It’s less sensational news than skyrocketing food and oil prices, but the beloved yellow banana may soon disappear forever. Bananas are even more heavily consumed in many parts of the world than rice or potatoes, but now a fungus called Panama Disease is turning them brick-red and inedible. Here’s the worst part: There is no cure for Panama Disease and it is spreading very quickly. Experts surmise that within the next three decades, the sweet and creamy food staple will be nonexistent.
Johann Hari of The Independent recently reported that, “The story of how the banana rose and fell can be seen a strange parable about the corporations that increasingly dominate the world – and where they are leading us.”
In the book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, writer Dan Koeppel explains how mega-corporations have exploited poor countries, and burned down rainforests to build massive banana plantations. Koeppel says that the banana business may provide a favorite fruit, but it is anything but sweet. The companies treat locals very poorly and are quick to crush any flicker of trade unionism. When banana fields begin to die from the strange disease, he writes, the corporations simply moved on to the next country.
If you assumed the history of bananas would be as mellow as the fruit it produces, you may be in for a surprise. Boring old bananas have a history seemingly ripped out of suspense novel.
“In 1911, the banana magnate Samuel Zemurray decided to seize the country of Honduras as a private plantation. He gathered together some international gangsters like Guy "Machine Gun" Maloney, drummed up a private army, and invaded, installing an amigo as president,” reported Hari, who has done extensive research on the topic. He explains:
The term "banana republic" was invented to describe the servile dictatorships that were created to please the banana companies. In the early 1950s, the Guatemalan people elected a science teacher named Jacobo Arbenz, because he promised to redistribute some of the banana companies' land among the millions of landless peasants. President Eisenhower and the CIA (headed by a former United Fruit employee) issued instructions that these "communists" should be killed, and noted that good methods were "a hammer, axe, wrench, screw driver, fire poker or kitchen knife". The tyranny they replaced it with went on to kill more than 200,000 people.
Wow. That’s an intense history for the seemingly innocuous banana, but what does it have to do with Panama’s disease? Apparently, when Panama Disease first began to kill bananas in the early 20th century, United Fruit's scientists began warning the corporation that it was making a serious error and needed to clean up their policies. For one thing, their “banana empire” was creating a precarious monoculture. The scientists recommended diversifying into a broad range of banana types. If all bananas stemmed from one homogenous species, one disease could wipe out the whole population.
But the company determined that they would rather stick with their current plan, which was bringing in a healthy profit today, and then get out of the banana business if things got bad.
By the 1960s, things did get bad. The Gros Michel that United Fruit had heralded as the world’s best banana was dead. In a scramble to find a replacement banana, they singled out the Cavendish. It bruised easily and was less creamy, but at least it didn’t have the fungus—at least not yet.
But the killer did return. By the 1980s, the Cavendish fell ill. Now it too is dying off. In parts of Africa, the crop is down by 60 percent. Scientists confirm that the fungus will most likely eventually infect all Cavendish bananas everywhere.
“There are bananas we could adopt as Banana 3.0 – but they are so different to the bananas that we know now that they feel like a totally different and far less appetizing fruit. The most likely contender is the Goldfinger, which is crunchier and tangier: it is know as ‘the acid banana’,” laments Hari. He continues:
Thanks to bad corporate behaviour and physical limits, we seem to be at a dead end. The only possible glimmer of hope is a genetically modified banana that can resist Panama Disease. But that is a distant prospect, and it is resisted by many people: would you like a banana split made from a banana split with fish genes?
For a hundred years, a handful of corporations were given a gorgeous fruit, set free from regulation, and allowed to do what they wanted with it. What happened? They had one good entrepreneurial idea – and to squeeze every tiny drop of profit from it, they destroyed democracies, burned down rainforests, and ended up killing the fruit itself.
But have we learned? Across the world, politicians like George Bush and David Cameron are telling us the regulation of corporations is "a menace" to be "rolled back"; they even say we should leave the planet's climate in their hands. Now that's bananas.
If history repeats itself, which it does tend to do, we may have to say goodbye to the banana we have come to know and love. If that happens, our grandchildren will only be able to imagine the soft creamy taste of the world’s former favorite fruit.
Posted by Rebecca Sato
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