Long Read: “How the global banana industry is killing the world’s favorite fruit”

No recipe exchange tonight, so in its place you get a Quartz report on the pros and cons of the global food market:

During harvest last year, banana farmers in Jordan and Mozambique made a chilling discovery. Their plants were no longer bearing the soft, creamy fruits they’d been growing for decades. When they cut open the roots of their banana plants, they saw something that looked like this.

Scientists first discovered the fungus that is turning banana plants into this rotting, fibrous mass in Southeast Asia in the 1990s. Since then the pathogen, known as the Tropical Race 4 strain of Panama disease, has slowly but steadily ravaged export crops throughout Asia. The fact that this vicious soil-borne fungus has now made the leap to Mozambique and Jordan is frightening. One reason is that it’s getting closer to Latin America, where at least 70% of the world’s $8.9-billion-a-year worth of exported bananas is grown…

Even if it takes longer to arrive, the broader ravaging of the commercial banana appears inevitable. And we don’t need to imagine what that would mean for banana exports—the exact scenario has already happened. Starting in 1903, Race 1, an earlier variant of today’s pathogen, ravaged the export plantations of Latin America and the Caribbean. Within 50 years, Race 1 drove the world’s only export banana species, the Gros Michel, to virtual extinction. That’s why 99% of the bananas eaten in the developed world today are a cultivar called the Cavendish, the only export-suitable banana that could take on Race 1 and live to tell…

But the bigger difference now is that, compared its 20th-century cousin, Tropical Race 4 is a pure killing machine—and not just for Cavendishes. Scores of other species that are immune to Race 1 have no defenses against the new pathogen. In fact, Tropical Race 4 is capable of killing at least 80%—though possibly as much as 85%—of the 145 million tonnes (160 million tons) of bananas and plantains produced each year, says Ploetz.

And at $8.9 billion, bananas grown for export are only a fraction of the $44.1 billion in annual banana and plantain production—in fact, bananas are the fourth-most valuable global crop after rice, wheat, and milk. Where are the rest of those bananas sold? Nearly nine-tenths of the world’s bananas are eaten in poor countries, where at least 400 million people rely on them for 15-27% of their daily calories. And that’s the really scary part. Since the first Panama disease outbreak, bananas have evolved from snacks into vital sustenance. And this time there’s no back-up banana variety to feed the world with instead…

And while millions of farmers feed their families with home-grown bananas, many millions more use income from growing them to buy other crops. Bananas are the most important export commodity for Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, and Belize. They’re in the top three in Colombia, the Philippines, Guatemala, Honduras, and Cameroon. That’s a lot of the developing-world economy reliant on a very vulnerable crop. “This disease is a problem, not only because of its potential impact on the price and availability of our favorite fruit, but also because it’s a life-changing event for the people in developing countries who rely on bananas as a staple food and incomes,” Alice Churchill, a scientist studying plant biology at Cornell University, told the Cornell Sun, “Those affected by [Panama disease] lose both their livelihoods and an important source of nutrition.” …

Also, a short history of the American “banana barons pioneer[ing] the industrial agriculture model familiar today, maximizing land, minimizing labor, and vertically integrating in order to send their product far and wide,” United Fruits’ successful campaign marketing bananas as “the fruit of the common man”, the invention of the Banana Republic, and the historical risks of monoculture disaster. Enjoy!

31 replies
  1. 1
    Ol'Froth says:

    Personally, I don’t care for bananas, but I know how an important crop it is…this is scary.

  2. 2
    Arclite says:

    Doesn’t matter too much. All the best banana growing nations will be uninhabitable in 20 years due to climate change. Although I suppose it would be hot enough in Northern California by then to grow them there.

  3. 3
    Tommy says:

    Banana related. Did you know the best coffees in the world grow in the shade of bananas? I am a huge coffee snob but I didn’t realize how little I knew about coffee until I started to watch Dangerous Grounds. When you see “fair trade” you might not realize what it means. In the “true” sense you can strip the land and plant coffee. However the best method is for coffee to be in the shade. Seems bananas for some reason work the best.

