In 1923, Frank Silver and Irving Cohn published a song that became a major hit for the Billy Jones Orchestra, with the signature line “Yes, we have no bananas; we have no bananas today.” It turned out to be sadly prophetic as, in the 1950s, the banana trees that supplied the entire global banana export business were wiped out by a soil-borne fungal disease known as “Panama Wilt.”
The industry at that time was almost entirely based on a single banana cultivar called “Gros Michel” (meaning “Big Mike”), and it was susceptible to infection by a strain of fungus called Fusarium. Once the soil of a given plantation was contaminated with that strain, any Gros Michel tree grown there would soon die.
By good fortune, a different banana cultivar that was being grown in the South Seas was able to substitute for Gros Michel as a commercial line, and this new “Cavendish” cultivar became the new banana of international commerce, as it remains to this day. (Check out this interesting blog post about the history of the Cavendish variety and how it actually passed through a greenhouse in England in that process! And here is another good post about the history of this disease and the industry.)
Unfortunately, it’s about time for some band to cover “Yes, We Have No Bananas” because, evolution being what it is, a new strain of Fusarium — Tropical Race 4 — has arisen and it is lethal to the Cavendish. The disease is slowly making its way around the world, and since it can be spread in a particle of dirt on something like a boot, it will almost inevitably make it to the Central and South American growing regions that supply both North America and Europe with their bananas.
Although this unfortunate scenario has been on the minds of the banana industry for decades, it is now starting to get more attention in the mainstream press. One part of the story that has been shocking to these outside observers is that such a huge industry would ever be dependent on a single cultivar of banana. As Stephen Mihm put it for Bloomberg, this looming “bananapocalypse” is attributable to a vulnerability that comes from the practice of “extreme monoculture.”
While I understand why observers might be shocked that a nearly $12 billion industry depends almost exclusively on the Cavendish banana, I do want to push back on the implied conclusion that this represents some sort of irrational or irresponsible expression of “big ag” or whatever other demons are imagined by the Food Movement.
When you see something that is a standard practice in a very large, nationally diverse and multi-company business like bananas, I would suggest that it is appropriate to ask not “what is wrong with this system” but rather, “What are the practical factors that drive this seemingly irrational practice?”
I’m not a banana expert, but in the mid-1990s, two of my first jobs as an independent consultant had to do with the banana industry. It was during the exciting early years of commercial plant biotechnology, and many industries were asking, “What might this new technology do for our business?” Both of my projects involved early-stage discussions between a major banana company and a plant biotech company — four different entities in all. These were “drawing board stage” projects, with the goal of figuring out if certain ideas could ever make economic sense: Would they be something worth years of effort and millions of dollars for research? Still, overall, biotechnology looked like a way for this industry to tap into genetic diversity.
The fun part for me was getting to do a deep dive into the details of how bananas are grown, handled, shipped and marketed. I got to travel to Honduras, Costa Rica and Ecuador to tour banana plantations and interact with experts at the major banana export companies. As I said, I’m not an industry insider, but I think I can shed some light on why there are not more kinds of bananas grown for export.
As modern consumers, we are offered an amazingly diverse selection of fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, so it is important to think back to the early days of this offer of plenty. Having grown up in Denver in the 1960s, I can recall that, except for a few summer months, almost the only fresh fruit options at the grocery store were bananas, apples and oranges. I have a podcast about why apples were ever on that list. But if you think about it, the very fact that we can so easily enjoy fresh bananas in temperate regions is a bit remarkable.
Bananas can grow only in regions where there is never frost, and they do best in truly tropical climates. How did a tropical fruit become a mainstream, reasonably priced, healthful, kid-popular fruit for people who experience winter?
In tropical regions, there is a great deal of genetic diversity among wild bananas and considerable diversity among the banana or plantain types that humans cultivate. However, very few of these bananas could ever meet the criteria needed to be a viable export crop.
First of all, a banana for export has to be seedless. Many wild bananas have large, very hard black seeds – not something that has much consumer appeal. The bananas that people like are seedless because they have triploid genetics – three of each chromosome vs. the two that we have. That is the same way we get seedless watermelons, grapes, etc. It’s not some “GMO” thing; it happens at times in the plant kingdom, and we humans like it! Still, improving or changing the cultivar through “conventional breeding” isn’t an option if it makes no seeds.
Next, the banana needs to be productive in terms of overall yield per tree or acre. I’m sure no one in the 1920s was calculating it, but in modern “sustainability” thinking, the “land-use efficiency” of a crop is an important criterion. That, along with “water-use efficiency,” small “carbon footprint” and “energy footprint,” is all very much tied to good yield. The usable per-hectare yields of the Cavendish variety are quite high, and that is why it has been a both economically viable and environmentally sustainable choice for a long time.
But probably the most limiting requirement for a banana variety to be commercially acceptable is that it has to be shippable. In the modern era, we have lots of transport options for food products, but during the era when the banana was becoming an item of international trade, the only viable option was ocean shipping. A product being moved from the tropics to North America or Europe needed a very-low-cost transport option if it was ever going to be a mainstream consumer product. Most fresh produce products loaded onto a ship for a two-plus-week trip to a northern port would be a soup of decay by the time they arrived.
What made the Gros Michel and its successor, the Cavendish, remarkable was that they could make that trip at a temperature range of 55-58 degrees Fahrenheit, and so not even require lots of energy for refrigeration. Very few of the wonderful range of cultivated or wild banana types could ever do that, but because the Cavendish can be shipped this way, the energy and carbon footprint of its shipment is small. This crop has a very attractive “food-miles” profile.
