How the Banana Came To Be—And How It Could Disappear
Emily Monosson on the History, Evolution, and Biological Enemies of a Staple Fruit
Bananas are a fruit that unites the world. We may not all eat the same variety, but we all know a banana when we see one. Depending on where you live and what kind you eat, they are sweeter or starchier, creamy or tough, all loaded with potassium. Per person in the United States we eat about twelve kilograms (twenty-seven pounds) of bananas a year, more than any other fresh fruit. Elsewhere around the world, bananas are part of the daily diet. After maize, wheat, and rice, they are the world’s fourth most important staple crop. In some regions bananas provide 30 to 60 percent of daily calories. Though there are thousands of varieties, most of us in the western world eat only one: the Cavendish. These are the sweet “dessert” bananas we find piled on grocery shelves, hanging in convenience stores, and ever-present in cafeterias. Cavendish are also known as “export bananas” because most are not consumed in the tropics where they are grown but instead are shipped to the United States, Canada, Europe, China, and elsewhere. Of the twenty-two million tons of bananas exported to the United States, Europe, and Asia, most are grown in Latin America and the Caribbean. Many of those are grown in Ecuador, Guatemala, and Costa Rica.
The rest of the world’s crop, grown on large and small farms and in backyards around the world, are a variety of cooking bananas or plantains (which are bananas that tend to be starchier and tougher skinned) with names like matoke, Lacatan, Rhino Horn, and Pisang Awak. More than one hundred different plantain cultivars grow in West and Central Africa, where they are a staple food for over seventy million people. For millions of small-scale growers and family farmers the fruit provides both calories and income. Over a million people are employed by the industry, picking, packing, and growing the roughly one hundred billion bananas consumed each year. Many of those millions are employed by companies like Chiquita, Fyffes, Dole, and Del Monte, all growing primarily Cavendish. The fruit sustains a $40 billion global industry.By 1913 Americans were eating on average over twenty pounds of bananas a year per person.
The banana plant is easy to mistake for a tree, but it is the largest known herbaceous flowering plant. Banana plants belong to the genus Musa and are recognizable by their large, long, fibrous leaves that umbrella away from the stalk. The plants grow, produce flower and fruit, and die. New banana plants grow as shoots that sprout up from the main stem’s base, making each generation a clone of its parent. The cultivated fruits, whether Cavendish or any of the popular varieties of cooking bananas, typically have no seeds. The lack of seeds means that from a genetic standpoint we have been eating the exact same kind of banana for some fifty years.
Depending on how and where it is grown, a typical Cavendish plant bears fruit seven or eight months after planting. The bananas emerge from the plant’s weird, oversized, and unmistakably sexual flower, which produces a single bunch of bananas. The large, drooping bunch is composed of dozens of banana “hands,” the smaller groups of five or six or more bananas that we find hanging by the checkout counter in the market. By harvest time a full banana bunch weighs between twenty and thirty-five kilos (forty-four to seventy-seven pounds). The plant is an incredibly productive herb.
Bananas are Luis Pocasangre’s life work. Pocasangre is the research director and professor at EARTH University in Limón, Costa Rica, where he oversees 439 hectares of banana plants. He grew up in Honduras, the original banana republic, where, he says, “bananas were everywhere and everything.” Even the tennis courts on which he learned to play the game were owned by Chiquita. That he decided to devote his career to bananas was the natural course of things. The banana world is incredibly international. Pocasangre received his doctorate in Germany, but before that he studied plant breeding and biotechnology in Costa Rica, while working on a project for a French agricultural organization. Then he worked with Phil Rowe, a legendary scientist and banana breeder. Over three decades Rowe worked for United Fruit in Honduras, where he bred disease-resistant, good-tasting bananas for both export and cooking. Pocasangre now grows several of the hybrids developed by Rowe at EARTH, where he also teaches sustainable agriculture and how to grow bananas to students mainly from rural communities.