  4. 4
    Tommy says:

    @Ol’Froth: I don’t think most individuals understand how important single crops are for many people in this world. Heck it is one of the reasons global warming worries me so much. I maybe land locked here in southern IL but the vast majority of the world lives right near an ocean. About their only food source. Kind of makes sense. When the oceans start to rise things are going to go sideways really quickly.

  5. 5
    raven says:

    Ya’ll never heard of the Banana Marines I spect.

  6. 6
    Chyron HR says:

    B-but God made the holy banana in His perfect image. Kirk Cameron told me so. :c

  7. 7
    Barbara says:

    There are at least two foods that I remember tasting better in my childhood: bananas and Oreos. Turns out I am just old enough that I probably did get to eat Gros Michel bananas, so it’s not just my imagination that bananas used to be creamier. Oreos were also creamier back in the day, when they were made with lard (the new recipe is kosher).

    Not so much of a cookie-eater anymore, but I will miss bananas when they are gone.

  8. 8

    No bananas, no banana stand. I’ll have nowhere to keep my cash.

  9. 9
    raven says:

    No bananas on fishing boats:

    There are many stories why bananas have been thought of as bad luck on boats. This is only one of the nautical superstitions that I know of and is particularly prevalent amongst watermen. Many stories have banana oil rubbing off on ones hands and ¿spooking” the fish; therefore the fish don’t bite. There is always the story of a crew member slipping on the banana peel left on the deck. Some say that bananas give you the runs so you are always in the marine head and can’t catch fish because you are busy “draining the pipes”. Many other stories are told about bad luck and bananas, however the one that I find most plausible is a historical one.
    Back in the days of the transatlantic crossings by wooden sailing ships many hazards would befall the captains, crew and passengers. Disease, pirates, shipwrecks, storms, etc., claimed the lives of a good percentage of the captains, crew and passengers attempting the dangerous voyage. Needless to say, a transatlantic crossing in the 17th and 18th centuries was a very risky endeavor. Often the vessels would stop along the way in tropical islands to gather provisions such as food and water. There the passengers and crew would often purchase wooden crates of bananas from the locals and bring them aboard the ship. These crates would

    These crates would have all manner of critters in them such as bugs, spiders, vermin and snakes.
    These critters would make their way into the bilges of the ships, multiply, and then find their way into the captain’s quarters. The captains circulated the rumor that bananas were bad luck in an attempt to keep the critters off the ship and out of their cabin. The crew and
    passengers were more than eager to follow suit because of the inherent risk of the crossing. So, if the captain announced prior to the voyage that bananas were bad luck and not allowed aboard the vessel, everyone complied. You must remember that these were the days of burning witches and the like, so superstitions were taken very seriously.
    Watermen are a mysterious lot. While we are known for our simple pragmatism, we also have many odd quirks. Superstitions have been prevalent on almost every vessel I have worked on. I feel that this is due to the nature of a waterman in that he sees the randomness of the world around him juxtaposed with the rhythmic, seasonal flows of nature and then tries to reconcile these observations into some sort of personal and/or environmental order. As Stevie Wonder (a blind man) pointed out so eloquently: “When you believe in things you can’t
    “When you believe in things you can’t
    understand, that’s superstition”.

  10. 10
    Mike in NC says:

    Somebody better inform the Bluth family to shut down their frozen banana stands.

  11. 11
    Violet says:

    Yet another perils of monoculture. There are a lot of varieties of bananas out there but most are not suitable for export–they don’t travel well. So the Cavendish has become the banana of choice for export because it travels. As the banana for export it has also become the plantation banana, which means monoculture. Fields and fields of the same thing. That means vulnerability to disease because there’s no built in defenses in the ecosystem.

  12. 12
    Origuy says:

    The reason banana flavored candy doesn’t taste much like the bananas you buy in the store is that when they were creating the flavoring back in the 50s, they were basing it on the Gros Michel. Supposedly, the flavoring is very similar.

  13. 13
    Tommy says:

    @Violet: I love bananas. I also love the range of foods I can get. But I live in southern IL. Honestly, maybe I shouldn’t be able to get bananas here in December. You know, just saying.

  14. 14
    Francis says:

    Cavendish bananas are worse than a monoculture; they are actual clones. You don’t even have any intra-species variation.

  15. 15

    I am going to see Cumberbatch in Frankenstein, Live from National Theater tomorrow. Speshul birfday treat!

