The banana is one of the world’s most important food sources. Only rice, wheat and milk feed more people than bananas, whether the cooking variety eaten across Africa and the Americas, or the dessert varieties enjoyed as snacks or breakfasts across the West. They’re also very profitable – out of their vast ranges, the only things that generate more profits for supermarkets are petrol and lottery tickets. In the UK we devour around 70 each a year.
But we should enjoy the banana while we can, because it is actually in considerable danger. As a species, the banana as we know is liable to collapse at any moment, and its story is an interesting case study in industrialised food production.
It’s an odd plant, the banana. We used to grow them in our garden in Madagascar, in two different varieties, and they’re unlike any other tree I can think of. Although called a tree, it’s technically an over-sized herb – a single stem that unfurls into broad and delicate leaves. It produces a rubbery, purple, heart-shaped cluster, and as the layers of this cluster peel back on themselves the little rows of bananas appear. In time, the plant will yield a great ‘hand’ of bananas, an odd stack of up-turned bunches that can grow so heavy that the whole plant tilts threateningly at the ground. Come harvest time, the plant is cut down. Each stem gets one harvest, one 12 month life-cycle, and then another is planted in its place.
This is the great weakness of the banana – it’s rubbish at reproducing itself. Or at least, it’s rubbish at being reproducible at industrial capacity. It’s a jungle plant. It was never meant to exist in huge plantations, and it hasn’t responded well to efforts to tame it. Basically, as it’s difficult to extract seeds from bananas, farmers tend to plant cuttings from existing trees. Each year, as one generation of trees is cut down at harvest time, the next generation of cuttings is growing. This means that across huge plantations of thousands of trees, every plant is from the same genetic stock – each tree is essentially a clone of its neighbour.
There are over 300 varieties of banana, chunky and thin ones, little and large, round and square, bitter and sweet. But we only know one kind. In the early days of the banana trade, it was decided which variety appealed most to consumers. Out of all the options, the one that would sell best would be a banana that looked good, wasn’t too big, and more importantly, was sturdy and thick-skinned enough to survive transportation. The banana companies settled on the ‘Big Mike’. Every plantation grew Big Mike. For decades it was the top banana, the only banana. But then came Panama disease, a choking wilt that destroyed whole plantations at a stroke. Because each plant is a clone, there’s no opportunity for cross-fertilisation, no chance to develop a resistance in the next generation. Whole crops were lost.
The answer was to increase fertilization, pumping the plants with copper sulphate and lime. The plants grew taller and were at greater risk from hurricanes, and plantation workers reported cancers and infertility, but the bananas survived Panama disease. But then came Sigatoka, another devastating plague, rampaging through Big Mike’s weakened genetic stock. By the 1950s, Big Mike had been wiped out.
The bananas we enjoy today are the Cavendish variety, the disease-resistant replacement to Big Mike. But, the same problems still exist. Bananas are still grown from cuttings, and we still make the mistake of only growing one v ariety. While the banana cannot evolve, the diseases can – Sigatoka may have been initially thwarted by a new type of banana, but new strains have emerged that threaten the Cavendish too. History is repeating itself. At the moment we’re in the fertilizer stage, with an ailing species propped up by massive doses of chemicals. But that won’t last forever. In time the banana as it is on sale today will no longer exist, a victim of industrial monoculture.
That time isn’t far off. In 2003, a report from the New Scientist declared that the banana would not see out another decade. Five years on we’re still planting the Cavendish. In the words of Peter Chapman in his book Jungle Capitalists, the fruit companies “took the fruit out of the jungle and turned a natural product into a commodity, a thing of commerce and the mass market. As a result it appears unequal to the task of survival.”