The Banana: A Social History of the World’s Most-Cultivated Fruit

It was probably one of the first foods you ate as a baby. It may have been the actual “apple” in the Garden of Eden. It is the most widely-cultivated fruit on earth, and the staple food for millions of people. It has been a global force for environmental destruction and the brutal exploitation of workers, and has created and toppled governments. And it will likely be gone–at least in the form we know it now–within a couple of decades. It is the lowly banana, and here is its story.

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A banana plantation in Costa Rica.

Plants of the Musa genus first appeared in southeastern Asia around 100 million years ago. Contrary to what you might think, bananas do not grow on trees. What we refer to as a “tree” is actually a giant herb, closely related to the grasses. It has a stem instead of a trunk, and instead of a root, it grows from a relatively compact round bulb called a “corm”.  Wild banana species have small fruits that contain many large rock-hard seeds, which make them unsuitable for food. But the corms, though tough and woody, are edible, and were likely used as a food source by ancient people. As a result, sometime around 8,000 years ago, humans living near present-day Malaysia brought two different species of banana, Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana, together in the same area, perhaps planted together for their corms. The two species hybridized with each other and, by a genetic quirk, produced a hybrid which had three complete sets of chromosomes instead of the normal two (a triploid). This mutation produced an edible fruit which did not have any seeds, which was quickly adopted by humans as a food source. Because the hybrid did not produce any pollen or seeds, it was completely sterile and could not reproduce (like a mule), so it had to be propagated by humans who took the young shoots from the corm and planted them as separate banana trees. As a result, every new banana plant was genetically identical to the tree it was taken from–it was in effect a clone. Bananas are “monocultures”–any particular variety of banana in the world today is a genetic copy of every other banana of the same type, and they are all minor variations on the original edible banana first produced thousands of years ago.

For the next 7,000 years, the domestic banana was carried by humans all across the world, and was selectively-bred and hybridized further into a large number of varieties. These fall into two types: the “plantains” are generally smaller, firmer, tart in taste, green in color, and intended to be cooked (like potatoes), while the “bananas” are larger, softer and sweeter, are yellow, orange or red instead of green, and intended to be eaten raw. From Malaysia, bananas were spread into China and India, on to the Middle East, and down into Africa. In the Middle East, they were known as “figs”. When the Biblical story describes Adam and Eve sewing clothes from “fig leaves”, it is actually banana leaves that are being referred to, and several ancient Arabic and Hebrew texts, including the Quran, identify the fruit in the Garden of Eden as a banana, not an apple.

In the central portions of Africa, particularly around Lake Victoria, where rice, wheat, or potatoes do not grow well, the banana (particularly the plantain) became established as the primary food crop, and traditional staple foods like matoke, alloco, and kelewele are made from plantains; bananas are also used to brew a beer called tonto and a liquor called waragi.

As a tropical plant, bananas do not grow in Europe’s climate, and Europeans were not introduced to them until the great voyages of exploration, and did not really accept them as foods until the 19th century. In 1835, a French explorer named Nicolas Baudin, while trekking through the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia, was given some sweet bananas, and liked them so much that he took a few corms with him, carrying them to the botanical garden on the French Caribbean island of Martinique. Here it came known as “Baudin’s Fig”, and soon spread to the nearby island of Jamaica, where it was renamed the “Gros Michel” (“Big Michael”) banana.

By this time, several other banana varieties had already made their way to the Caribbean, brought from Africa and Asia. Though used for local consumption, virtually none were being exported to the huge markets in the United States or Europe. Most varieties of banana have characteristics which make them unsuitable for large-scale plantation farming. Bananas have a very short shelf life once removed from the tree–they can rot in as little as a week, which makes them unsuited for long ocean voyages. Most varieties are delicate and bruise easily when packed and shipped, producing big brown soft spots which consumers don’t want, and which quickly cause the banana to rot. The trees themselves, being shallowly-rooted, are vulnerable to high winds. And many banana varieties have a color or taste or consistency that make them unappealing to consumers.

