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  • Narrator: The world's most popular banana

  • may be on the verge of extinction.

  • Fernando: Similar to humans,

  • bananas are also facing a pandemic.

  • Narrator: Ninety-nine percent of bananas exported to developed countries

  • are just one group called the Cavendish.

  • And the Cavendish is vulnerable to Tropical Race 4,

  • or Panama disease,

  • a fungus that's now ravaging banana farms across the globe.

  • Fernando: So now you can compare,

  • this is Tropical Race 4 in a Cavendish banana.

  • Then this plant looks very healthy.

  • Narrator: One scientist recently developed a line

  • of Cavendish that is resistant to TR4,

  • but it was genetically modified.

  • Fernando: In Europe, the GMs are under regulation,

  • so we cannot use it.

  • Narrator: So scientists like Fernando

  • had to start from scratch to find a solution.

  • And they're working against the clock.

  • Because if TR4 is not stopped ...

  • James: It would wipe out Cavendish.

  • Narrator: And it's already happening.

  • Narrator: Globally, we're facing the collapse

  • of a $25 billion Cavendish industry.

  • So how did we get here?

  • And can we save one of the world's

  • most consumed fruits before it's too late?

  • You probably know the Cavendish banana.

  • You can find this type of banana

  • in every supermarket around the world.

  • Narrator: They're so popular because they're yummy,

  • they look nice, and they ripen as they transport.

  • James: It's high-yielding, so it's got quite a thick skin,

  • and so it travels well and tastes pretty good.

  • It comes in its own package.

  • Narrator: But there's a problem.

  • Fernando: They are sterile. They don't have seeds.

  • Narrator: No seeds means Cavendish bananas

  • are clones of each other.

  • So the only way to propagate them

  • is in vitro or by taking new growths,

  • called suckers, from the base of an older plant.

  • But since they're all genetic copies,

  • Cavendish are really vulnerable to disease.

  • Fernando: The domino effect.

  • If you have everything wrong with just one clone,

  • one disease can kill everything, plant by plant.

  • Narrator: That's exactly what's happening with TR4,

  • one of the deadliest plant diseases out there.

  • The fungus doesn't spread to humans,

  • but it does eventually kill the banana plant

  • so no more fruit grows.

  • Scientists guess the fungus probably started

  • somewhere in Southeast Asia in the '90s

  • and quickly spread across the globe.

  • Then in 2019, it hit Latin America.

  • Combined with the Caribbean,

  • that area grows 75% of the world's bananas.

  • Narrator: To make sure the fungus doesn't spread,

  • farms across Colombia have implemented biosecurity measures.

  • Eva Norte 2 was one of the first farms

  • in the country to detect TR4.

  • Workers wash down and disinfect the underside

  • of any car that comes in,

  • just in case there's infected soil hiding in the treads.

  • Narrator: Antonio's team built cement paths

  • throughout the farm.

  • So on their way to harvest,

  • workers aren't walking on open soil.

  • Narrator: Once they've reached the area

  • ready to be harvested, workers walk through

  • a sanitizing foot bath made of ammonium.

  • Narrator: Out in the field,

  • Workers measure the banana fingers

  • to make sure they're ready to harvest.

  • They're usually ready about 12 to 13 weeks

  • after the fruit stem shows up.

  • One worker cuts down a 65-pound bundle

  • while the other catches it and carries it to the cableway.

  • That cableway system brings all those banana bunches

  • to the packaging plant.

  • First, workers sanitize the bunches with chlorine.

  • Narrator: Then they check the bananas for quality

  • and any signs of Fusarium damage.

  • They cut off and throw bushels into a huge tank.

  • That bath not only preserves the bananas,

  • but washes off any of the latex

  • that naturally occurs on the peel.

  • The bananas get cut into smaller bunches of five to seven.

  • Narrator: Next come those famous stickers.

  • Narrator: Workers wrap the banana carefully

  • so they don't bruise. That wrapping has holes in it

  • so the bananas can ripen as they travel.

  • No more than four hours after the bananas are harvested,

  • those boxes end up on pallets loaded onto trucks.

  • Narrator: The bananas are trucked to the nearby port,

  • where they're moved onto ships.

  • This shipment's headed to the US.

  • With equipment, bananas, and people

  • moving along this global supply chain,

  • it's easy to see how the fungus could spread.

  • If TR4 does sneak into a farm,

  • the Colombian government has laid out

  • strict guidelines for containing the fungus.

  • Narrator: That means they found symptoms like ...

  • Fernando: The yellowing of the leaves.

  • The splitting of the stem.

  • Narrator: Once TR4 is identified in a plant,

  • you can't just kill that one plant.

  • The fungus goes about 10 feet deep into the soil.

  • Fernando: Once the pathogen is in the soil,

  • it's almost impossible to eradicate.

  • Narrator: So you have to kill off

  • all the plants in that area.

  • Narrator: To keep operating the rest of the farm,

  • Eva Norte 2 followed the government's three-zone plan.

  • Narrator: The injected herbicide

  • kills all the plants in Zone A.

  • Narrator: That tarp's so birds won't land

  • on the fungus and spread it around.

  • There are also canals around the zone

  • to keep any water away from the infected area.

  • In Zone B, called the buffer zone ...

  • Narrator: Finally, in Zone C, plants are allowed to grow,

  • but they're constantly monitored for signs of TR4.

