Bananas are back in the news and I have been taking a deep dive into the topic! It all started because I became interested in modern art. I was doing some basic research on modern art techniques when I came across Andy Warhol’s Banana painting. You can see it if you google The Velvet Underground. It was the cover of their 1967 debut album. It was then, for some reason, that I remembered hearing a story from older generations, that the banana we eat today, the Cavendish banana was not the same banana our grandparents and great grandparents ate. I started thinking about bananas and I started digging online and reading.
I knew that the banana is a clone, just like the Hass avocado is. These fruits are created from one single plant and have been cloned repeatedly for years because of their specific desirability, such as creaminess and flavor. If you plant an avocado seed, what you end up with is something different from what you ate- the fruit changes. To preserve the desired traits, the avocado tree is coned and grafted onto another rootstock. All the trees then have the same DNA, take on the same traits and can be traced back genetically to one single tree. They are, in many ways, of one tree. The banana follows a similar path. All bananas are essentially the same plant. Tissue clones or often, in the case of bananas, “pups” are grown from the original plant. Bananas that we get from the grocery store travel one step farther towards a void of obscurity because they, unlike the avocado, don’t event produce seeds. (In the rare case, you can find a seed. You have to grow approximately 1000 bananas to find a single seed which is one reason why old-fashioned, non-GMO hybridization has taken generations.) But what I didn’t realize is, that because of this cloning, this makes the banana (and in theory the Hass avocado) very susceptible to disease. If something can kill one banana plant, it can kill them all. And it very nearly did.
Our grandparents and great grandparents ate a banana called the Gros Michel (pronounced grow-michelle) but often referred to as Big Mike in America. The Gros Michel banana was creamier, more flavorful and bigger. It also lasted longer and was less prone to bruising. It was objectively a better banana. If you have ever noticed that banana candy flavor doesn’t seem to match up to the banana flavor you are used to, it’s because a lot of banana candy was based on the tastier Gros Michel variety. The problem of course was that Gros Michel bananas are clones and a fungal disease called, Panama Disease wiped out the tastier banana. By 1961, that banana was gone from market shelves and the less tasty, starchier, Cavendish, that is so familiar to us today, had taken over. (You can still find the Gros Michel in tiny privately owned banana farms in Florida as a specialty -I have yet to find a way to taste one- but you don’t see them on the grocers shelf and their price is around $100 per 5lb of the fruit. Far from the $1 a bunch we are used to for Cavendish.)
The dark history of the banana is woven into this story. In the beginning there were two banana companies, one arguably more evil and corrupt than the other but likely only due to size. One company was Standard Fruit, which became Dole and the larger company was known as United Fruit, which became, Chiquita. United Fruit was responsible for everything from overthrowing governments, to false advertising, to manipulating children’s textbooks, to even poisoning workers with pesticides and a literal massacre that happened in Colombia in 1928. The Banana Massacre was orchestrated by United Fruit in coordination with the US Government. Why? Because workers wanted safe working conditions and a livable wage. The banana company was not cool with providing that. The US government painted the workers as “communists” an easy scare tactic at the time and the military of Columbia which was at the time controlled by the Banana Company murdered up to 2,000 people (the exact number of casualties was never confirmed), families including children who had gathered in the town square on a Sunday.
The banana massacre is but one example of the brutality that brought the banana to our breakfast table. There is a really great book I just read called, BANANA: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World. (that link has an affiliate link, if you buy the book I get a small percentage) That books tells in detail, the history of these Banana Republics, and the plants, as well as the cruelty and diseases they spread literally, across the globe.
So how to end this post on a positive? I mentioned earlier that banana are back in the news. It appears the Cavendish is has reached the tipping point because it is be attacked by a similar disease to the original Panama Disease that wiped out the tastier Gros Michel.
That disease has reached Northern Colombia. From Wired:
On August 8 the Colombian Agricultural Institute announced that it had confirmed that the fungus—a strain of Fusarium oxysporum called Tropical Race 4 (TR4)—had been found in plantations in the north of the country. The country declared a national state of emergency, destroying crops and quarantining plantations in an attempt to avert the spread of the fungus.
I know, I know that’s not so positive but remember even though it is familiar, it is by far not the tastiest banana around. I’ve become a bit obsessed and have sampled some amazing bananas. They are harder to find but if you go to specialty markets you can find red bananas, Thai bananas, baby bananas, Mazano banana, Ice cream bananas (that start out a beautiful blue hue) and more.
If you can make your way to Hawaii or Florida or better yet a country in Central America, your options widen dramatically. In fact, for decades there has been a hybrid dwarf banana plant called the Goldfinger, I am growing one in my backyard, that is immune to many common banana diseases and can be readily grown in areas that depend on the banana to fight starvation.
What we need is to demand (or at least be open to) is diversity from banana distributers. Purchasing from smaller growers is a great start too. An openness to genetic modifications to protect the plants from disease would help too but that is a whole different topic to unpack. For now, if we could just embrace variety, we would be making an improvement.
There is so much more to the banana than we have been taught in America. So many kinds and flavors and consistencies and ways of cooking and preparation of bananas exist, (plantains for example) that my hope is that more diversity in bananas in the marketplace will result because of the banana fungus, instead of simply another total replacement with just one clone. As it is with many things in this life, diversity is key.