Saturday, September 6, 2008

Yes! We Have No Bananas, We Have No Bananas Today: Our Impending Reality?

In my role as Produce Manager, I've felt inspired to do some reading on my products -- fruits and vegetables, that is.  Back in June, I read a great op-ed in the New York Times about the potential loss of the worlds primary commercial banana variety: the Cavendish


This article was enough to pique my interest, so I bought the book written by the author -- Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World. Dan Koeppel had me in his clutches, and I felt that this was relevant to my current profession.

 What would it be like to have bananas as a seasonal fruit, I thought? What would it be like to not have bananas, period?

The answer to the first question is easy enough: normal. The fact that we have bananas year round everywhere in the States -- from California to Maine -- for a low, low price doesn't seem right to me. With all this emerging local food consciousness, how come I haven't heard any one mention our phallic, yellow friend? Bananas are the single highest selling item at Wheatsville -- both organic and conventional -- year-round. One in every kids lunchbox, right?

Over the past century there have been serious ramifications to the commodification of bananas. You've heard of a banana republic, right? It's not just a bougy GAP, it's a country where banana magnates control government, exploit both land and worker, and do pretty much as they please. Our ability to buy that banana for 69¢ a pound, 365 days a year, results in some serious trickle down to the impoverished nations where they are produced (Fair Trade bananas are helping, and organic naners help the workers health by not having to deal with all the crazy chemicals they spray on the conventional ones). 

If the locals start to get uppity, Big Banana will just roll on to the next country, stage a coup (or something), and get their cheap labor on. United Fruits (now Chiquita) has been a major player on the banana scene since Jump Street, and has committed some serious atrocities. Anyway, more on that later, what would the return to seasonal availability do for this fruit, and its shameful industry? I don't know, but it couldn't be worse than the maximum year round output philosophy that currently exists. 

The second question, is a bit more difficult to grapple with. What if there were no bananas? There are two things that I've considered in thinking about this, a) bananas are almost a luxury for us -- year-round availability, consistent flavor and texture, low price, good sliced on cereal, b) for millions of people in other, less affluent, countries bananas are the staple, even more so than rice! 

We've already lost one banana, the Gros Michel. There's a good chance your grandparents got hooked on these, or maybe your rents -- there's an even better chance you've never tasted one, espiecially if your under fifty. They were bigger, and better tasting, ripened evenly, and withstood transport, much like our Cavendish. They were, however, susceptible to Panama Disease -- a blight that devastates banana plantations worldwide. Companies saw that there was no hope for the Gros Michel, and started searching for a worthy replacement that was blight resistant. Enter our Cavendish.

Vendors selling Gros Michel in America back in the day.

Cavendish is smaller, and less tasty than its predecessor, but it was blight resistant. The key word there is was. Infections of Panama Disease have been reeking havoc in Asia for the past few decades, and it's only a matter of time until this new strain makes its way back to our hemisphere. Panama Disease is a ruthless killer. It is transmitted via water, soil, and even air. Someone visiting an infected plantation could easily infect an untainted one merely by havingsome contaminated dirt on their boot. Once it starts to kill, it doesn't stop, and there is no known way to combat it. 

Only recently did Chiquita even acknowledge its existence, despite having spent millions to evade the beast since the Michel days. Attempts to breed new bananas are nearly impossible. Bananas are sterile, have no seeds, and require human intervention to propagate. The worst thing is that every Cavendish is a genetic duplicate of every other one. So, what happens somewhere in the world, will happen anywhere, and everywhere.

Scientist and geneticists have been working on creating a blight resistant variety that would meet all the aspects acceptable for a commercial banana (color, even ripening, skin thickness, taste, texture, etc.), with little luck. The only hope on the horizon for the naner is genetic manipulation.

This concerns some banana companies, and scientists mainly due to the unfavorable stigma that Genetically Manipulated (Modified) foods (GMO's) carry in the public's eyes. Shit. Some EU nations ban them, and they all eat the shit out bananas. So, this creates an interesting and very modern conundrum: we have a possible answer, but due to the ill light cast on GMO foods, they might be able to sell, which in turn means that funding the research for FRANKENANER may become a problem. 

Once again, there are two things to consider -- gee, it would suck if I couldn't slice one in my hemp granola in the morning, and golly, wouldn't it really blow if hundreds of millions of people starved over fucking bananas? Personally the latter carries much more weight. Our commodity is their staple. Many Africans, all over the continent, rely on them. Most of their bananas aren't Cavendish, but they are all susceptible to the same maladies. 

A future without bananas? It may be very real. No one can predict the reemergence of Panama Disease in our hemisphere, but it will happen, and when it does, it's only a matter of time before it does its terrible damage. I don't want to be all gloom and doom, or dissuade you from buying bananas, so eat them, eat them and cherish them, because someday in the near-distant future, they may be gone.

4 comments:

Laurie said...

Banana pudding with the little cookies - gone? No-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!

Flapjacks said...

maybe we could make it out of sweet potatoes?

Professor Conti said...

Seeing as how you mentioned feeling like bananas are becoming your Coke, you should check this out. Right down to the Colombian paramilitary death squads and the Alien Tort Claims Act.

Flapjacks said...

oh yeah. those dudes. chiquita got popped for that a few years back and had to pay a fine! really?

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