Oranges and now bananas. Americans’ fruit bowl mainstays are in trouble. For the last decade or so, citrus greening disease has been mowing through Florida’s orange crops, and now scientists are sounding the alarms about a fungus that is decimating banana crops in Southeast Asia, southern Africa and the Middle East. Some are warning the disease may have already jumped the pond to banana plantations in Latin America, threatening a “bananageddon.” Scientists estimate that 85 percent of the world's banana crop is vulnerable to the deadly TR4 race of the Fusarium wilt disease.
“Countries need to act now if we are to avoid the worst-case scenario, which is massive destruction of much of the world’s banana crop," Fazil Dusunceli, a plant pathologist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, said in a statement.
But, at least for now, that risk assessment isn’t sounding the emergency alarms for companies like the 4-year-old banana snack company Barnana, says CEO and founder Caue Suplicy. Concern about the fungus is, however, affecting the company's future growth plan. Last week in fact, Barnana was meeting with farmers from Piura, a region of Peru where the dry climate creates an environment much less hospitable to fungus and other bacteria. It’s a direction many other companies are exploring as well because of disease worries, said Asit Vashisht, a grower in the region.
Sourcing from a number of smaller organic farms also provides a cushion because they are less likely to all be wiped out by the disease than one giant monocropped plantation, co-founder Matt Clifford said.
When it comes to banana supply, the far greater challenge for the company, whose products are USDA certified organic, is finding enough organic farmers to feed their ever-growing demand, Suplicy said. Smaller family farmers in places such as China, Latin America and South America are increasingly selling their land to move to cities. The property is getting snatched up by developers or large conventional growers, which slowly chips away at the amount of land able to be farmed organically, Suplicy said. Over the past two years, it has become noticeably harder to find organic suppliers, he said. A 2010 report from the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, while actually showing a 64 percent increase in organically-managed hectares in Latin America between 2000 and 2007, confirmed that organic banana demand still outpaces supply.
While some banana crops may be safe from disease for now, the devastation happening among citrus crops worldwide is a different story. In Florida, citrus crop acreage in 2013 was the lowest since 1966, according to United States Department of Agriculture. The situation is serious enough that some farmers are considering completely replacing their orange crop with the Asian pongamia tree whose oil-rich legumes hold potential for high quality oils, lubricants and biofuel, according to an article in Modern Farmer.
Grocery stores are bracing themselves for price increases as the disease continues to spread from Florida to California.
“We’re really just starting to see the effects,” said Claris Ritter, produce general manager at Alfalfa’s Market in Boulder, Colo. “We are just starting to have this pest problem upset the California fruit, but once that happens we’ll see the impacts (in price and supply).”
If and when that happens, the store will likely put up signs and task staff with educating customers about the disease, Ritter said. And that moment may come sooner than later. Last week, orange juice prices reached a two-year high after the USDA produced revised estimates that the Florida orange crop would be the lowest since the mid-1980s.