Bananas grown for the market need a lot of care, which translates to countless hours of labor. Throughout Pocasangre’s orchard the developing bunches are protected inside bright blue plastic bags that protect the fruits from pests. There are plenty of predators who feed on the sweet, starchy fruit: nematodes, thrips, weevils, beetles, bacteria, and fungi, any one of which might scar, rot, or spot the fruit, ruining the perfection we consumers expect. On a conventional plantation the inside of the bags are treated with an insecticide like chlorpyrifos. The chemical is a known neurotoxicant that has been withdrawn from some markets. At least one study of children living near commercial plantations found that they had been exposed to potentially harmful levels of the chemical. For these reasons and others, in 2021 the US Environmental Protection Agency banned its use on food crops. At EARTH the bags are treated with a combination of garlic and onion oil, and an unmistakable sulfurous smell wafts across the plantation. In addition to the plastic protection, banana workers slip cardboard sheets between each cascading row of banana hands to prevent them from scarring one another. Large, ripe bunches travel from field to processing plant, hanging from a wire tram that runs throughout the plantation like some otherworldly commuters on a trolley. When the banana tram arrives at the processing plant, the fruits are power-washed and examined for blemishes. Workers pick dead “flowers” from the end of every fruit. Then the hands are separated from the bunch and floated in large vats of water as workers pick, pack, and label the best-looking banana hands for export. Each banana you buy has been handled with kid gloves by dozens of workers. Boxed bananas are loaded onto a container truck ready for their journey to the United States, Europe, or elsewhere. Some travel for a week or two before they are unpacked and laid out at Whole Foods or Aldis and labeled “sustainably grown.” The rest are sold locally.
One of Pocasangre’s research interests is using beneficial microbes and a probiotic sort of fungus called Trichoderma to prevent insect pests like microscopic nematode worms. Some strains of this common soil fungus, along with other amendments like composted banana plants, are a biological treatment for the nematodes that eat the plant’s roots. Treated plants stand tall. Untreated plants lean on bamboo poles because their roots can no longer support the tall stalks. The alternative control is injection of pesticide gas. The biological treatment works well on bananas, but “bananaeros”—banana growers—are a conservative group resistant to change, so many still rely on conventional pesticides.
EARTH’s plantation land is split into widely separated blocks that Pocasangre and others use as a living laboratory to test sustainable solutions for growing the fruits. Between the blocks are forest, wildlife, and river. This arrangement of agricultural crop interspersed with native plants is a form of agroforestry, an alternative to the sweeping, singular monocrops. By not planting every inch of soil with crop, pests and pathogens can’t easily travel from one host to another. It isn’t hard to imagine how the spacing could discourage the spread of a fungus that might otherwise travel from leaf to leaf or root to shoot. Some blocks at EARTH have papaya trees interspersed with the bananas; others combine Cavendish with different cultivars like red Macabu and plantain.
“A real bananara,” says Pocasangre, “will be three thousand, six thousand hectares all in the same banana-growing region. No separation. Grown as a monoculture because it’s more profitable.” Some plantations are even larger. The vast majority of Cavendish are grown in this way, as monocrops, making them ripe targets for fungi.
A century ago a fungus identified as Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense nearly destroyed the banana industry. The disease caused by this fungus (the so-called Race-1 strains that are actually different species) became known as Panama disease or Fusarium wilt of banana. The favored host of the fungus was not the Cavendish but a banana variety called Gros Michel. Gros Michel bananas were the first “big banana.” That cultivar’s popular history began with its discovery in Southeast Asia. A nineteenth-century French naturalist impressed with the fruit brought a bit of banana plant to the island of Martinique. From there a French botanist brought it to Jamaica. The fruit grew well on the islands, and because they were encased in thick yellow skin, they shipped well too. And it ripened aboard ship. Within decades Gros Michel bananas were popping up on farms all along Central America’s Caribbean coast.