  16. 16
    Anne Laurie says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: Happy birfday, in advance! Enjoy the show!

  17. 17
    Yam says:

    Wait until a corn weevil hits the US.

  18. 18
    mclaren says:

    As others have pointed out, since all bananas are clones, this was inevitable at some point. The only real possibility for eliminating this kind of issue involves genetic engineering. And, alas, Democrats seem to be fanatically anti-GMO.

    You can’t have it both ways. Either accept GMOs, or say goodbye to bananas.

  19. 19
    Lurking Buffoon says:

    @Barbara: My parents said similar things about just about just about all fruit when I was growing up. One way that you may theoretically find that old taste is to buy organic. After I came down with Crohn’s disease and figured out it was pesticides that were irritating it, the family made sure to have organic fruits and vegetables when I’d eat with them (while complaining about the cost, of course). First thing my parents said after having their first organic apple was that it tasted exactly like they remembered growing up.

    Can’t help with the oreos though!

  20. 20
    NotMax says:

    Some banana facts and factoids.

  21. 21
    Prairielogic says:

    @mclaren… FYI… not exactly true about “all Dems being fanatically anti GMO”…. a solid endorsement this week and commitment to Ag biotechnology and science by President Obama in a letter to Norman Borlaug ‘s granddaughter:


    “While I was running for President, your grandfather wrote to me about the importance of agricultural development. I share his belief that
    investment in enhanced biotechnology is an essential component of the solution to some of our planet’s most pressing agricultural problems.
    Through our new regional climate change hubs, we will use the sorts of technologies pioneered by your grandfather to help farmers and
    ranchers face the climate challenges ahead. And I will continue to work with the Department of Agriculture and others to explore innovative
    solutions to address food security challenges and mitigate the effects of climate change.”

    “The agricultural community is indebted to your grandfather’s service, and our Nation will continue to engage in research and development in
    support of his life’s mission to feed the world.”

  22. 22
    Joel says:

    @Francis: this is true of most tree fruits, if not all.

  23. 23
    mclaren says:

    By the way, bananas contain isotopic potassium that’s slightly radioactive. As a result, there’s a radiation dose known as a “banana equivalent dose.” (The radiation is so slight that there’s no meaningful cancer increase caused by eating bananas.)

  24. 24
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Mike in NC: Arrested Development reference ftw!

  25. 25
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @mclaren: The main problem with GMO is not necessarily the modifications themselves, but the proprietary nature of them and the ravenous greed that propels the defense of that property. The patent system has been corrupted and warped, with the criminal cartel known as Monsanto in the lead.

  26. 26
    Cermet says:

    This may be due to the type (lack of genetic variety) of banana grown but this fungus may also be influenced or even primarily driven by higher global temperatures (making spread more easy.) Of course, could just be bad luck but smart money never believes in luck ,,, ,

  27. 27
    tybee says:

    bananas grow in coastal georgia. i have 4 cultivars. all four patches got knocked back to the ground by the 36 hours of below freezing temps in january but all are now growing stalks again. may have home grown bananas to eat by september.
    the cultivars i have were developed by and at the UGA agricultural station The Bamboo Farm just south of savannah.

  28. 28
    nancydarling says:

    @Yam: Thousands of small corn farmers in Mexico were put out of business by cheap imports from the U.S. These small farmers grew a huge variety of corn. Our plant scientists tapped into that vast reservoir of genetic diversity when problems developed in our corn crops.

    NAFTA was to corn as burning the library at Alexandria was to culture in the ancient world.

  29. 29
    qwerty42 says:

    Add the possibility of losing OJ and other citrus crops: Citrus Greening.

  30. 30
    humboldtblue says:

    I hate bananas so it’s no loss for me on the food front, but it does make me smirk that this time around we can’t send in the Marines to ensure an exploitative corporation maintains its feudal position over powerless workers.

  31. 31

    @mclaren: There’s a small subset of Democrats who are anti-GMO, but the choice isn’t only GMO or GTFO; monocultures are highly susceptable to this sort of thing, and the third choice is to diversify the devil out of banana production in the hopes that a third variant of Panama Disease can’t do what’s going to happen to the Cavendish for the third time.

Comments are closed.