potatoes in the bag.
It’s much easier to work in a field like that than to grow a full cycle: start from seed and keep part of the field to ensure seed production for the next year? No, thanks!
In addition, we ensure quality with a potato we know well (let’s call it Jocelyne): same yield, same taste, same growth rate… This good old Jocelyne potato is a winning formula, why plant anything else but Jocelyne? Year after year, we multiply Jocelyne and we plant more and more Jocelynes.
And then, one day, Jocelyne falls ill, and contaminates all the other Jocelynes. All the Jocelynes die. And that’s the end of the cloning of Jocelyne, the potato…
Let’s hope we have a little Paulette or a Manon stored away somewhere for cloning, because if not, that’s the end of potatoes!
Jocelyne’s story isn’t fictional (only the names have been changed for anonymity!) In 1840, the potato famine in Europe caused the death of over a million people. The famine was caused by potato blight, which destroyed all production of a certain type of potato, a key food source at the time.
What Can Be Done?
Unfortunately, it’s too late for the banana. The selection will probably have to be repeated if the Cavendish succumbs to disease. Who knows what the next banana will taste like?
For your vegetable crops, especially if you have a field with a large number of clones (such as potatoes), be sure to check your crops regularly. If you spot any sign of disease, such as potato blight, react quickly by destroying the affected plants, as well as neighboring plants within a certain area. This will prevent your entire field from becoming infected.
I know, that was a long article, but what do you expect? I’m a biologist who also has a degree in history so I get carried away sometimes!
Do you like this kind of article with a more “historical” side from time to time?