Fascinating op-ed piece in the NYT on bananas. I had been aware of the sordid history of United Fruit (now Chiquita) and how they brutalized workers in Central and South America and leveraged their power to turn America’s foreign policy into United Fruit’s foreign policy. They even helped the CIA overthrow the elected government of Arbenz in Guatemala in the late 1950’s.
Author Dan Koeppel (“Banana: The Fate Of the Fruit That Changed The World) points out that the banana is the fast food of the fruit world. The fruit is grown only in tropical areas thousands of miles away and responsible for deforestation and other factory farming techniques. Its popularity and extremely low price has been created both by the heavy-handed labor and political activities of companies like United Fruit and by the benefits of low fuel prices (in order to both transport the bananas and to keep them refrigerated.)
Koeppel believes that prices will begin to soar as fuel costs also continue their inexorable climb. But perhaps more threatening is the fruit companies’ decision to invest in only one variety of fruit, the Cavendish, the commercial banana eaten all over the world–despite the existence of thousands of banana varieties, most unknown outside of Asia. A fungus epidemic could wipe out what is a banana monoculture, threatening the existence of the fruit. Far fetched? It’s already happened. In the early 1900’s everyone was eating a monoculture banana called the Gros Michel. A fungus called Panama disease washed over the region and by 1960 had made the Gros Michel variety extinct. The Cavenbdish variety was brought in from China and survived the fungus–even though the product was less tasty and more easily bruised than the Gros Michel.
Koeppel reports that a new, more virulent, strain of Panama disease has arisen and will threaten the Latin American growing fields. Banana companies have done little to invest in ways to counteract the fungus and next to nothing to preserve other varieties of bananas. Koeppel even foresees the end of bananas:
In recent years, American consumers have begun seeing the benefits — to health, to the economy and to the environment — of buying foods that are grown close to our homes. Getting used to life without bananas will take some adjustment. What other fruit can you slice onto your breakfast cereal? But bananas have always been an emblem of a long-distance food chain. Perhaps it’s time we recognize bananas for what they are: an exotic fruit that, some day soon, may slip beyond our reach.