Mutating Disease Could Go Bananas And Ruin Global Crops

There was a much better banana widely available a few decades ago, and you missed out on it.

It's called the Gros Michel -- literally 'Fat Michael' -- and those in the know say they are bigger, tastier and creamier than the bananas you see in the shops today.

While they're still around, they're almost impossible to find. The Cavendish, the type of banana you're probably most familiar with, only became the dominant banana around the 1950s when an infection of Panama disease basically wiped out the world's supply of Gros Michel. The more disease-resistant Cavendish now make up nearly the entire world market of bananas, and 95 percent of Australia's supply.

And sadly, you probably won't ever get to taste one.

It has a more robust taste... it's more creamy," said Dan Koeppel, author of a book called 'Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World', in a Youtube review of the Gros Michel.

Others say it was sweeter and bolder in flavour. Physically, it is slightly bigger and wider than the bananas you're used to, but pretty visually similar.

The fabled Gros Michel - just a bit bigger than usual (Getty Images)

"When Panama disease wiped out the Gros Michel, we found out the Cavendish grew well and we jumped on board," said Steve Lavis from Mission Beach Tissue Culture, a laboratory and nursery for banana propogation.

He told ten daily Gros Michel are still grown in Australia, but claimed there is "no market" for them. The Queensland Department of Agriculture was growing a patch of the bananas in a study on the deadly Tropical Race 4 or TR4 disease, a mutated version of Panama disease, but there is little commercial supply.

"Gros Michel are still around in Australia, but I’m not interested in it. It's never going to be commercially any good for me, because there’s this disease. There’s no cure and no alternative or treatment, chemically or mechanically," Lavis told ten daily.

"It’s the worst disease you can have in the banana industry. It really is that bad."

People like Lavis, who work with the genetics of food, are trying to provide plants that are free from disease.

"I've been dealing with TR4 since 1997. We didn't really have to deal with it in our major growing area until 2015. It's been moving around Asia, it has wrecked the Chinese banana industry. It hitched a ride to Australia through Indonesia, now it's in Mauritius and it will get to central America," he said.

"The shit has hit the fan."

"It’s spreading rapidly. We’ve lost the Gros Michel already, the Cavendish could be the next, so we’re trying to desperately breed a version resistant to the disease."

Australians eat five million bananas a day, according to the Australian Banana Growers Council, with bananas being the number one selling supermarket product by volume and number two in total product value. Australia produced 414,000 tonnes of bananas in 2016-17, and 95 percent of these were Cavendish bananas.

Image: Getty Images

Lavis said early attempts had yielded a crop called the Goldfinger, which is resistant to TR4. However...

"It tastes different. I think it’s OK but our marketing expert says it's no good," he said.

"TR4 is my biggest threat, to Australia and the world banana industry. But I see it as an opportunity too. I’m a nursery man."