The banana on your table or in your bag right now is a specific variety called the Cavendish, and is genetically identical to every other Cavendish banana in the world, a peculiar trait among comestibles that means that one of our most essential foodstuffs is at risk of being wiped off the commercial market by a fungal disease it can’t fight. Because most banana plants are parthenocarpic (in lay terms, sterile), producing no seeds, humans cultivate bananas by transplanting part of the plant’s underground stem, known as the corm, which means each new plant is a carbon copy of the last one – and therefore the plants have never developed immunity to common fungal diseases that ravage entire plantations. With no help from evolution, the first widely commercialized banana, the Gros Michel, became nonviable as a cash crop, and the same disease is now threatening Cavendish plantations as well.
Dan Koeppel’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World discusses how we reached this point, going back through the history of the fruit and discussing its importance to subsistence farmers in Africa as well as its economic importance in Asia and Latin America. Now, with Panama disease, a fungal disease that is resistant to fungicide and causes banana plants to wilt by attacking their roots, marching across the globe, there’s a race on to try to genetically engineer a replacement for the Cavendish, one that suits the market’s demands for a portable, sweet fruit that is also resistant to Panama disease, black Sigatoka, and other fungal maladies that can devastate a plantation.
The rise of the banana as a trade good to become the West’s favorite fruit (mangoes are more popular in the rest of the world) has had tragic consequences, from which Koeppel doesn’t shy. The company you know know as Chiquita has a lengthy history of labor abuses in Latin America, including exposing plantation workers to highly toxic pesticides and fungicides; corrupt land deals with autocratic governments that were often put in place by the United States in part to aid Chiquita; and circumventing land-ownership restrictions in former “banana republics” (not just a clothing store!) to maintain strict cartel-like control over the banana trade. The autocratic governments were responsible for oppression, torture, and even genocide of native populations, often while the U.S. stood idly by, content that our economic interests were protected. Chiquita’s sins, and those of its billionaire owner Carl Lindner – also part-owner of the Reds at the time – were documented in a massive expose’ in the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1998, only to have the paper issue an apology and pay the company $10 million for illegally obtaining voice mails. Chiquita never disproved any of the paper’s claims, and only had to threaten a lawsuit for theft and invasion of privacy before the publisher folded his tent.
Banana farming in other parts of the world, such as Malaysia and Brazil, “only” led to substantial deforestation, while the blight now affecting the Cavendish and that nearly drove its predecessor, the Gros Michel, into extinction is threatening subsistence farmers in developing countries who depend on banana plants as a food source. Koeppel uses that latter point to launch into descriptions of those genetic engineering efforts, with brief thoughts on the anti-GM movement and the rather clear conundrum that our choice is to accept GM bananas or likely live with no bananas at all unless they grow in your backyard.
Koeppel does well to largely keep himself out of the narrative, only appearing to introduce certain characters or to describe his experiences tasting other varieties of bananas, most of which aren’t cultivated for export. (He has special praise for the Lacatan banana, found in the Philippines.) It’s compelling on several levels – as a chronicle of corporate greed and corruption, as the story of how a largely tropical fruit became a global commodity, and of course in the unfinished story of whether scientists can use traditional and modern methods together to craft a disease-resistant replacement for the Cavendish. I loved it because I love popular science books and also love to cook, but this book should be required reading for anyone who likes to eat.
Next up: Alessandro Piperno’s second novel, Persecution.