Musa Acuminata Colla or the edible banana, a Musaceae family member, has a dense and rich story to share that spans numerous generations. The historical narrative of bananas includes politics, parody, ingenuity, consolidation, and negligence. Banana is an excellent source of Vitamin B6, Fiber, Potassium, Magnesium, Vitamin C, Manganese, and “one serving, or one medium ripe banana, provides about 110 cal, 0g fat, 1g protein, 28g carbohydrates, 15g sugar, 3g fiber and 450mg potassium . Once the jacket is removed, the exposed meat serves as a great vehicle to deliver an amalgam of nutritional elements in any diet.
Ignoring the great controversy about peeling the skin, banana consumption has dominated the global landscape while being accessible to a diverse socioeconomic group. At this very moment, it is abstruse to find a grocery store that does not sell bananas. In an interview with David Rubenstein, CEO Doug McMillon of Walmart, America’s largest retailer, mentioned that the most sold item was bananas and clarified further,” We’ve got these rooms in food distribution centers, where the environment’s controlled in a way that the banana ripening process is more predictable so that we know we’re getting the banana’s to the store at the right time” . Such an earmarked plan of action in managing a banana eludes just one layer of the multi-faceted fruit.
“Edible bananas originated in the Indo-Malaysian region reaching to northern Australia. They were known only by hearsay in the Mediterranean region in the 3rd Century B.C. and are believed to have been first carried to Europe in the 10th Century A.D. Early in the 16th Century, Portuguese mariners transported the plant from the West African coast to South America” . Climate conditions, particularly in these tropical environments, allowed for better growth. This diasporic origination can be noticed in current production patterns with Ecuador, The Phillippines, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Columbia, serving as epicenters of banana production. According to Agricultural Outlook 2020-2029 report published by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and Foor and Agriculture Organization, “Based on 2017 figures, the global banana export industry generates around $12 billion per year. However, it is important to note that only around 15% of global banana production is traded in international markets” . Africa, the third-largest producing region globally, 70-80% of the production is local cooking varieties that contribute heavily to the area’s food security . Different producing regions support distinct consumption markets, proximity to the producing region serving as a principal variable. Latin and Caribbean producing parts attend to nations in the western hemisphere, whereas Asia supports countries in the eastern hemisphere.
As much as 40-50% of the 15% global banana production traded is the Cavendish variety. Cavendish banana can achieve “high yields per hectare, and due to its short stems, is less prone to damage from adverse weather events such as storms” . The banana ripening in the banana ripening room that Mr. McMillon spoke to would be the Cavendish variety. The banana conveniently hanging in the produce departments of grocery stores and the check out lane at a convenience store is the Cavendish variety. This one variety dominates the banana landscape, and a historical examination clarifies its ascendency.
Before the Cavendish banana dominated the banana landscape, it was the Gros Michel Banana or the Big Mike. “Gros Michel reigned as the king of all bananas in the 1950s – with a taste some have likened to artificial banana flavor – but poor Michel was almost completely wiped out by a fungus called Panama disease in the 1960s. Panama disease didn’t affect Cavendish bananas, so commercial farmers replanted” . One of the largest Gros Michel bananas producers affected by the Panama disease or Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense was the United Fruit Company, founded in 1899. The United Fruit Company was a banana monopoly, which, by the early 1930s, had absorbed more than twenty rival firms making it the largest employer in Central America. For example, in Guatemala, “The United Fruit Company was, essentially, a state within the Guatemalan state. It not only owned all of Guatemala’s banana production and monopolized banana exports, it also owned the country’s telephone, and telegraph system, and almost all of its railroad track” . This type of dominance in the social and political fabric of a country gave the United Fruit Company great authority over the nation’s trajectory.
The term “banana republic” discussed in a negative connotation, insinuates a volatile political country with an economy derived from the extrapolation of a limited resource. Countries in “Middle America,” referred to by the United Fruit Company, were conduits for such monopolies to expand their market share, which was as much as 90% of the market . For the better part of a century, the United Fruit Company dominated the banana landscape. While the United Fruit Company isn’t there anymore, “four companies – Chiquita, Fyffes, Dole, and Del Monto – control more than 80 percent of the world’s banana sales” . Additionally, like its predecessor, Big Mike, recent evidence suggests that the Cavendish is susceptible to disease as well.
“A new version of the fungus, called Tropical Race 4, is killing off the Cavendish variety. Tropical Race 4 has marched across China and Southeast Asia, laying waste to banana plantations” . “TR4 is recognized as one of the most aggressive and destructive fungi in the history of agriculture and the world’s greatest threat to banana production” . While there is an active effort to combat TR4, a variation of the Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense, history shows that there could be a possibility that the bananas, as we are familiar with, might look a lot different. As a society, banana is influential since they a great source of food and food security. Being a soilborne pathogen, “it inhabits the soil for a long time in the form of chlamydospores, penetrates the roots, extends in the tissues, colonizes and metastasizes in xylem vessels, and causes systemic yellowing, wiling, and death in plants” . A TR4 infection in a producing region can have incredibly devastating and long-lasting negative consequences on the soil. In our increasingly connected global world, it would be futile to think that the Latin American producing regions are immune to TR4.
On March 31st, 2020, in a blog post, Chiquita states, “Chiquita made the call to be actively involved in the process to find a solution for banana diseases and aims to influence other stakeholders to make a change, too” . If history tells us that disease can kill a variety of food, it also suggests that if a large multi-national applies its might, it can still create a substitute to support market needs. For pop-culture markers such as Miss Chiquita and Bananaman, the Cavendish banana was the canvas of creativity, but for TR4, the Cavendish banana is an opus for success.