Coffee rust and Panama disease: the problems with monocultures
March 20, 2017 9:18 AM   Subscribe

What started as a drink for social gatherings of nobility and the wealthy spread, and by the 1800s, the British were big fans of coffee with densely planted plantations in Ceylon satisfied their desires for caffeine. But then came coffee rust (previously), and soon after, so did a Scotish grocer, Thomas Lipton, who had Camellia sinensis shrubs planted to replace blighted Coffea trees. Given such a notable history, you would imagine other produce empires might learn some lessons from reliance on a monoculture, but not so the United Fruit Company, who replaced the popular but Panama disease-plighted Gros Michel with the look-alike Cavendish. Around a decade ago, the Cavendish first faced a similar threat to the Gros Michel: humans made the perfect banana, and soon it'll be gone.

Coffee in England? Indeed! European coffeehouses originated in Venice in 1629, and Pasqua Rosee opened the first coffeehouse in London in 1652, bringing some of the hundred year old Moroccan and Ottoman coffee house culture to England.

Coffee rust was first identified (JPG, full scan of The Gardeners' chronicle and agricultural gazette) by Reverend M. J. Berkeley and his assistant, Mr. Broome in 1869, and at that time they thought the monoculture cultivation was dangerous. This danger was also noted by Harry Marshall Ward, a British fungal biologist who visited Ceylon in 1887 (Google books preview). This set the stage for a transition from coffee to tea, as plantation land was going cheap in Ceylon, which Thomas Lipton capitalized on, and in doing so created a lasting legacy of consistent, inexpensive packaged teas, for European and American customers. But tea sales have been dropping, and twenty-somethings of the 1990s are largely to blame for the new-found addiction to coffee, but will the pendulum swing back as coffee rust is on the rise, due to increasing climate variation?

Back to bananas: the Irish botanist Charles Telfair is credited with introducing the banana to William George Spencer Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire. Cavendish's head gardener, Joseph Paxton, cultivated the plants successfully in greenhouses, and the Cavendish cultivar was first displayed in public in 1836 at the Horticultural Society's Show, when the British still drank coffee.

But bananas are finicky travelers, so the thick-skinned "dessert" Gros Michel was a favorite of tropical banana producers until the 1950s, when they shifted to a thinner skinned, less flavorful variety (Google books preview) that was resistant to the Panama disease that was impacting so many Gros Michel plantations. Valery is a type of Cavendish, which is currently the most common of the numerous types of bananas available, though vast majority of bananas grown today are for consumption by the farmers or the local community, with only 15% of the global production of the fruit grown for export. The new strain of Fusarium, Tropical Race 4 (TR4), is not yet found as widely as the first race of Panama disease (dynamic map embedded), but that's not to say it won't spread that far.
posted by filthy light thief (54 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

 
The big bad monoculture afflicting the planet: people, as connected via airline flights.
posted by hank at 9:36 AM on March 20 [4 favorites]


Coffee rust is insanely destructive. Like, terrifyingly so. I had the opportunity to go on a coffee buying trip to El Salvador last year. I got to see the whole spectrum of beautifully taken care of plantations that were like the garden of eden. Lush, green, well maintained. Like you could just curl up and take a nap. But on property lines, you could see where the rust had hit. Brown, dead, lifeless, dusty. It felt like a fire ripped through the property, but only burned up anything green. It was seriously as stark as the property lines in many cases.

The former, those nice lush coffee plantations, cost so much money to maintain and keep rust free. I mean, the result is a coffee that gives you fever dreams because of how tasty it is, but it costs +$4 or +$5 over the commodity price. A grower often has production costs that outstrip the commodity price of a coffee, which makes 'optional' expenditures for replanting and refreshing their land, let alone with rust-resistant coffees really difficult.

The Colombian government has put an inordinate amount of research into rust-resistant varieties of coffee, and some of them taste really good. The Castillo cultivar was kind of shit on for many years, because it was considered to be kind of acrid. It's only been in the last few years that you'll see some growers from the specialty market doing a good job with it. It's frustrating on all levels because it grows differently (the fertilizer schedule isn't typical for coffee varietals grown in Colombia) and it roasts super differently than what you expect to come from a Colombian coffee. It also doesn't necessarily carry the same stereotypical flavors that Colombia produces either. Don't get me wrong, it's good, just different. There are a lot of hurdles for coffees like this to be grown, and for coffee it's a slow process.

