Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World

I’ve got my first projection of the first round of this year’s MLB Rule 4 draft up, and chatted on Thursday.

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.


  1. I think I will get this book. I travel to South Asia for work fairly often, and have noticed that the bananas are very different in size, shape, and color than the ones here. I don’t know what they are, but surely they aren’t Cavendish. Strangely enough though, they taste like bananas.

  2. You should check out The Fish That Ate the Whale…a very good breakdown/history of the banana business and the different parties involved. Fascinating stuff.

  3. I suddenly find myself wanting to play Tropico 4. Looking forward to reading this!

  4. Keith,

    In the past, you came out either in opposition of GMOs or in favor of GMO labeling (I realize those positions are not identical but there often is an overlap between them). One reason (among many) that I oppose GMO labeling is because it inaccurately gives the impression that GMOs are known to be harmful. Intentional or not, that is a likely outcome. But as I understand it, there is no hard science yet demonstrating that they are any different than non GMOs. I bring this up because it seems as if a solution to the plight facing bananas might be a genetically modified banana. For reasons shown in this book, it would seem that saving bananas is a pretty big deal and that GMOs should be explored. However, the current narrative amongst certain circles about GMOs would potentially lead folks to opposing such efforts. Demonizing GMOs needlessly could lead people to oppose a genetically modified solution to the banana problem, meaning the problem might not be solved with very real consequences for very real people.


  5. Kazzy: I believe very strongly that GM foods should be labelled, under the belief that consumers have a right to know what they’re consuming – especially produce, which is presumed to be natural and healthful by default. That said, I am not opposed to GM efforts in the lab, as they may be a major step toward reducing hunger in the developing world, or creating crops that require less water than those on which we depend today. This book makes a compelling case that genetic engineering is the only solution to the crisis facing the Cavendish banana, and I am not equipped to offer a counterargument.

  6. But do you think that labeling things with GMO communicates to people that GMOs are necessarily bad?

    If you suddenly walked down the aisle of a super market and found half the items with government-mandated labeling indicating they contain “UNKNOWNIUM”, would you think, “Man, unknownium sounds pretty bad”? Because I think a lot of people would. And would then object to unknownium unnecessarily.

    This doesn’t mean GMO labeling is wrong, but does mean it ought to happen within a broader education program.

  7. I would not oppose GM labelling just because the state of science education in this country is so abysmal. If consumers shy away from foods they don’t understand, then help them understand, preferably by improving science education starting in elementary school.