By the late nineteenth century, bunches of Gros Michel bananas were offloading at ports in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Boston. Americans found a new fruit to love. The lucrative combination of desirable and cheap caught the attention of a Cape Cod ship captain and a Boston grocery worker. In 1885 they formed the Boston Fruit Company, the first commercial banana company. Later renamed the United Fruit Company, by 1930 it was worth more than $200 million. The company’s dark history and that of other early exporters is detailed in John Soluri’s book Banana Cultures and Dan Koeppel’s Banana. As complicated as the business end of bananas was, the agricultural history of the Gros Michel was for a time simple: growers planted it and it grew. By the early twentieth century the tropical fruit was flourishing in Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Guatemala, and anywhere else growers could profit from planting it. By 1913 Americans were eating on average over twenty pounds of bananas a year per person, and United Fruit had seventy thousand hectares in production.They essentially invited the fungus to the table by providing it with a nearly endless monocrop and a means of travel.
Of the hundreds of known strains of Fusarium most are harmless saprobes living in the soil, sending out filamentous hyphae, and feeding on dead things. But the Race-1 fungi were insidious killers. No one questions how the fungus spread across Gros Michel plantations: the constant growing of monocrops enriched soils with spore. Wherever soil traveled, spores did too: on plants or suckers, on the soles of a worker’s shoe, on a truck’s tires, with trickles of water, and in floods, hurricanes, and typhoons. Bits of banana plant including leaves, commonly used for packing, could move the fungus farther away.
The industry’s response was to cut virgin forest and create new fields. Some fields were flooded and then replanted with shoots from infected plants. Because flooding suffocated both the disease-causing fungus along with much of the beneficial soil microbiome, the disease came back with a vengeance. Old plantations were left to rot. Over the years United Fruit scientists tried and failed to find a suitable replacement or breed a resistant, palatable hybrid banana. Eventually industry losses began draining millions of dollars a year from the bottom line. It wasn’t just United Fruit or just Central and South America; the fungus hit growers in Asia, Africa, Latin America, wherever Gros Michel grew. And the growers were to blame. They just kept planting the same old thing in different places.
The outcome was disastrous. It would have destroyed the entire industry except that the Race-1 fungi were also limited because of their affinity for the commercial banana. The fungus doesn’t infect most other strains of banana, including Cavendish. The Cavendish banana had been known by horticulturists for at least half a century. It was believed to have originated in China, shipped at some point to the island nation of Mauritius controlled by the Dutch, then the French, and then the British (the nation became independent in 1968). When the banana arrived on the island sometime around the turn of the eighteenth century, the British horticulturalist and physician Charles Telfair planted some in his garden. In the late 1820s Telfair sent a sample of the plant back to England, which was planted and then replanted in gardens of wealthy collectors of exotic plants and animals. The banana eventually set roots in the garden of the sixth Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish. Throughout the century the Cavendish banana traveled to colonies and locales in the South Pacific, Egypt, and South Africa.
The Americas at that time had no use for the fruit; they had the Gros Michel. Even as the banana industry took off, the Cavendish was considered too delicate compared to the Gros Michel. The banana didn’t ship as easily as the Gros Michel, which could be tossed onto ships in bunches. The Cavendish was easily bruised and so had to be boxed. Some thought it wasn’t as sweet. Still, it looked and tasted familiar enough, and when Race 1 emerged, it was resistant. Grudgingly the industry switched, changing the process of picking and shipping, and pulling on the kid gloves to provide consumers with the perfect, unblemished banana. Within a few decades Cavendish bananas were growing across enormous monocropped plantations, replacing the Gros Michel. By midcentury United Fruit rebranded with the rollout of the “Chiquita” brand and its eponymous jingle. In 1990 the company rechristened itself as Chiquita Brands International. As a global produce company it remains one of the largest distributors of bananas in the United States.
Now Chiquita, along with the rest of the industry, is facing another round of the dreaded Fusarium wilt. This time it is a highly aggressive fungus called Fusarium odoratissimum and known as Tropical Race-4, or TR4. Unlike Race-1 strains, this fungus infects Cavendish plants. To paraphrase Koeppel, the industry could almost have expected this sort of reckoning. And yet they essentially invited the fungus to the table by providing it with a nearly endless monocrop and a means of travel.
Excerpted from Blight: Fungi and the Coming Pandemic by Emily Monosson. Copyright © 2023. Available from W.W. Norton & Company.