Better Eat Those Bananas … While You Still Can

January 7, 2011

Think about apples for a second. There are Granny Smiths, Red Delicious, Fuji, etc. Now think about bananas. There are just, like, bananas, right? The only bananas that Americans eat — and they eat more of them than they do apples and oranges combined — are the Cavendish, which is just one variety out of at least one thousand. And now, a fungus is threatening to destroy pretty much every Cavendish in existence. How real a possibility is it that all of our bananas will be wiped out? It already happened once.

This week’s New Yorker has a huge story about the banana industry that touches on all of the familiar complaints against it: the inherent lack of sustainability of their product, companies aiding anti-government military forces in banana-growing countries. But what it mostly focuses on is Tropical Race Four, a sort of super-fungus that turns Cavendish bananas into mush. So scientists are trying to build a better banana! One that is resistant! Here’s the thing: It doesn’t sound like they’re making a lot of progress.

One of the most interesting pieces of info in the story is that this already happened once. See, the bananas that were originally eaten all over the U.S. weren’t the Cavendish variety, they were Gros Michel bananas. (They were also, by all accounts, far tastier.) But a fungus called Race One, which is closely related to Tropical Race Four, wiped them out in the first half of the twentieth century. Really, one of the main reasons we have Cavendish bananas is because they’re resistant to Race One. But it sounds like we might not have them for much longer either.

Actually, this whole banana thing has bothered me since I saw a New York Times op-ed a few years ago that is VERY similar to this New Yorker one. In an age of super-local, sustainable, organic, blah blah blah, how have bananas — genetically altered fruit shipped in from tropical climates — managed to escape scrutiny? We don’t really want to admit this, but we used to be convinced that something like heirloom bananas would become the next big dessert trend (right about the time this book came out). But then, nothing! People just kept on eating Bananas Foster and peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches.

But maybe now’s the time for other banana varieties — Some are fuzzy! Some have striped skin! — to enter the U.S. market?

We Have No Bananas [NYer]