The Banana Problem

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Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World (2008), recently published a story in The Scientist magazine claiming that the type of banana that most Americans eat may be doomed. He speaks to Food Republic about supermarkets, banana cloning and the inevitable downfall of the cheapest fruit.

In your recent article for The Scientist, you start off by saying that the bananas that most Americans know from the supermarket "may be on the brink of disaster." Why?

Bananas are sterile and aren't grown from seeds, so each banana is a twin of another banana — essentially similar to cloning. Even though there are over 1,000 banana types, the only one we eat is the Cavendish, which is threatened by Panama disease along with other diseases. That means that when one banana gets sick, every banana gets sick.

Supermarkets and banana companies are providing us with a banana monoculture, and this monoculture has been fostered for centuries despite real-life experience that tells us that monoculture is a recipe for disaster.

Why isn't anything being done?

Because Panama disease hasn't hit Latin America, where all of our bananas are grown and imported by Chiquita or Dole, these two companies have had their heads in the sand about it. They believe that they can come up with some chemical way to fight the disease, which I don't believe will happen.

To continue the monoculture that their business is based on, they can't do anything but deny: they're denying the evidence of thousands of acres of banana plantations in countries in Asia that have been wiped out by Panama disease.

How imminent is the threat to bananas? How long until they are gone?

Nobody knows and that's the problem: This disease is very virulent. It starts instantly and unexpectedly. It could start tomorrow or it could start in 50 years. It's like preparing for an earthquake: You don't know when the big one is going to come and no one's preparing for it.

What if any effect has genetically modified farming had to do with the fruit's demise?

Genetic engineering is one of the best hopes for saving the Cavendish. That being said, it's had no effect on what we see at the market because there has been no successful one yet. Plus, it's illegal to sell GM products in much of Europe and Americans are still wary of the goods.

Even though [GM is] the best hope in terms of building resistance to the disease for Cavendish itself, the better hope is diversity. In the search for a genetically modified banana you're essentially looking to replace one monoculture with another, which is a doomed strategy.

If this disease has infected the fruit before — with the Gros Michel variety — why hasn't there been a push to create a solution?

In order to make the banana the cheapest fruit in the supermarket, they have been working on only one type of banana. They're sticking with a very foolish strategy. People ask, how could they be so dumb?

Why do we in many cultures not learn from our mistakes? Because they thought they fixed it. When they replaced it with Cavendish they thought they found one that resisted the disease, but it was still a monoculture and they stuck with it in spite of warnings at the time that it was still dangerous. Human denial is a common thing and corporations are run by humans.

What will be the next variety of banana to hit the grocery shelves?

There are some promising bananas out there! One is called the Goldfinger. It's delicious. It's not a genetically modified banana, but it's a conventionally bred banana actually created by Chiquita 30 years ago. The trouble with the Goldfinger is that it doesn't indicate ripeness properly — it doesn't go to the yellow that everyone is used to, so it might be harder for people to identify ripeness.

How drastic of an effect will there be on the US agriculture industry if the Cavendish variety crashes?

We eat 25 pounds of bananas a year per person, so they're a really important part of our diet. They're the cheapest fruit in the supermarket, and so it's an important tool in the fight against childhood obesity. It's really the only natural food that kids will accept instead of a bag of chips!

In terms of Latin America and jobs, it basically means millions of jobs in Ecuador, Nicaragua and Columbia. The life of a banana worker isn't great, but life without work is even less great.

What does this mean for other types of fruit?

It should be a warning to the fruit industry. The kiwifruit is really threatened right now by a disease that is also taking advantage of the kiwi monoculture.

The natural tendency in big business is to keep things simple, which is good because it keeps it cheap, but it hurts it in the end. It's happening for grapes and olives as well. The other fruit companies should learn from the banana industry, except the banana industry hasn't learned.

Much more about bananas on Koeppel's blog.