The Gros Michel was different, however–it had a sweet creamy flesh that people liked, had a thick skin that resisted bruising, and the tree was hardy enough to survive storms and bad weather. New technology also came at just the right time–icebox refrigeration units were beginning to appear, which made it possible to ship bananas with a low risk of spoilage. In 1876, the American Centennial Exhibition was held in Philadelphia. Among the new wonders of invention it exhibited was Alexander Graham Bell’s device for carrying sound over wires (the “telephone”), and a new condiment made from tomatoes (called “Heinz Ketchup”). Also exhibited at the Centennial was a new dessert fruit from the exotic tropical Caribbean, called “the banana”.

Within decades, the banana had become the most widely-cultivated fruit on the planet (a position it still holds), outselling apples, oranges and pears combined. The United Fruit Company became one of the largest corporations in the world and dominated the market. In Central and South America, United Fruit used its resources to destroy huge swathes of tropical rainforest and build huge plantations employing hundreds of thousands of native workers, extracted enormous profits by keeping wages at a pittance, and used those profits to bribe national governments (at home and abroad) to protect its interests, coining a term that is still used today for a repressive non-democratic government that is dominated by corporate interests–“banana republic”. From the 1910s to the 1930s, the US invaded virtually every country south of its border, mostly to protect American sugar and banana growers; in 1954 a CIA plot overthrew the elected government of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz (who had tried to take land away from United Fruit and give it to poor subsistence farmers), and installed a compliant military government–resulting in almost half a century of revolution, civil war, brutal repression and mass slaughter throughout Central and South America.

During this time, however, United Fruit (which in later years renamed itself Chiquita) faced a lethal enemy that it could not bribe or shoot. In the 1920’s, a fungal disease began appearing in Panama that attacked the roots of the Gros Michel banana tree, killed it, and quickly spread. “Panama disease” began wiping out banana plantations all over South America and the Caribbean, exports (and profits) fell dramatically, and bananas began to disappear from US markets. (The Tin Pan Alley ditty “Yes, We Have No Bananas” was written during this time.) The growers were in a panic. They tried drenching their plantations in a lethal chemical mix called “Bordeaux Blue”, which killed plantation workers at an alarming rate, but did not eliminate the fungus. Plant breeders tried to produce a resistant strain of Gros Michel by cross-breeding the plant with wild varieties of banana, but because of the banana plant’s odd genetics this process took too long. In desperation, United Fruit began to simply pack up its plantations and move them to a new location every time the fungus struck, which resulted in huge areas of land lying empty and unused. It seemed as if the entire banana industry might be wiped out.

Then a savior appeared. In the 1950’s, a variety of banana was found in southern China  that was resistant to Panama disease. It was known as the “Cavendish”. It had a white smooth flesh similar to the Gros Michel, was also similar in size and color, and could be shipped pretty well without bruising. Within ten years, the Cavendish had completely replaced the Gros Michel. Today, over 97% of all the bananas exported to markets in the US, Europe, China and Japan (and about half of all total bananas grown worldwide) are Cavendish bananas.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, democratic governments appeared all across Latin America as unelected military regimes fell or were overthrown. The result was another sweeping change in the banana industry. Now, the big banana companies (currently there are four who dominate the market–Chiquita, Dole, Irish-owned Fyffes and Ecuador-owned Bonita) no longer directly own their plantations. Instead, the former big corporate plantations have been broken up into smaller locally-owned units which are free to sell their bananas to any of the big companies. Environmental regulation and worker protections are now in place that would once have been viciously resisted by United Fruit and the US government (the banana industry is a low-margin high-volume industry, though, and wages and conditions on the plantations still remain at low levels.) Today, the global banana trade accounts for about $9 billion a year, with over 100 million tons of bananas being grown in 150 different countries..

