By Jeff Danner Jeff has worked in both the chemical and biotech industries and is the veteran of thousands of science debates at cocktail parties and holiday dinners across the nation. In his Common Science blog, Jeff aims to make technological and scientific concepts accessible to all.

Yes, We Have No Bananas

By Jeff Danner Posted January 22, 2012 at 5:07 pm

A business trip to Dubai this week has disrupted by Chapelboro 2050 series.  I anticipated that Dubai would make great fodder for a Common Science blog illustrating the ephemeral nature of our illusion of constant growth and progress which owes its tenuous foundation to our rapid drawdown of our once-and-gone supply of petroleum.  The city of Dubai, rising as it does from the desert, is essentially a temple built to honor that illusion. On the flight over last week I was busily thinking up catchy and alliterative potential titles like “Dispatches from Dubai” when I got completely distracted.  It turns out the bananas are dying.

On the flight to Dubai I read Dan Koeppel’s fascinating book “Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World”. (As a quick aside, if you are like me and generally like to avoid idle chit chat with strangers on planes, I recommend reading books like this one.  Scares people off in my experience.)  It’s a rather troubling book.

First a bit of banana background.  Bananas are the most consumed fruit on earth.  Banana trees are not trees at all, but rather a very large herb.  I’ll stick with the term tree for the blog but wanted you to be able to impress your friends with that bit of trivia.  Banana trees propagate through suckers which branch off of their root systems to create new trees which are genetically identical to the original plants.  Given time and space a single banana tree can create an entire plantation of identical clones.  This type of reproduction accounts for the fact the bananas you find in supermarkets from Savannah to Seattle look identical and it makes the banana spectacularly unsuited to growing in plantations.

Bananas were introduced in the United States in 1870 when Lorenzo Dow Baker brought 160 bunches from Jamaica to Jersey City and sold them for $2 a bunch. The bananas which Baker brought where a species called Gros Michel. Baker went on to found Boston Fruit which is known today a Chiquita Banana.  

Bananas were a sensation in the US with consumption growing in leaps and bounds.  The Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 featured bananas down the hall from a new invention by Mr. Alexander Graham Bell.  The craze was on.  There were bananas to grow and governments to overthrow.

In 1894, a mere 24 years after the first load of banana’s reached Jersey City, the US government was already interfering in Central America on behalf of bananas companies with a military intervention in Nicaragua to prevent the implementation of labor and land reforms.  This would kick off nearly a century of shameful and indefensible behavior that is quite shocking to read.  I refer you to Mr. Koeppel’s book for the whole sad story.

By 1900, 99% of all bananas eaten in the U.S., Canada, and Europe were Gros Michels.  Every one of the trees in every one of the plantations growing those bananas were genetically identical.  A fungus hit banana plantations on the island of Java in 1900 and spread like wildfire, likely by boat.  When the fungus hit Central America in 1903 it acquired the name “Panama disease”.  A plantation hit by Panama disease would lose 70-100% of its banana trees.  There was, and continues to be, no way to treat the disease. When a plantation was hit by Panama disease the banana companies would simply clear a new swath of rain forest, plant bananas until they got wiped out and then repeat the cycle.  The song “Yes, We Have No Bananas”, released in 1923, describe the shortages which appeared in the US as a result of Panama disease.

In addition, to devastating the environment, this practice created a lot of open fields which could have been used to grow crops other than bananas.  In 1951 Jacobo Arbenz became president of Guatemala, the first democratically elected leader in Central America.  Frustrated that United Fruit owned thousands upon thousands of acres of unused fields he nationalized the unutilized acreas to use for local food production.  United Fruit complained to President Truman who authorized the CIA to overthrow Arbenz, which they did after first branding him as a communist stooge.

In addition to Panama disease, grouping the inherently vulnerable banana into plantations gave rise to a series of other blights which the fruit companies fought with ever increasing applications of chemicals which slowed the diseases and killed their workers.  By 1960, despite Herculean efforts, the Gros Michel was finished and it looked like bananas would disappear from our lunch boxes and cereal bowls.  But then a banana from China came to the island of Mauritius (the famous home of the dodo bird) then on to England for study and then to the plantations of Central America where it appeared resistant to Panama disease.  The new banana acquired the name Cavendish and now accounts for 99% of the bananas we eat (sound familiar?).

Although things initially looked promising for the Cavendish, the basic vulnerabilities of growing bananas next to each other remained.  New blights arose, new pesticides developed, and new sections of rain forest were cleared.  In 1985 a banana plantations came to Malaysia supplanting some oil palms (See “The Secret Life of Vegetable Oil” for more detail on oil palms in Malaysia) and encountered a variant of Panama disease which has since spread through the triangle defined by India, China, and Australia with devastating effect.   Its appearance in the Western Hemisphere is inevitable and then the Cavendish will whither away just like the Gros Michel.

The blights and diseases which developed in the plantations have started to hit Africa in the 1990’s, impacting Cavendish plantations as well as local varieties.   This is especially troubling since there are large areas in East Africa were up to 70% of caloric intake comes from bananas.  Efforts to replenish African banana production with traditional plant breeding approaches have been largely unsuccessful.  Koeppel ends the book with a plea for people in Western Cultures, particularly Europeans, to be more open to the introduction of a genetically modified banana as the only hope to try to secure the calories and nutrition for those who depend upon it.

I am aware that I have taken a bit of a dour turn on my blogs of late.  I am not generally a pessimist, but I do try to follow the analysis and the data wherever it leads.  To me the trends in out food and energy use and production are leading to a crisis.  Maybe I need to go hit the bookstore at the airport for a spy novel instead of moving on to my next book “A World Without Bees.”  See everybody stateside.

Have a comment or question?  Log in below or send me an e-mail at commonscience@chapelboro.com.

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