A threat to bananas

Read a text about a fungus threatening bananas to practise and improve your reading skills.

Instructions

Do the preparation task first. Then read the text and do the exercises.

Reading text

In the 1950s, Central American commercial banana growers were facing the death of their most lucrative product, the Gros Michel banana, known as Big Mike. And now it’s happening again to Big Mike’s successor – the Cavendish.

With its easily transported, thick-skinned and sweet-tasting fruit, the Gros Michel banana plant dominated the plantations of Central America. United Fruit, the main grower and exporter in South America at the time, mass-produced its bananas in the most efficient way possible: it cloned shoots from the stems of plants instead of growing plants from seeds, and cultivated them in densely packed fields.

Unfortunately, these conditions are also perfect for the spread of the fungus Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense, which attacks the plant’s roots and prevents it from transporting water to the stem and leaves. The TR-1 strain of the fungus was resistant to crop sprays and travelled around on boots or the tyres of trucks, slowly infecting plantations across the region. In an attempt to escape the fungus, farmers abandoned infected fields, flooded them and then replanted crops somewhere else, often cutting down rainforest to do so.

Their efforts failed. So, instead, they searched for a variety of banana that the fungus didn’t affect. They found the Cavendish, as it was called, in the greenhouse of a British duke. It wasn’t as well suited to shipping as the Gros Michel, but its bananas tasted good enough to keep consumers happy. Most importantly, TR-1 didn’t seem to affect it. In a few years, United Fruit had saved itself from bankruptcy by filling its plantations with thousands of the new plants, copying the same monoculture growing conditions Gros Michel had thrived in.

While the operation was a huge success for the Latin American industry, the Cavendish banana itself is far from safe. In 2014, South East Asia, another major banana producer, exported four million tons of Cavendish bananas. But, in 2015, its exports had dropped by 46 per cent thanks to a combination of another strain of the fungus, TR-4, and bad weather.

Growing practices in South East Asia haven’t helped matters. Growers can’t always afford the expensive lab-based methods to clone plants from shoots without spreading the disease. Also, they often aren’t strict enough about cleaning farm equipment and quarantining infected fields. As a result, the fungus has spread to Australia, the Middle East and Mozambique – and Latin America, heavily dependent on its monoculture Cavendish crops, could easily be next.

Racing against the inevitable, scientists are working on solving the problem by genetically modifying the Cavendish with genes from TR-4-resistant banana species. Researchers at the Queensland University of Technology have successfully grown two kinds of modified plant which have remained resistant for three years so far. But some experts think this is just a sophisticated version of the same temporary solution the original Cavendish provided. If the new bananas are planted in the same monocultures as the Cavendish and the Gros Michel before it, the risk is that another strain of the disease may rise up to threaten the modified plants too.

Discussion

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Average: 5 (3 votes)

Submitted by YoncaT on Sun, 27/11/2022 - 22:47

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What do you think of the solution to genetically modify the Cavendish banana?
I agree with the writer's opinion. GMO technology can be helpful and harmful. According to the text, modified bananas can save the day however we need to redress the balance in nature for long-term solutions.

Submitted by Fevzi98 on Fri, 25/11/2022 - 17:50

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This article was difficult for me to read because there are words such as mass-produced I couldn't understand, but in general it's a great article to read.

Submitted by matt.c on Sun, 22/05/2022 - 14:36

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Shouldn’t gros Michael be the one which is easier to transport in one of the questions

Hi matt.c,

Do you mean Task 1 question 3? This question asks "Which sentence is NOT true?". The second answer says that Cavendish bananas were easier to transport than the Gros Michel, which is false, as you pointed out, so that's the right answer to the question.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by estefaniec_ on Wed, 27/04/2022 - 16:55

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I believe that as we keep developing, things are going to change, with that, also nature, so I believe that this is just the natural course of life and its bound to happen to everything, modifying bananas is just a short-term solution to something inevitable

Submitted by Gijs on Tue, 04/01/2022 - 15:22

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For this topic I only have one answer and I will keep it short ...... Nature will always beat mankind.

Submitted by Suraj paliwal on Sun, 24/10/2021 - 07:45

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I suppose that new genetically modify bananas will suffering from other fungus or infections, because they grow as a monoculture. I like banana very much. I eat it dozen

Submitted by BlaiChan on Tue, 03/08/2021 - 08:53

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I agree with the articles because of the human errors, the fungus can inevitably be developed somehow. In my opinion, new genetic Cavendish banana can dominate the market for awhile, then people will try to clone it and another new fungus strain attacks it again. Who knows.
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Submitted by Hennadii on Wed, 16/06/2021 - 14:26

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To answer the question honestly you have to be a specialist in this field otherwise your answer, especially when it's disagreement, looks like a medieval superstition. Telling the truth, I know nothing about genetic modification so can't be sure what's right or wrong. But, I definitely know, that the population of our planet constantly grows and we badly need some new methods to make our agriculture more effective. On the other point, we couldn't avoid starvation, and let me remind everybody - some people starving to death nowadays too. It's horrible and if genetically modified plants are the answer - well, that means we'll go for it. Anyway, it's better than death, I think.