Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Koeppel Interview Part 4

Back in early October, I had the opportunity to interview Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed Our World. Over the next few days, I'll be posting the interview in digestible chunks, but if you want to read the piece in its entirety, it is available in both the print, and online versions of the current Wheatsville Breeze.

Your article in the New York Times inspired me to read your book. As a Produce Manager for a Co-op, I felt compelled to share this information with our owners, yet am weary of drumming up fear around the eventual loss of the Cavendish. In your experience since writing Banana, do you feel you’ve had to allay fears from the public, or put out any small fires that your research or writing may have caused?

Yes [laughs]. You know, here’s my one regret in the way I wrote the book, and it’s something that I’ve come to – well I wouldn’t call it a regret… It’s something I wish I would have emphasized more, and something I’ve come to believe more, since I wrote the book, and it’s an answer. It’s kinda the end question – you know, “What’s gonna happen?” – and I talked about it a little bit in the book.

The answer, and this something that you, as a Produce Manager in a co-op, and your members, and anybody who cares about food, and is in an organization where you have a say about food -- in other words, people who don’t shop in supermarkets, you’re the beginning. You are at the Vanguard of the ability to actually say what kind of food you want. There are more, there is more than one kind of banana out there in the world – there are a thousand kinds of bananas. So the answer to allay fears about the Cavendish is to say, “Yes, be afraid that the Cavendish is going to go away, because it will.”

But, there are other bananas out there. Right now the problem is the banana supply chain. As much as you know from reading my book, and being a Produce Manager, that the Cavendish is the only banana you can sell, because that banana supply chain is geared toward the Cavendish, you couldn’t sell another banana right now, even if you wanted to, because that supply chain is so tweaked towards that cheap Cavendish banana. It is possible to change the supply chain. It is possible to come up with technologies to make those fragile bananas transportable. It is possible to find ways to grow those other bananas.

You know, there are so many hundreds of other fruit that have arrived at the U.S. marketplace in the past twenty years, and there are so many amazing bananas, some grown as closely as Brazil. There are amazing bananas grown in India. There are amazing bananas grown in the Pacific. The banana companies will tell you, and since they invented the supply chain, and since, unfortunately, the Fair Trade bananas come down that same supply chain. They have to.
The banana companies will tell you, “No way, the Cavendish is the only one that fits.” Right now, that’s true.

There’s such a thing as being able to get those other bananas. It is possible. By beginning to demand those other banana. By beginning to ask, “How can we modify the supply chain so we can have two, or three, or four different types of bananas?” Just like we have two or three types of apples, four types of oranges, three types of cherries, and just a plethora of different kinds of fruit. That’s the answer. Oh, and by they way, that answer can help save the Cavendish.

By diversifying banana plantations by using proper crop rotation, then all of a sudden, those clean farming techniques begin to have a chance, because Panama Disease begins to kill more slowly. Now, I can add two more little things about that are really, really important.
Number one, the banana industry is going to say, “This is impossible. The Cavendish is the only shippable banana.” Well, when the Gros Michel, the earlier banana, went away, the banana industry said, “It’s impossible, we can’t use the Cavendish, because it’s not a shippable, acceptable, commercial banana.” When this necessity hit, and the Gros Michel went away, they invented technologies that allowed the Cavendish to happen. So… that’s not true.

Number two, the banana companies themselves -- why are they so scared of another banana? I find it amazing. If you go onto the Chiquita or Dole websites and click on the product link, you will see dozens of exotic fruit that these companies themselves import from around the world. So, it’s not as if, even conventionally, they lack the knowledge of how to import weird fruit. They import fruit from all over the world already. That they say that they don’t understand there is a consumer desire for interesting fruit, or that there are methods for importing interesting fruit, is absurd.

And, finally, just to talk about Fair Trade a little bit. Fair Trade is really important, because the plight of the banana worker is miserable. Fair Trade is really a great thing, but Fair Trade does not do a lot for the banana worker because bananas are a cheap commodity. And you can’t help a banana worker that much with Fair Trade, because your only funneling a few pennies down the line. It’s not like Fair Trade coffee, where you can funnel a few dollars down the line to that coffee plantation.

But imagine if you had really exotic bananas. Imagine if you had a range of bananas, ranging from a commodity banana, like a Cavendish for 69¢ a pound, to an exotic banana like a Brazilan Uro, which you could sell for $2.99 a pound. All of a sudden, you’ve got banana plantations with mixed varieties. You’ve got entrepreneurism introduced. You’ve got the ability then for people to own their own plantations and to mix different profitable bananas in there. Then all of sudden Fair Trade bananas become something that actually makes a difference. So, you’ve got opportunities for both the banana industry as a whole for individuals to actually own banana plantations, and for the entire banana industry to transform the model upon which it was founded one hundred and twenty five years ago. And, you’ve got a chance to improve the lot of the Cavendish, to at least extend its life by possibly decades. So what we’re seeing here is just sort of a psychology that says, “It can’t be done.”

In fact, it can be done. As someone who has tasted bananas all over the world, I mean, it’s not just sorta like someone standing there – like me standing in front of a supermarket, with a picket sign saying, “Damnit, give me some more good bananas!” I mean these are like, great bananas. It’s like standing in front of a supermarket, saying, “Give me Hagen Daas!”, when the ice cream inside was junk. These are fantastic bananas, and every single person that shops at your Co-op, I promise, is gonna want to pay two bucks a pound for these Brazilian Uro bananas, because they’re fantastic.

So this is the answer, diversity. Banana diversity, and working on helping to improve the Cavendish’s resistance and all that stuff.


TexasDeb said...

I want Brazilian Uros! How do we get us some of those? I know they can't be local, but buying them would help create a more reasonable market, one that is safer for the field workers and I want IN on some of that. How do we do that, specifically?

Flapjacks said...

We can't, and that's part of his point. You have to go there to eat them. I'm going to be calling one of my banana distribution companies soon, and ask them some questions.

TexasDeb said...

Well I would be all for helping educate Austin consumers about this specifically as part of W'ville's goals. I personally would pay extra on a subscription type basis to get some of the pricier more rare bananas to eat. Like a CSA for bananas only through the Wheat with the Wheat getting a cut for managing the project.

Is that possible?

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