Chicago Tribune: Will bananas become extinct?

JAN. 2, 2016 — Americans of a certain age can recall the good old days when bananas were bigger, sweeter and creamier than the ones we eat today. No, Grandma isn’t falsely romanticizing the past. Until the late 1950s, the standard banana was the Gros Michel, which by all accounts was markedly superior to the modern fruit.

It was almost entirely wiped out by an unstoppable fungus — to be replaced by the fungus-resistant Cavendish, which now accounts for 99 percent of all the bananas exported in the world market. And while it may not be quite as good, we’ll always have the Cavendish.

Won’t we?

Maybe not, scientists say. Rather, probably not. In fact, you can probably kiss your sweet banana goodbye. In the 1990s, a new and remorselessly unstoppable fungus called Tropical Race 4 began ravaging plants in Indonesia and Malaysia. It has since spread to the Philippines and Mozambique.

Experts say it’s only a matter of time before it lands in South America, where most bananas are grown. In time, we could all be singing the 1920s song: “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

It would be a sad song this time. Bananas are the most popular fruit on the planet, with 100 billion eaten every year. The average American eats some 100 a year, or about 25 pounds’ worth — compared with 16 pounds of apples, the second most popular fruit in the United States.

It’s not hard to understand why. Bananas are tasty, convenient and naturally packaged in an impervious peel, with none of the messy juice you get with peaches and oranges. They are low in fat and high in potassium, with vitamins C and B-6 thrown in as a bonus. They serve well in cereal, fruit salad and smoothies, not to mention banana splits and banana bread.

They’re handsomely shaped and brightly colored. They keep for days. They’re a bargain, currently going for about 60 cents a pound.

You can put one in a tailpipe to disable a car — at least that’s what Eddie Murphy did to a police cruiser in “Beverly Hills Cop.” The 1940s film star and singer Carmen Miranda even put them to service in a hat.

Though other kinds of bananas exist, none has been found with all the virtues of the Cavendish. But scientists apparently aren’t immune to the, um, appeal of bananas. They are trying to develop a new version of the Cavendish that could shrug off the Tropical Race 4 like a summer rain.

Whether they will succeed is anyone’s guess. The good news is that any mass extinction is many years away. But our advice: Enjoy them while you can.

By Chicago Tribune