The Fruit that Changed the World

Banana the fruit that changed the world - cover imageFive years ago I wrote a post celebrating our backyard bananas and lamenting the vulnerability of the commercial crop. Several more posts since then (especially Wild bananas) have touched on the dangerous lack of genetic diversity of the endlessly-cloned Cavendish and a book I picked up in our Balinese guesthouse recently refocused my attention on the issue.

Banana: the Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World by Dan Koeppel (2007) does for our favourite fruit what Longitude and Krakatoa do for navigation and our favourite volcano (just down the strait from Bali, by the way) respectively. Koeppel’s focus is American and his themes are corporate bullying and political meddling on the one hand and the plant’s susceptibility to disease on the other.


American bananas have always come from tropical South and Central America, and the trade has been dominated by two or three very large US companies which established vertical monopolies – growing, shipping and wholesaling the fruit. They established huge plantations with local labour (mercilessly exploited unless or until labour unions or national governments achieved fairer treatment) and were generally backed (up to and including military support) by the US government. The phrase “banana republic” entered our language because the countries concerned were so often puppets of the corporations; Guatemala was the worst affected but Honduras, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica all earned the title too.

The timeline on the United Fruit Historical Society site provides a host of examples. Here are a couple:

1910: With a loan of two thousand dollars Zemurray buys five thousand acres along the Cuyamel River in Honduras to establish plantations. Soon after Zemurray purchases the land, he discovers that the Honduran President, Miguel Davila, would not grant him the tax, land, and transportation concessions that he was seeking. With this disappointment in mind, Zemurray decides to organize and finance a military coup that would replace Davila with Manuel Bonilla. Slipping past US agents sent by Secretary of State Philander C. Knox, Zemurray’s expedition sails from New Orleans. The expedition is composed of one small ship captained by Lee Christmas and Guy “Machine Gun” Molony and one box of arms. Within weeks after Christmas and Molony arrive at the port of Trujillo, the government falls and Davila is replaced by Bonilla. The new President awards Zemurray generously and grants him the contracts he needs to incorporate the Hubbard-Zemurray Company in Honduras.

1928-29: The workers of the banana plantations in Colombia go on strike in December. They demand written contracts, eight-hour days, six-day weeks and the elimination of food coupons. The strike turns into the largest labor movement ever witnessed in the country and radical members of the Liberal Party and members of the Socialist and Communist Parties participate strongly. The national labor union bigwigs Carlos Mahecha and Maria Cano traveled to the banana zone to organize the strike.
The Conservative Party, which controls the government, decides to send the Army into the Banana Zone. During a demonstration in the main plaza of the city of Cienaga the Army, commanded by Carlos Cortes Vargas fires on the strikers and leaves an undetermined (and disputed) number of strikers dead. The government declares a state of siege in the Banana Zone and the strike eventually ends.


Monocultures provide perfect conditions for the rapid spread of pests and diseases, and genetic uniformity means that any problem which affects one plant will affect all of the others equally. The banana plantations of Central America were therefore well primed for disaster and, if that were not enough, the plantations were bulldozed out of virgin swamps and jungles, disturbing the soil and releasing all sorts of plant pathogens.

Panama Disease (a fungus which enters the plant through the roots and causes the leaves to yellow and die) appeared in the banana plantations of Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Costa Rica in 1910 and Sigatoka (a fungus that attacks the leaves of the banana plant and causes the fruit to ripen prematurely) appeared in Honduras plantations in 1935, threatening to wipe out the entire crop.

In both cases, control methods were expensive, environmentally destructive, and ineffective. Efforts to breed banana varieties resistant to the fungus plagues were slow to pay off but by the time the Gros Michel, the then standard variety and of course another clone, was wiped out by Panama Disease in the 1950s the specially-bred Cavendish was ready to replace it.

Most of my readers will have already seen what was wrong with this solution, of course: the fungus evolved and the Cavendish – and the entire industry – is now in the position the Gros Michel occupied in the 1950s. From the BBC:

And how practical is containment when the fungus can easily be transmitted by natural means such as storms?

“We have much more advanced technology now than we did when we lost the Gros Michel,” Dr [Gert] Kema [an expert in global plant production from the Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands] said. “We can detect and track the fungus far better than we could but the underlying problem is still the same in that the Cavendish is so vulnerable to disease, and that has to change.”

And that’s the second solution – find a new banana resistant to the disease and, to avoid history repeating itself, genetically diverse.

“To carry on growing the same genetic banana is stupid,” Dr Kema said.”It is necessary that we improve the Cavendish through genetic engineering but parallel to that we must be finding genetic diversity in our breeding programmes.”

Dan Koeppel’s book spends quite a lot of time on the breeding programmes using both conventional and GM techniques and is able to detail successes of both but in the end he sees problems far deeper than simple disease resistance: the present production and marketing system is inherently unjust and unsustainable:

Worldwide, the amount of organic and fair-trade fruit produced has more than doubled in the past five years. Though the target remains statistically distant, the process is the best hope for bringing a measure of justice to workers who, for over a century, have known very little. …

There has always been a cost to the fruit’s south-to-north trade, one that we, as shoppers, have never borne. The best solution for most of the social ills caused by the industrialisation of food production is to give up the exotics – beef from Australia, mangoes from Malaysia, fish from Chine – that, like bananas, require huge infrastructure and rock-bottom operating costs to remain economical.

He goes on to argue for a locavore approach – fresh local food in season for the sake of sustainability and social justice – but admits that, “to make it happen would require vast changes in public opinion, in the way business operates, and in the way government regulates companies,” and that, “Bananas wouldn’t make the cut in such a system since they can’t be grown locally for US shoppers.” He therefore looks at Cavendish replacements, mentioning new varieties grown in Brazil and the Caribbean.

We in Australia may need to follow a similar path, but here and now I would like to pick up on his arguments against the “industrialisation of food production.”

Monoculture by itself is problematic (e.g. almonds in California); lack of diversity by itself is problematic (e.g. seed patenting); and so is the plantation production model by itself.

Palm oil has been much in the activist news recently, as has chocolate;  coffee, copra, rubber, cotton and sugar are notorious earlier examples. All of them have, or have had, the same production paradigm, i.e., plantations in the developing world owned in developed nations and, far too often, wrecking the environment as they exploit local workers. It’s too large a subject to treat adequately here but Wikipedia’s article Plantation and my inline links will be adequate starting points for further exploration. The bottom line is that a universal shift from ‘agribusiness’ back to ‘farming’ makes ethical and environmental sense.

If you want more about Koeppel’s book, there’s a nice review and interview on NPR, here.

3 thoughts on “The Fruit that Changed the World”

  1. This longish article argues that “Colonialism [is] the Hidden Cause Of Our Environmental Crisis” because “the slave trade, slavery and the conquest and exploitation of colonies allowed capitalism to become structured around an economy of extraction. This destructive way of inhabiting our planet is responsible for ushering in a new geological epoch characterized by human industrial activity: the Anthropocene.”
    It might not be too much of a stretch to say that capitalism replaced slaves with fossil-fuelled machines, so that the monoculture / industrial agriculture we have now is a new incarnation of the plantation model.

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