But today the banana is once again under assault, from an old enemy. In the 1970’s, Cavendish bananas were introduced to Malaysia (the ancient ancestral home of the cultivated banana) to supply the growing markets in China and Japan. But by 1989, plantations in Malaysia began dying from a fungus disease. It turned out to be a new version of an old adversary–a strain of Panama disease known as Tropical Race 4 (TR4). While the Cavendish banana was resistant to the version of Panama disease found in the Western Hemisphere, it was not resistant to this Asian strain–and neither are many of the banana and plantain varieties grown in Africa. The TR4 fungus has now spread into Indonesia, Australia and parts of Northern Africa and the Middle East, where it has wiped out 80-90% of the banana crop. In addition, a second fungal disease, known as Black Sigatoka, has been devastating Cavendish plantations in some Caribbean islands.

It is a dire threat. Because Cavendish bananas are all genetically identical to each other, they have no natural resistance–and several other varieties of banana are also vulnerable to TR4 or Sigatoka. In all, some 85% of the entire global banana crop may be vulnerable to the diseases. If they reach the center of the banana-growing world–tropical Africa and Latin America– these fungi could wipe out the entire Cavendish banana, just as the Gros Michel was wiped out a half a century ago, along with most of the important plantain varieties.

Right now, banana growers are making efforts to keep the diseases out of Latin America and Africa, including quarantines and strict anti-contamination procedures. But the safety wall is not leakproof, and it is inevitable that the fungi will get through within the next few decades. To combat the threat, plant breeders are once again looking for ways to make the Cavendish and the important plantain varieties resistant to the fungi, by cross-breeding them with wild strains. But because of the sterility which results from the banana’s odd genetics, this is a long slow complex process with much trial and error–and it may happen too late, if it happens at all. A much quicker method would be to use genetic engineering to identify and extract a wild gene that gives resistance to the diseases and insert this into the existing bananas to protect them. But such efforts are crippled by resistance within the US to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the flat-out ban on them by the European Union–there’s no point in saving the Cavendish with genetic modification if no one can sell the fruits. (In Uganda, however, which depends on the plantain for most of its food supply, the government is funding a massive effort to find a resistant gene and use GMO techniques to produce a modified variety of cooking banana for local growth and consumption.)

As a result, once the fungal diseases inevitably reach the banana-rich areas of Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia and Brazil, the odds are good that the banana as we know it–the familiar yellow Cavendish–will no longer exist. Other varieties of banana are already under consideration to replace the Cavendish, but each presents its own problems; many are also susceptible to TR4 or Sigatoka; some have trees that are too vulnerable to storms or other weather conditions; some have fruit that doesn’t tolerate shipping; some have flavors, textures, sizes, or colors that are unfamiliar and may not be accepted by consumers who are used to the Cavendish. And of course any banana that is not a seedless hybrid between Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana is completely inedible. As of right now, there simply is no suitable replacement for the threatened bananas and plantains.

In the US and Europe, of course, bananas are just a luxury–if they disappear, we can live without them, and will simply put blueberries or strawberries in our corn flakes instead. But bananas are a huge global industry that provide employment to millions of people. Even more importantly, in many areas of Africa, where crops such as corn, wheat, rice or potatoes do not grow well, bananas are a vital staple food. In places like Uganda, as much as 70% of all daily food calories come from bananas and plantains, usually grown in small village gardens–almost 100 pounds per capita per year. Plantains are also a prominent part of the diet in South America, India and Southeast Asia. The loss of the lowly banana, therefore, has the potential to produce widespread famine and starvation. If bananas die, much of Africa dies with them.

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A developing banana bunch on the tree. The large purplish thing is the flower.

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3 thoughts on “The Banana: A Social History of the World’s Most-Cultivated Fruit”

  1. a very very small percentage of the bananas, less than one in a thousand, does actually produce a few seeds. So breeders have to patiently collect them and plant them, and hope they are viable.

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