Going Bananas

This article appears in the Pre-Fall 2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below

Story by Gina Yu | Photography by Charlie Watts . 

Think banana pudding. Ooey, creamy, comforting to the core. Then think banana bread. Cinnamon and chocolate chips; the works. Now take a step back and think about the banana itself. Unlike apples, where there are Fuji, Gala, Golden Delicious and the classic McIntosh, there isn’t a second thought to picking up a bundle at the store. Yellow, crescent-shaped, predictable in flavor — it tastes like a banana, feels like a banana and smells like a banana. But what does that even mean?

It means that we consume a variety of banana that is harvested and produced in a way that you, me and your neighbor's brother in Alabama all get what we expect. Mass produces and mass distributed.

No, bananas aren’t manufactured in steel factories, painted in taffy-yellow lacquer then shipped out — though it’s starting to feel that way. Corporations like Del Monte, Dole and Chiquita thrive on an agricultural process called monoculture. Providing sprawling strands of an identical breed of crop, the process is more efficient and economical, but it doesn't necessarily make sense ... or taste very good.

Let’s take it back again. Back to the first half of the 1900s. There was “Big Mike.” The first variety of banana to be cultivated on a large scale; it was the banana that our grandmothers and grandfathers knew. More flavorful than the bananas on the market now, this was the monoculture banana of the 20th century, known otherwise as Gros Michel. Big Mike was loved by many. The banana symbolized the success of taking a produce, growing plots and plots of the same crop, letting it sit in massive bins, travel across the world, then endure sitting on grocery store shelves and household banana hangers for weeks. But then it didn’t.

A Panamanian disease called Tropical Race One (TR1) virtually wiped out the entire breed. The pathogen wilted leaves and infected plants from the inside until they toppled over and died. As the corporations saw their fields rot and crops fail, they moved from Costa Rica to Guatemala, then to Colombia and Ecuador, and the invasive fungi followed until the Gros Michel banana was nearly extinct.

Mike Peed wrote in The New Yorker that the global South actually grows and consumes around 1,000 varieties of bananas. But the vast majority isn’t what the banana export market supports. A little over 80 percent of bananas are consumed right in the region they are grown. The bunches tend to be small with thin skin, basically inappropriate for travel — especially thousands of miles across the world. So what exactly are we eating now?

The Cavendish. Portable, capable of mass yields and about 99 percent of all exported bananas today. The variety was chosen to resist TR1, though sacrificing in flavor and texture. Not many noticed the difference.

But like any virus you avoid, things only get worse: enter Tropical Race Four (TR4). It’s stronger, quicker and affects more varieties of bananas. TR4 infects a plant’s vascular system, strangling their water and nutrient supply, restricting their ability to carry out photosynthesis. The fruits are stunted and eventually die. It’s insanely contagious. Whatever comes in contact with the contaminated dirt can carry the fungus to other crops, and the spores left by dead plants can survive for decades.

Peed notes that scientists say the fungus has been in the soil for thousands of years. It just took the planting of identical fields of Cavendish to unleash it. As terrifying as the blight is, it isn’t the problem. It’s the export market that supports monoculture.

Dan Koeppel, author of “Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World,” says the solution is in genetic modification. Scientists are working to incorporate the hepatitis B vaccine and more vitamin A from fish.

The simple version of this history lesson goes as follows: one banana was mass produced, it died by virus, so an- other, tougher one was mass produced, which awakened a stronger version of the virus, and now the options are down to genetically altering the fruit (then mass producing more of them) or bio-diversifying.

GMO’s aside, the global conversation isn’t about the bananas. It’s about hunger. In an attempt to “efficiently” feed populations with monocultural agriculture, organizations are struggling to find solutions for rice and potatoes as well. So many farms are going back to the roots of how things used to be, planting multiple types of crops together (and with more varieties). This way, plants are stronger. Studies have shown that when planted near differing varieties, the plants have a better immune system — sans fish genes. And it’s more economical. The plots are filled year-round with seasonal crops, instead of leaving them bare for half the year, and this creates healthy competition for the roots. Trying to absorb maximum soil, the roots become thicker and able to produce robust crops (and more of them, too).

Planting the same crop next to each other, over and over, exhausts the soil of its particular nutrients. But get varieties together, and the product adapts and fights off harsh climate changes and sweeping diseases.

Whatever happens to the banana, pay attention. The Gros Michel isn’t around anymore, but the world deserves more than what is becoming gross. For the great love of banana pudding, keep an eye on them, because in the next years, they are about to dramatically change, or disappear from the grocery store altogether.