The slippery slope of banana disasters

Workers picking bananas

Did you know your great-grandparents grew up peeling an entirely different kind of banana than we do now? They ate the Gros Michel banana, a variety that everyone apparently liked much better than today’s ubiquitous Cavendish.

What happened? Writes Dan Koeppel — author of “Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World” — in the New York Times:

…starting in the early 1900s, banana plantations were invaded by a fungus called Panama disease and vanished one by one. Forest would be cleared for new banana fields, and healthy fruit would grow there for a while, but eventually succumb.

By 1960, the Gros Michel was essentially extinct and the banana industry nearly bankrupt. It was saved at the last minute by the Cavendish, a Chinese variety that had been considered something close to junk: inferior in taste, easy to bruise (and therefore hard to ship) and too small to appeal to consumers. But it did resist the blight.

Over the past decade, however, a new, more virulent strain of Panama disease has begun to spread across the world, and this time the Cavendish is not immune. The fungus is expected to reach Latin America in 5 to 10 years, maybe 20. The big banana companies have been slow to finance efforts to find either a cure for the fungus or a banana that resists it. Nor has enough been done to aid efforts to diversify the world’s banana crop by preserving little-known varieties of the fruit that grow in Africa and Asia.

Although over 1,000 banana varieties grow around the world, the Cavendish is the only one that is commercially viable for shipment to non-tropical markets, says Koeppel.

Millions in the tropics rely on the banana as a staple food — the average Ugandan eats 500 pounds per year — so the spread of the Panama disease is a serious issue. If it hits a region, like Uganda, that depends on bananas, a humanitarian catastrophe could ensue.

The history of the banana is fascinating, involving technological innovation (it’s not easy to bring bananas from the tropics), oppression (terrible labor conditions), geopolitics (the U.S. sponsored overthrow of the Arbenz government in 1954 at the behest of United Fruit), marketing (bananas were too phallic for polite society in the late 19th century, so attitudes needed to be modified), and more.

You can hear Koeppel tell some of the story on Fresh Air and On Point Radio (both shows can be streamed and possibly downloaded with a podcasting program like iTunes). For more recent banana news, check out Koeppel’s banana blog.

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One Responseto “The slippery slope of banana disasters”

  1. Debs says:

    It seems global blights are more common when foods are produced and shipped globally.  A shame, when it affects a large portion of someone’s diet.

    As to the one kind of banana we typically find here in the U.S., I was amazed when I lived in Thailand and found bananas that tasted unline any I’d grown up with.  These bananas tasted like… fruit!  Thick, flavorful, moist… I still haven’t found any quite like them, even in the Asian markets here.