  • Jose estimates biosecurity has cost this farm

  • as much as $5 million since 2019.

  • So they're pricey,

  • but the measures are working at keeping the fungus at bay.

  • Narrator: These biosecurity measures have contained

  • the fungus in Colombia and kept it from spreading to Ecuador,

  • the largest exporter of bananas in the world.

  • But fungus can wipe out an entire fruit variety

  • if not stopped.

  • We know because it's happened before.

  • In the early 1900s,

  • a banana called Gros Michel was the most popular.

  • But by the 1950s ...

  • Fernando: One strain of the Panama disease

  • wiped out the whole production of Gros Michel.

  • Narrator: Luckily, Cavendish was resistant

  • to that first strain.

  • So it took over as the banana of choice.

  • The problem was banana companies built their entire

  • supply chains around this one Cavendish variety.

  • In 2019, they exported 20 million bananas

  • and supported millions of jobs globally.

  • But now, the Cavendish is also vulnerable.

  • Fernando: History repeats itself now

  • with a Tropical Race 4 and the Cavendish.

  • Narrator: Cooking bananas like plantains

  • are also at risk for TR4.

  • Fernando: A risk for food security,

  • because the plantains are a staple food in Latin America,

  • in Africa, and many other countries.

  • They are part of our daily diet.

  • Narrator: So yeah, the newest race

  • of Fusarium is scary for both Cavendish and plantains.

  • But this time around, we have advanced science.

  • Researchers across the globe are working toward one goal.

  • Narrator: This guy actually invented a banana

  • that did just that.

  • Back in 2019, Dr. James Dale announced

  • that his team had successfully injected the DNA

  • from a resistant banana into a Cavendish.

  • And it worked.

  • James: We found the solution in the line of Cavendish

  • which appears to be completely resistant to TR4.

  • The thing we haven't done yet is a taste test.

  • And that's because they're GM.

  • They look, smell, feel exactly the same as every other,

  • but we've only changed one gene.

  • Narrator: But no one would buy

  • his miracle banana because it was genetically modified.

  • Narrator: In the EU, most member countries

  • have either partly or fully banned GMOs.

  • In the US, they're allowed but feared.

  • One argument against GMOs is that these modified plants

  • would quickly spread their genes

  • and kill out biodiversity.

  • But with bananas, that's not a problem.

  • James: The genes don't move because they are sterile.

  • You can grow a GM banana next

  • to a non GM banana for 50 years

  • and the gene will not move from under the other.

  • Incredibly frustrating.

  • There's a solution, but it's a scientific solution,

  • but not a political solution.

  • Narrator: So scientists

  • had to go back to the drawing board,

  • using what they learned from James to play the non-GMO game.

  • Fernando is a breeder for KeyGene, a genetics company

  • in the Netherlands.

  • And he thinks the best way to get around GMO regulations

  • is through traditional breeding,

  • meaning you take two different types of bananas --

  • the Cavendish and one that is resistant -- and you essentially

  • have them mate. And their kid is hopefully resistant

  • to Panama disease, but still tastes good

  • like Cavendish.

  • Fernando: Crossbreeding, or traditional breeding,

  • is something that happens every day in nature.

  • So the bees are pollinating the different flowers

  • with other flowers.

  • So that's what we are doing here.

  • We are acting as bees.

  • Narrator: Fernando has found a few resistant bananas

  • to cross with Cavendish, but ...

  • Fernando: Most of them are not even edible bananas,

  • they are bananas that are full of seeds, like this one.

  • Narrator: And to cross those with a Cavendish is hard.

  • Fernando: They are sterile, very difficult to breed.

  • It's not impossible.

  • So you can try to cross, but you need to do it

  • many, many, many times to get only a few seeds.

  • Narrator: For James to make that first GMO banana,

  • it took him ...

  • James: Nearly 10 years since our first field trial.

  • Narrator: For those future bananas

  • that are traditionally bred, it'll take just as long.

  • Fernando: It will take lots of years

  • because the life cycle of the banana is quite slow.

  • Narrator: But the longer it takes to traditionally

  • breed a resistant Cavendish, the more the disease spreads.

  • And the more strains of Fusarium could be released.

  • Fernando says there's a bigger-picture way

  • to attack this problem: diversity.

  • Take tomatoes for example. You go to the grocery store,

  • and there may be 10 or more different types

  • of tomatoes: cherry, vine, beef, Roma. That's diversity.

  • So if one tomato gets in trouble,

  • it won't be a huge loss.

  • Fernando and his colleagues have the same vision

  • for bananas.

  • Fernando: We have red bananas, pink bananas.

  • Why not try to incorporate that into the market

  • so that you can go to the supermarket

  • and have a complete bench of different options

  • of bananas that you can choose.

  • James: There are hundreds of different banana varieties

  • around the world.

  • A friend of mine collected one up in Papua New Guinea

  • that he said, if you didn't know it,

  • you'd think you're eating a strawberry.

  • Yeah. So amazingly different flavors.

  • Narrator: And diversity would also help farms.

  • Fernando: But if you have different types

  • of bananas grown together,

  • probably one banana will be more resistant

  • than the next one.

  • So that one can stop the spreading

  • of the disease to the next plant.

  • Narrator: So why haven't companies diversified?

  • Because it's too expensive and complicated to

  • change a $25 billion industry built around a monoculture.

  • So until a solution is found,

  • these biosecurity measures will have to be