This shit really is Bananas

Instagram followers of Sustainability in Style might be well aware that I’ve been up to some monkey business. Monkey business hey? I hear you muse. What is this all about? Well, in the last few months I’ve taken on a new plant science project in Banana biosecurity. Yes, you are correct, this post doesn’t have anything to do with fashion but it does have a lot to do with production systems and sustainability, and fashion is just a production system (with less ediable outcomes).

A stylish sustainability minded person has to eat.

And more often than not navigating the minefield of sustainability and ethics warnings associated with food choices can be a little mind boggling. When you lump health benefits into the mix then it’s pretty much time to give up on it all and resort to drinking tequila in the nutrition section of the library while muttering all the curse words you can remember under your breath.

Those of you out there who are sober and still reading (or semi sober and kind of able to see the words if you squint at your screen) may have noticed a link between sustainability blogger and the Vegan movement. Anyone who has dug a little deeper (or become a Vegan) will know that Vegans LOVE their bananas. Coming equal first in the Vegan/rawfood sweet ingredient list with their good friend Dates. This post is all about the perils of banana biosecurity and it’s dedicated to all the bananas and every smoothie snapping Insta photographer out there.

Those containment and biosecurity lines are there for a reason.

Hands up who’s watched some form of border security control show? Keep your hands up if you have been past a quarantine checkpoint? Keep your hands up if you have knowing or accidently smuggled some kind of plant or food matter past a checkpoint? Naughty you- put your hands down.

That might seem like a silly exercise but it’s actually designed to get you thinking about quarantine. Until recently I’ve always found it all a little annoying. You travel overseas, find some AWESOME naturally made handicrafts then fearfully take them through your local quarantine checkpoint with fingers and toes crossed you will get to keep them. Fortunately most of the time your goodies will be let in. On the odd occasion they are denied entry please know it’s for a good reason.

 

Bananas as we know them are under threat.

Like many of our crops out there, healthy bananas exist in a fine balance of people systems, economic systems, and environmental flows. If you are like me, an avid (somewhat obsessive) banana consumer, the idea of a world without your favourite bananas is worthy of every sad face emoji available. You might also have never given much thought to the growth of a banana (I know I didn’t until I started working with them). Here’s a crash course in why you should give a shit about bananas.

As a commercial crop bananas are worth millions to growers across the globe. Here in Australia they are worth  $580 million. Primarily grown in the tropics and subtropics bananas are very much a part of the Aussie diet. We know here that tropical cyclones affect banana prices and availability. But many of us might not be aware of a much more sinister environmental factor that threatens bananas plantations. Panama disease is a debilitating issue affecting banana growth across the globe and it’s caused by a pesky fungal pathogen Fusarium oxysporum. This little guy infects the roots of plants, killing the plant and making its home in the soil of the affected farm for decades killing any subsequent crops. Historically Panama disease wiped out crops across the globe, and our most popular banana Cavendish was cultivated as a more resistant variety.

Sadly it’s not as Race 4 of the disease has been devastating farms across Asia moving into Africa and Australia in isolated but scary incidents. What makes this pathogen so scary is that there are no known ways to kill it at present. Bananas from the plants are still fit for human consumption, but the plants themselves will die, there is no non-invasive way to test for the disease, cutting down infected plants spreads the fungal infection, and selling fruit from infected farms is difficult because they can carry the disease to other non infected areas. This is a real biosecurity issues and it’s something you can help out with right now.

While scientists and farmers across the globe work on ways to control, mitigate, and eliminate the disease you can aid in the fight against Panama by declaring any items that might be carrying the disease. Including clothing or shoes that may be carrying soil particles from adventures across farmland in affected areas. You can also shop a little differently. If you have access to goldfinger bananas then you might as well give them a try! This cultivar is shown to have a resistance to Panama disease, and your decision to try them gives banana growers more reason to plant them. They aren’t all that commercially viable at the moment because people are used to the Cavendish or ladyfinger varieties. It’s not going to solve the Panama problem, but it will keep banana growers productive while solutions are found or new banana varieties are created.

 

Sustainability and equality.

In commercial agriculture there is a sweet spot where environmental stewardship, economic gains, and social equality comes into balance. That sweet spot is sustainable production. Some key concerns in the banana industry are that of financial sustainability and equity. Farmers need to be able to make a living off growing crops in order to have a financially sustainable venture. When facing a disease that could mean just one season of fruiting before plants die then it’s hard to see a financial benefit. Add on top of that the face that fruit from a contaminated crop needs to be treated and packed to meet biosecurity requirements then there are little (if any) financial benefits in growing produce (especially in a country like Australia where labour is more expensive).

The development of new cultivar types or treatments/cures/ etc. for the disease resistance cost money for research and implementation. When it comes to cultivar types, depending on the way that new varieties are produced, there may be commercial financial obligations for use of resistant varieties. The treatment of disease at present is containment, which means that there is a heavy reliance on decontamination of equipment, personnel and other things that come in contact with contaminated areas- processes that require chemicals to kill the pathogen, an additional cost to farmers and obviously not ideal in an environmental sense.

 

Learning about food in your region.

I want to note that while this has been written following a conference on Panama disease with researchers from Australia, the Philippines, and South Africa, that ALL info on production systems should be addressed with a sense of curiosity and critical thought. Many articles, documentaries, movies, or series on food only give one perspective on an issue (specifically many of the ‘vegan maker’ movies, Australia has some intensive animal farming but we have lots of productive grazing land so it’s not as favoured here). Even some of the most comprehensive resources won’t necessarily talk about the way food is produced in your geographically location. Recently my Aussie friends website Eco Warrior Princess was talking the ethics of avocados which a critical connoisseur of media would soon realise has little to do with the local avocado industry. However it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the source of off season imported avocados and rethink before buying imported produce (even if it’s purely from a carbon miles point of view) as we might get some sly imported ones from Mexico.

I hope you enjoyed this little venture into sustainability thinking in the food industry. Do you have some thoughts to share? If so let us know below.