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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Review: Banana - The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World

I love bananas. They are by far my favorite fruit, and judging from the statistics in the book, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, I am not alone. Americans consume 26 million tons of banana a year, and it is a more popular snack than anything except the potato chip. (I find that amazing)

So when I read that the banana is under threat from Panama disease, I put this book on hold from the library in order to learn more about my favorite fruit. Bananas are essentially clones, since the edible bananas are all seedless. (By the way, apples are also mostly cloned, since while you can plant an apple seed, chances are, the fruit that results is unlikely to resemble the sweetness of its parent) As a result, the fruit is susceptible to disease: once a virus has figured out how to attack one banana tree, it can essentially ravage a plantation, leading to widespread decimation and even extinction of an entire banana species.

In fact, this has happened once before, when the Gros Michel was replaced by the modern Cavendish banana. The Cavendish was brought in because it resisted panama disease... until banana companies tried to plant the Cavendish in Asia and discovered that it too, succumbed to another variant of the disease. In essence, the existing banana plantations live under the threat of a time bomb - sooner or later, that disease will migrate to South/Central America where all those big plantations are and decimate that population, at which point we will have no choice but to switch to a new variety of banana or give up our favorite fruit.

Breeding a seedless plant is full of challenges, and Dan Koeppel does a good job of exploring all the avenues and detailing everything that's been tried and failed. While there are candidate successors, the cost has been high, and the taste of those bananas just different enough from the Cavendish that it would be risky for existing banana companies to try to get the market to switch over until absolutely necessary. Another interesting approach is genetic engineering, which Koeppel explains is far less dangerous with a seedless plant like the banana than with other plants. Of course, we all know about the political problems with that approach.

A large portion of the book is about the history of the banana companies in Central/South America and the politics behind it. This section was less personally interesting to me, but it is absolutely huge! Basically, the banana companies have been instrumental in various juntas and deposition of dictators in various countries (with and without the assistance of the U.S. government), and clearly this has led to the rise of the "banana republic", with the resulting degradation of worker conditions in various countries. Our favorite fruit is cheap only because it is paid for, in many cases with worker's lives and widespread land-grabs by the banana companies.

All in all, this is an entertainingly good book, and I urge everyone who has a chance to read it to do so. Especially if you like bananas. Recommended

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