The most frustrating part about developing these varietals is that you're still pulling from a phenomenally small genetic pool. Most cultivars out there are from a few dozen different stocks. Some of those include some natural mutations and some interesting crossbreeding. But originally, almost all of Indonesia was populated with just one varietal; aptly named Typica. One of those trees was smuggled out and stowed in the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam. That single tree provided most of the stock for Latin America. The infusion of a couple other varietals eventually happened, but we're talking less than a dozen here. True genetic diversity of Coffea Arabica only exists in Ethiopia, and they've been intensely private about the genetic research of coffee. Until we get some sort of open access and larger scale breeding programs going with the numerous indigenous varietys of coffee from Ethiopia, we're going to be kind of chasing our tails.

This is part of why I'm a huge proponent of GMO coffee (though it doesn't exist yet).
posted by furnace.heart at 9:43 AM on March 20 [60 favorites]


All those old gags about slipping on banana peel? That was the greasy thick-skinned Gros Michel.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:45 AM on March 20 [17 favorites]


All those old gags about slipping on banana peel? That was the greasy thick-skinned Gros Michel.

You can still slip on a Cavendish.

Source: Toddler has learned how hilarious it is to subtly drop food on the floor.
posted by Etrigan at 9:48 AM on March 20 [12 favorites]


StickyCarpet, I hadn't thought of that, and it really does make sense.


The big bad monoculture afflicting the planet: people, as connected via airline flights.

Before quick country-hopping flights, ships were the first international invasive species vector (scientific study of house mice getting to a very remote island, thanks to sealers in the 19th century).
posted by filthy light thief at 9:50 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]


The same phenomenon can be observed with apples and grapes, which are also reproduced by cloning, though there are more commercially significant varieties of those than bananas. Some of the most commercially significant grape varieties are hundreds of years old. That's hundreds of years during which diseases and pests have evolved but the grapes have not. As a result, most commercial grapes require a complex chemical life support system of carefully rotated and precisely timed pesticides, fungicides, and anti-bacterials.

In the 19th century the entire wine industry was almost wiped out by a microscopic insect called phylloxera before it was discovered that resistance could be conferred by grafting European vines on to American rootstock, without affecting the taste of the product.

There are much hardier and disease-resistant grape varieties, but they don't taste as good (or at least not the same) as what people are used to. And so the wine industry soldiers on.

This is part of why I'm a huge proponent of GMO coffee (though it doesn't exist yet).

The apple and grape industries are extremely excited by the possibilities offered by CRISPR. The ability to confer disease and pest resistance on traditional varieties without affecting their flavor or appearance will be revolutionary, and should dramatically reduce the industries' dependence on pesticides and fungicides.
posted by jedicus at 9:51 AM on March 20 [17 favorites]


True genetic diversity of Coffea Arabica only exists in Ethiopia, and they've been intensely private about the genetic research of coffee.

World Coffee Research is open with their genetic research.

They've also done a lot of work with researchers and other organizations to develop hybrids:
The new hybrid coffee varieties, H1 and H3 that are being commercialized by ECOM in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Mexico are a cross between two arabica varieties taken from very different environments. In this case, H1 is a cross between a Sarchimore and Rume Sudan, a wild-type arabica variety. H3 is a cross between Caturra and an Ethiopian variety. In order to create these hybrids, the breeders cross them through hand pollination. The resulting offspring are called F1 hybrids. All the seeds that result from this combination are grown to maturity. This offspring, the F1s, have some genetic recombination of the parents, plus an extra bit of robustness that comes from the unique genetic combination (called hybrid vigor or heterosis in biological terms). The breeders pick one plant that expresses the right combination of disease resistance, yield, and taste to become the start of the new line.
The F1 Hybrids are starting to be grown from seeds now, and will bring additional disease resistance with them. As such, GMO may not be needed.
posted by Ausoleil at 10:03 AM on March 20 [10 favorites]


