Bananas dying out - a bunch of bull?

By Michael Dickison

Michael Dickison discovers why our favourite fruit has survived predictions that it would now be extinct — and how anticipating the future is fraught with problems

Because bananas are seedless & can't have babies, all plants of a single variety are clones of one another, grown from cuttings, unable to evolve, & equally vulnerable to diseases. Photo / Thinkstock
Because bananas are seedless & can't have babies, all plants of a single variety are clones of one another, grown from cuttings, unable to evolve, & equally vulnerable to diseases. Photo / Thinkstock

In 10 years, it was said 10 years ago, we might have no bananas.

"Bananas could split for good," the BBC declared in 2003, citing a Belgian scientist who urged swift action to create new types of bananas.

By now, the ubiquitous Cavendish variety was supposed to have been at least in apocalyptic decline.

At first glance, it's another example of over-hyped predictions that never come true - but experts say the logic behind the prediction remains as valid as ever.

Simon Coley, director of New Zealand organic banana supplier All Good Bananas, says although sales continued undeterred at supermarkets, staving off the threat at huge commercial plantations had come at an environmental cost.

Because bananas are seedless and can't have babies, all plants of a single variety are clones of one another, grown from cuttings, unable to evolve, and equally vulnerable to diseases.

Panama disease had once, in the 1950s, killed off the Gros Michel banana - sweeter, bigger and hardier than the Cavendish.

The Cavendish was the replacement, immune to Panama disease - until it mutated and began to destroy crops in Asia.

Mr Coley said the disease's re-emergence became a watershed moment in the banana industry's approach to protecting its future.

"A key conflict emerged: should efforts be focused on building better bananas? Or on finding more potent substances - pesticides, fungicides and other chemicals - to stop pests before they damage crops?

"Most of the big banana companies chose the environmentally devastating latter alternative," Mr Coley said.

The plantations' efforts have been effective, so far. Panama disease has yet to reach the major banana-exporting Latin American countries, though it remains a threat.

The prediction's failure has been good news for consumers, but experts in the scientific field of looking ahead say it is just one of many examples of hypothetical futures becoming intertwined with reality - in ways both good and bad.

There were other bold predictions made in 2003: scientists at the Australian Museum said they would clone the extinct Tasmanian tiger in 10 years; a researcher at Sun Microsystems said computer modelling for new drugs would replace animal testing by 2013.

Neither eventuated. The Australian Museum abandoned its project after just two years, and Sun Microsystems is gone - bought out by Oracle in 2010 - with 50 to 100 million animals still being used for laboratory tests every year.

Maree Conway, a strategic foresight practitioner in Australia, said such predictions should be banned.

"I always think of predictions as living in our comfort zone. We like certainty - that's a human trait - so we predict and think we'll know what's coming," Ms Conway said. "We can't know. There's no data about the future. Predictions are based on data, and it's data from the past."

A prediction is to assume today's trends will continue into the future. "And that makes us very happy."

They were wrong 99 per cent of the time anyway, she said.

It was futile to focus on a single trend - like Panama disease - when there were so many trends intersecting and emerging. All you could do was to keep an eye out for change, she said.

The ones to watch, Ms Conway said, were often the weirdos of the present. "The kind of thing that when you read it, you think: 'That's rubbish. It'll never happen. Pathetic.'

"If you're in that space and willing to hang around in that space... To be able to shape the change you have to be on the edge."

But Dr Ian Yeoman, a futurologist at Victoria University in Wellington, said bold predictions in themselves played a vital role in actually shaping the future.

There were many false predictions, but that was hardly the point, he said.

As a professional crystal ball-gazer, he offered four services: to make a prognosis of the present; predict the next year or two; propose a vision for 20 to 30 years ahead; and imagine new frontiers of innovation.

Uncertainties increased the longer the time frame. But in the distant future, technological realities tended to begin "backcasting" toward futurologists' fictional forecasts, Dr Yeoman said.

"The world can get blurred in the middle of science fiction and reality, and there's a lot of that going on at the moment."

Everything in the world of Star Trek was now possible - because it had been imagined, Dr Yeoman said.

Three-dimensional printers were the science-fiction series' "replicators", miniaturised MRIs were its "tricorders".

"It's all about imagination - of what could be."

Futurologists in the world's technology powerhouses were dreaming up contact lenses to augment reality, printers to assemble dinner and procedures to reverse ageing. Computer tablets that could be rolled up, and even transportation were on the cards.

Recent predictions for the next 10 years include a robotic moon base, a reality show taking four contestants to Mars, and human corneas grown in laboratories for transplants.

Longer-term, telepathy, brains boosted by computers and nuclear fusion have been considered by futurologists to be likely within 100 years.

Dr Yeoman said New Zealand tended to be a conservative society, with few bold visions.

Nevertheless, in practice, forecasting was everywhere, from the Reserve Bank to tourism.

In fields that valued simplicity, like economics, five-year forecasts were the norm. In others, several probable future scenarios would be drawn up by modelling the past and present. "Delphi panels" of dozens of futurologists might pool their ideas to arrive at consensus predictions.

Some changes expected in Auckland include a surging and diversifying population and traffic gridlocks.

"No one can predict one exact future, but we can talk about a range of multiple futures, what they could be and what decisions and actions you could take," Dr Yeoman said.

Bananas were only the tip of the iceberg; change was everywhere and it would do to prepare - maybe even be a bit daring.

"The only thing I know about the future is the future is uncertain. But you know you're going to live there," he said. "You can't change the past. You're only going forward."

In the case of the banana, active and concerted efforts prevented apocalypse.

Dr James Buwalda, chairman of New Zealand scientific collaboration Better Border Biosecurity, said vigilance had been - and continued to be - crucial.

"One only has to look at the damage done to New Zealand's kiwifruit industry over the last two years to appreciate how quickly and devastatingly a pest or disease can wreak havoc on a well-established crop and industry," Dr Buwalda said.

"The risk of fungal diseases spreading across borders/continents is very real."

Longer-term, biosecurity might not be enough. Plants would need to be bred to change and adapt, he said.

Some have suggested genetic manipulation as a potential solution. In fact, at the periphery of the threatened mainstream banana are pink ones, fuzzy ones and taste like strawberries.

Mr Coley said All Good Bananas had begun importing small "misi-luki" bananas from Samoa but he wasn't sure that New Zealand consumers would accept such alternative varieties.

"They taste delicious but they're thin-skinned and delicate, look different to conventional bananas and taste much better when they're blacker - which customers don't expect. I don't think bananas will disappear but there's reason to think that the bananas we see in our supermarkets could change."

- NZ Herald

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