It is no accident that the banana appeared on that essential food group chart in school, or in every fruit stand you can ever remember. Since the late 1800′s when the worlds first and only banana producing multinational corporations began growing them on a never before seen scale, they have engaged in one of the most aggressive and successful production, marketing, and lobbying campaign the earth has ever seen. With a challenging but immensely rewarding goal: to be seen as the standard fruit for all households in as many nations as possible, even outselling locally grown popular fruits like apples, pears, and oranges. The trouble with being the number one fruit on the planet is that along the way you make decisions about growing and distribution that come with side effects; The primary side effect being that if you grow only one type of banana across the board on multiple plantations across continents, you run the risk that a powerful fungus or pest could come along and wipe out everything. Which is exactly what is happening today as the banana many of us know and love is on the verge of being wiped out by a powerful fungus spreading throughout the world. But surely science will save the banana… right?
Market control and world domination
In the late 1800′s the first banana magnates growing bananas in Central America adopted the legendary “Ford Model” of mass production for mass consumption. This meant the standardization of the entire production process, regardless of what country they were growing in or what part of the world they were delivering to. They invented refrigerated transport by sea, a method of shipping that would change the world forever, and is still essential today. Their system was based on monoculture, which from the very beginning was plagued by disease. But their system was also very profitable, so the name of the game became produce bananas fast and stay ahead of the diseases.
The original Panama Disease
In his 2008, multi-layer investigative overview “Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed The World”, journalist and researcher Dan Koeppel went back in time to piece together the business and agricultural practices that would make it possible to produce the exact same quality banana in different geographic locations at a never before seen scale. For United Fruit in the early 1900′s, it took having a great amount of land and maintaining a high yield no matter what the circumstances. Even as a devastating fungus known as “panama disease” ravaged their crops throughout those early decades, the company focused on staying ahead of the disease, moving to new land and new countries and continuing to deliver the bananas people had begun to know so well. Biodiversity back in the 1920′s, was not a valued concept in large scale mass agribusiness culture. Though it had a proven tradition, the goal back then was to keep control of the expanding market, there was no time to worry about what researchers and farmers wanted. As the years went on the empire grew larger and the struggle to stay ahead of certain destruction continued.
The Chemicals that Turned Workers Blue
While Panama disease remained an unsolved problem, by 1935 there was a new banana killer spreading by the name of Sigatoka. This time it wasn’t just a threat to plantations, the disease could effect bananas later, a shipment of bananas could be destroyed in transit or upon arrival. Worse than that, whereasPanamadisease had been transmitted through direct contact of shoes or tools, this new disease was an airborne pathogen. The banana companies were fortunate enough to find a cure – copper sulfate- a fungicide that they rolled out in one of the most massive pipeline, hoses, sprayers campaign ever seen by an agribusiness. The infamous blue substance worked against the disease, but workers who were responsible for carrying out the delivery of the chemicals saw their skin turn blue, followed by loss of sense of smell and the ability to digest food, and eventually death. It was no scientific secret that exposing workers to such a mass amount of copper sulfate would harm them, but the priority was to keep the production line going, to stop the destruction of the bananas. The aggressive reaction worked to stop Sigakota, but the same could not be said for the unshakable ghost known as Panama Disease.
Goodbye Old Banana, Hello New Banana
By the 1950′s the signature banana of mass production that could be found in kitchens throughout the world had reached its breaking point. No longer able to stay ahead ofPanamadisease, the big two banana producers began experimenting with other kinds of bananas that could become their new champion. The new banana would have to be resistant to Panama disease, while also dealing well with the cold shipping process, and of course looking and tasting as close to the banana consumers were used to (the Gros Michel) as possible. They decided on a type called the “Cavendish”, a less sweet and more fragile version of the Gros Michel. It wasn’t the perfect replacement, but at that time was seen as “close enough” to fit right into the chain of production without having to change most other aspects of the banana producing machine that was already in place. Strangely enough, the new banana didn’t do well during refrigerated transport, until Standard Fruit took a step that would once again revolutionize the fruit business for generations to come: they started shipping bananas in boxes. This innovation proved useful all along the chain of production, as packaging, shipping, and presentation became more streamlined than ever. Once again it wasn’t so much about scientific achievement as it was about maintaining the market superiority of the banana.
Breeding bananas has been described by more than one horticulturalist as a daunting process. Many bananas, such as the Cavendish that most of us have at home, are seedless and sterile. In fact, bananas of this type are actually genetic clones of one another. Breeders carry out pollination by hand as they take on the challenge of developing bananas that could resist the list of fungi and pests that most bananas are so susceptible to. Over the past several decades, in different parts of the world in mostly publicly funded research labs, specialists have been experimenting with ways to strengthen the Cavendish banana to resist the disease that will soon destroy it around the world. Part of trying to improve the banana has long included different kinds of genetic modification, from the kind that makes use of other plant genes, to the kind that could also make use of genes of fish, for example. The prospect of fish genes being involved in improving the banana has been received with a great deal of skepticism from critics and the general public. However researchers at the University of Leuven in Belgium, one of the world’s largest banana research facilities in the world, point out that even though fish genes can be involved in the DNA manipulation of the banana, it does not mean the banana will now have fish genes.
Though rice and corn are much for famous as examples of crops that have undergone genetic modifications over the past few decades, the banana is right there behind them as a fruit who’s gnome has been mapped and can be altered and improved through genetic engineering. But unlike rice and corn, the mass produced banana plant is sterile, so there is no risk of a GMO banana seed spreading to a non-GMO plantation and compromising those plants. Still the prospect of a modified Cavendish banana may prove to be too off-putting in the eyes of consumers around the world. This is one of the main reasons that the other option both banana producers and researchers are looking into is choosing a new type of (Panama disease resistant) banana to make their global champion. It would most likely taste different and look different, but just like back in the 1950′s, people might just get used to it.
Throughout their existence, the major banana corporations have very seldom turned to science in an effort to think up a better banana. But in the 1950′s as the Gros Michel succumbed to Panana disease and exited from the world stage, there was a genuine interest is adopting or developing a new banana type that could better handle the conditions within banana plantations. Instead of deciding on a banana for the future, they instead settled for the Cavendish. It was similar to their previous champion, but only mildly stronger and for their goals it was seen as the banana for the present. Less then 50 years later banana growers throughout the world would experience the major downside to that decision, as Panama disease returned, stronger than ever.
Plantations in Asia and Africa have already seen their crops wiped out. It is now a question of when, not if, the disease will reach the heart of the banana plantations in Latin America. Once it does, banana producers will have to either turn to a new Panama resistant banana type that might not be as loved as the Cavendish, or find a solution through genetic modification. With a few exceptions, there has been little change to the dangerous practice of growing the same crop across massive stretches of land and continents. There are organic and fair trade bananas, but they are also of the Cavendish variety being practically grown and delivered along side the conventional ones. Even though they can see the writing on the wall, the major banana producers of the world are locked in to their global business plan. Science may have well founded advice for creating a healthy and sustainable agra-business that benefits the, as Dan Koeppel calls them, people who want bananas and those who need bananas (workers, communities that consume primarily bananas), but those who run the banana business are not interested or able to heed their advice. Thus making the history and present-day of bananas an example not of bad science, but science ignored, over and over again.
“Banana Apocalypse” infograph via Visual.ly
Get Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed The World by Dan Koeppel