The Race Against Mass Starvation

Once a luxury good, bananas are a staple food for much of the world. Each year, Europeans consume 110 bananas per person, Americans 130 and Canadians 150.

There's one thing all these millions of tons of consumed bananas have in common: they are all the Cavendish variety of banana. However, this wasn't always the case.

Until about 1965, the Gros Michel variety of banana was what people consumed. So why did the Gros Michel variety of banana vanish? It was wiped out by a fungus called Panama Disease.

The Cavendish variety wasn't susceptible to Panama Disease so it survived and thrived. However, today the Cavendish variety is threatened by another disease. If nothing is done, the Cavendish might meet the same fate as the Gros Michel. Scientists are working fast using genetic modification (GMO) and gene editing (CRISPR) to create a disease resistant variety of banana.

The Parallel with Climate Catastrophe

This race against time has many parallels to what our food supply faces as the world changes due to climate change. If the world is to avoid mass starvation, we need to figure out how to grow crops in more hostile and volatile environments. Just as disease is forcing scientists to modify the Cavendish, climate change will force scientists to modify crops to resist droughts, flooding, heat and new pests. Our survival may depend on genetic modification and gene editing.

The podcast below by Stephen Dubner at Freakonomics explores how banana producers are fighting to keep the banana alive.

Agriculture is a key pillar to managing climate change, and the ideas used today to save the banana are some of the same ideas that will need to be applied to wheat, corn, rice and other crops if we are to mitigate mass starvation.
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