Save the Banana –– or don't!

by Jennifer Rezny
on 12 December 2015
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It’s not unusual to travel the country and see the same sights from coast to coast: a mall might have many of the same stores, a food court might have the same staples. A pharmacy on one end of the country will generally stock the same items in more or less the same order as a pharmacy on the other end of the country. Consistency is key in chain business.

In theory, people are more inclined to walk into an establishment when they know exactly what will be on their plate, or if they can walk directly to the desired aisle and pick up the same product they could back home.

It’s easy to keep the bandaids or the disposable razors in a consistent place. But how do you ensure that a coffee up North tastes the same as down South? How about a hamburger? A banana?

Homogeny in food is not all that different from choosing a supplier for a box of disposable razors. All food products, whether meat or vegetable, are the products of genetics and careful breeding for certain qualities. What makes a banana taste, look and feel the same is a uniformity in genetics, the same sequence over and over again, until the banana is closer to being a clone than an individual. As a result, we can virtually always guarantee the banana in our hand will taste as we expect it to. Maybe not for much longer, but certainly for now, we can.

This banana we know is actually the Cavendish banana. Bananas are not like apples, which are well-known for their broad variety of cultivars. There are apples for everything: Red Delicious best for eating raw, the Braeburn for baking, the Idared for pies. Not so for the banana. Bananas tend to come in two forms at the grocery store: “banana” or “plantain”, which is less sweet and generally cooked. This uniformity will be their downfall.

For the past few decades a fungus called Panama disease has been devastating hectares of Cavendish crops by the thousands, and it will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. The Cavendish doesn’t really stand a chance –– if every banana shares the same genetics and thus the same genetic weaknesses and vulnerabilities, then the Panama disease is fine-tuned to destroy them. 

We know this because it has happened before. In the earlier half of the 1900s, the Gros Michel banana stood in the same shoes the Cavendish stands in now, and it was eradicated by an earlier form of the Panama disease. If anything, it will be worse than before, precisely because our knowledge of genetics and the growth of capitalist interest in uniformity and the predictable “customer experience” has allowed us to tailor-breed a banana to be the ultimate in uniform, and thus the ultimate target for this new Panama disease. 

There are some movements, of course, to save the banana. Public campaigns to “save the banana” have popped up time and time again over the decades in hope of spurring some public awareness of the disease threatening “the banana”, generally without acknowledging that it is public consumption that has driven the banana to this point. (One wonders what, exactly, the public can do against a disease, but time will tell.) The center of the vanguard for the Cavendish is, which asserts not only how beloved and economically important bananas are, but also pushes for research on Panama disease and its hopeful solution. Perhaps this solution could come in the form of a pesticide, or a counter-bacteria, or some other mad science solution. Perhaps it could be more genetic diversity in the Cavendish, though that could take decades to create. 

The solution I have is a little more extreme.

Let it die. 

The Cavendish is a mess. If it’s a faceless collection of robots with identical blueprints, all with the same software problems, then Panama disease is the looming Y2K-esque event, and this time it will probably pan out. I — and most people — don’t really have enough of a stake in the Cavendish cultivar specifically to want to secure its survival. After all, even if a miracle stopped the Panama disease this time, it would only be a matter of time before another disease took its place. The common denominator of the problem will always be the Cavendish’s genetic homogeny. 

On top of this, the Cavendish, despite being the most prominent banana on the market, still only accounts for 47% of the global production of bananas. A large number, no doubt, but far from the entire population. We can do without it. Goodbye, Cavendish.

That said, I imagine it would be near impossible to convince multinational corporations to take the world’s most prosperous banana off of life support. Even trickier, convince the thousands of banana farmers who rely on the Cavendish for their sole income to switch to a cultivar with more genetic diversity and less public demand.

Any better ideas?