Turns out the perfect fruit has a fatal flaw. The Cavendish, prized for its taste, color, and durability, is the only banana most Americans have ever eaten, and it's worth $4 billion in exports a year. But it's also highly susceptible to two diseases that are destroying plantations throughout Southeast Asia and threatening crops elsewhere.
Juan Fernando Aguilar, 46, is looking for a replacement. He's head banana breeder at the Honduran Foundation for Agricultural Investigation (FHIA), which, with more than 8,000 hybrids in its fields, sustains one of the most active banana-breeding programs in the world.
Growers faced a similar battle in the 1960s when that era's favorite, the Gros Michel variety, was wiped out by a fungus. Now, Aguilar says, the challenge is to find not only a banana that looks and tastes like the Cavendish, but one that is disease-resistant and can be easily integrated into banana companies' production systems.
Aguilar says he's confident a Cavendish successor will be in markets within 10 years. Yet he shuns genetic engineering in favor of time-consuming cross-pollination. He and his crew collect pollen from male banana flowers and manually pollinate females. After waiting a month for trees to bear fruit, they collect the seeds—an ordeal in itself, since hundreds of pounds of fruit yield just a few seeds. "Old technology that works today is good for me," Aguilar says. "I don't need laboratories, just my hands."
A version of this article appeared in the December 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.