In addition, it turns out that the conditions under which bananas grow can affect their shipping potential. There is a disease that infects only the leaves of banana plants called “Black Sigatoka.” If a banana tree has suffered too much of that infection, even the robust Cavendish variety won’t be able to make the trip by sea. One thing I learned on my tour was that plantations have employees whose whole job is to survey the plantation on a tree-by-tree basis in order to qualify the fruit for shipment based on how well that disease has been managed.
But it gets even more complicated than that (here’s a good video summary of the process). Bananas are picked in Central and South America at a “green” stage — imagine a fruit more completely green than the greenest one you’ve ever seen in the clusters in your store. When they get to their destination, they are put into “ripening rooms,” where they are exposed to ethylene gas to start them on the way to the ripe yellow fruit you know. Before you freak out, know that ethylene is the fully natural plant hormone that induces ripening in most fruits and vegetables.
There is a definite art to this ripening process, and highly valued experts who can assess each shipment of bananas know just how to handle them in the “ripening rooms” to achieve the goal of delivering “just right” bananas at retail. This process has to factor in issues like ups and downs in demand and turnover rates at key retail customer outlets, in addition to the condition of the incoming fruit.
I know that at the stores where I shop, I can consistently buy bananas that are close to ripe but not fully, such that I can hope to consume them all before they turn black. We consumers might think we have a balancing act to do when it comes to timing ripening and consumption of the bananas from our counters, but imagine that on a huge scale for the banana distribution chain.
There is one more critical element of the business model: Those ships that come to our ports loaded with bananas certainly can’t go back empty. The banana shipping companies are also seriously involved in their “back-haul” business of bringing back products of interest in the source countries. Having a well-understood, predictable crop helps with running that business efficiently as well.
So for the international banana business to work in a way that provides a relatively low-cost product acceptable to consumers, it needs to be able to function in a reliable and predictable fashion. Figuring out how to do this with a new banana variety would be a huge challenge. How do you grow it efficiently? Can the crop make the trip reliably? How can its ripeness be managed in order to meet both the distribution chain requirements and the needs of consumers for decent “counter life”? Will all of this work in a way that is compatible with a viable back-haul business?
So while it is easy to think that the banana industry is crazy to depend on one cultivar, I submit to you that it is not without reason and it implies no irresponsibility.
So does that just mean that we are inevitably going to live out the unintended prophecy of “yes, we have no bananas”? I think that depends on whether we continue to live in a world where anti-biotechnology groups are able to exercise the control that they currently have over our food system.
Let me explain. Remember that my introduction to bananas was based on excitement about what biotechnology could do for the crop. One of the concepts was to develop bananas that were resistant to that leaf infection disease that can compromise ship-ability. Control of that disease requires something like 40 fungicide sprays a year, so as you can imagine, there would be a huge cost savings if the trees could be made resistant.
The other concept on the table was modifying the banana so that it would stay in that nice yellow, but not yet black, stage longer on the consumer’s counter. I’ll never forget that in the first meeting about that idea, a participant who worked for a UK-based banana importer said in his very British accent: “Why would you want to do that? Don’t you know that the dustbin is a major consumer of bananas?” Obviously, he wasn’t attuned to current sensitivity to the need for food waste reduction. I thought it was cool that a banana company was serious about an idea that might reduce food waste, with the hope that it would make consumers more comfortable about buying even more bananas.
Well, these were just theoretical ideas at the time, and they didn’t go anywhere because it soon became evident that the anti-GMO forces were quite successful at putting brand-sensitive companies in an untenable spot if they were using “GMO crops” not just for generic ingredients but for brand-central crops. A dramatic example was how fast-food chains like McDonald’s moved to avoid biotech potatoes for their signature fries.
It quickly became clear to the banana companies that their brands and their retail store access could be compromised if they pursued “GMO” options. The irony here is that this would have been the most viable strategy with which to bring genetic diversity into the logical but extreme monoculture of bananas.
So the irony is that if the “yes, we have no bananas” scenario becomes a reality, it will be because we as a global society didn’t use a safe, viable, scientifically sound strategy to rationally deal with the problem in the banana crop.
Public institution scientists in Australia and entrepreneurial scientists in Latin America have come up with ways to modify commercially relevant bananas to resist the Fusarium disease. Ideally, there would be the potential to use several approaches, either in the same banana or in different fields; that would avoid delay selection for resistance and avoid yet another dependency on a single line. It is likely that the “heritage variety” Gros Michel could be made commercially viable once again!
If the Fusarium-resistant biotech bananas were introduced, activists would almost certainly attack them as “GMO.” Would any of the big banana companies have the guts to move forward with the technology in spite of the inevitable brand attacks by NGOs? Would any big food retailers be willing to resist the inevitable pressures not to stock that fruit? That retail blockage strategy is being used today against other new biotech offerings such as non-browning apples and potatoes and fast-growing, terrestrially raised salmon.
At one level, this is a question about what will be available for us as consumers. Will we continue to have this highly consumed, reasonably priced, child-friendly, healthy food option? Maybe not. But there is another big question.
One thing I witnessed on those visits to the banana industry back in the ’90s was that large communities in Central and South America flourish because of the jobs that this industry creates. We in the rich world will still have lots of other fruit choices if the stores have no bananas, but that flexibility isn’t there for the families that have been doing the work to provide us with this staple food option for so many decades.
I would think that most activists are the kind of people who care about the availability of healthy, low-cost fruit options; I doubt that they would want to see the banana-producing communities impoverished. However, if the current paradigm of anti-GMO intimidation of fruit companies and retailers continues, that is where we are headed.
A version of this story originally ran on the GLP on April 16, 2018.
Steve Savage is a plant pathologist and senior contributor to the GLP. His Pop Agriculture podcast is available for listening or subscription on iTunes and Google Podcasts. Follow him on Twitter @grapedoc