I lived for a few years in Far North Queensland, Australia, where 90% of Australia's bananas are grown. In 2015 one banana plantation suddenly found Panama disease for the first time in Queensland , and it was reported locally in a nigh-apocalyptic manner. They took strict biosecurity precautions, quarantined the plantation, and the farmers' council and government agreed to buy out the family that owned it simply so that they had no motivation to keep trying to do anything to make money from that plantation that might have even a slim chance of spreading the disease elsewhere. Australia's agricultural industry lives in terror of Panama disease - if it takes over, it will wipe out a massive half-billion-dollar industry and destroy peoples' livelihoods in a heartbeat.
posted by olinerd at 10:10 AM on March 20 [11 favorites]




I find it fascinating how often people will comment on how artificial banana flavoring tastes nothing like bananas themselves. The flavor we associate with banana candies was originally developed to taste like the Gros Michel, and now that the Cavendish is the default people think of as a banana, the candy just seems odd in comparison. What's truly interesting for me is that the time of the Gros Michel is well within living memory for most Boomers, but they frequently have no memory of the change having happened, and instead insist that it's the artificial flavor that changed, not the banana.
posted by mystyk at 10:22 AM on March 20 [17 favorites]


I recently wondered what the current state of the extinction of the Cavendish was. There were a lot of articles written 2 or 3 years ago, but no current info, so this should be interesting.

As a kid I always wondered about those big bunches of bananas in greengrocers in older children's books (like Richard Scarry).
posted by rikschell at 10:24 AM on March 20


(Continuing from my last...)
Similarly to bananas, the taste of tomatoes has also changed drastically, to the point that common varieties taste far inferior to heirloom varieties. But the common bland type seen in every grocery store (of which, like bananas, most of the change to it was within living memory for the Boomer generation) is now firmly seen as normal to the point that many people see heirloom tomatoes as too strange for normal consumption.
posted by mystyk at 10:28 AM on March 20 [6 favorites]


The flavor we associate with banana candies was originally developed to taste like the Gros Michel, and now that the Cavendish is the default people think of as a banana, the candy just seems odd in comparison.

This BBC article suggests that the story is a little more complicated.
posted by mushhushshu at 10:29 AM on March 20 [10 favorites]


I actually slipped on a banana peel once, in the parking lot at work. Spent the rest of the day keeping an eye out for anvils.
posted by thelonius at 10:33 AM on March 20 [36 favorites]


The apple and grape industries are extremely excited by the possibilities offered by CRISPR. The ability to confer disease and pest resistance on traditional varieties without affecting their flavor or appearance will be revolutionary, and should dramatically reduce the industries' dependence on pesticides and fungicides.

This might be the best metaphor I've ever seen for late-stage capitalism. Two times in less than a century, a massive (and completely genetically homogeneous) cash crop has been completely wiped out by a single vector, resulting in the loss of centuries-old vineyards and causing major dietary upheavals for those at the center of the blight. Now we're staring at a third crisis, unfolding exactly the same way as the first. We could cross-breed our bananas with any of the dozens of other, disease-resistant varieties... but that would screw up somebody's bottom line because you can't grow them as densely or economically. So we'll use CRISPR! THIS time I'm sure we'll get it totally right, and the lack of biodiversity in the resulting plant will live for a thousand years.
posted by Mayor West at 10:35 AM on March 20 [26 favorites]


The flavor we associate with banana candies was originally developed to taste like the Gros Michel, and now that the Cavendish is the default people think of as a banana, the candy just seems odd in comparison.

This BBC article suggests that the story is a little more complicated.


Or a little simpler: "banana flavor" is really just a single chemical -- isoamyl acetate -- and Gros Michel had more isoamyl acetate than Cavendish.
posted by Etrigan at 10:35 AM on March 20 [14 favorites]


Actually, it looks like there's no new information here about the current state of Panama disease. Just that it could spread and if it does, it could be devastating.
posted by rikschell at 10:37 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


@Mayor West apples are weird though in that the only way to grow a similar apple is to graft. The seeds in each apple are completely random. Each apple seed planted will yield totally random results and like 99% percent of the apple trees that grow from seeds will yield totally inedible apples. And banana seeds are rare as hens teeth, so where do you get the source seed material from to create a new genetic line with bananas?

The only anti-capitalist option is just to stop eating them altogether.
posted by Annika Cicada at 10:41 AM on March 20 [5 favorites]


(FWIW everything I know about apples and bananas came from "Botany of Desire" by Micheal Pollan so it is very likely I'm totally and completely wrong on this)
posted by Annika Cicada at 10:43 AM on March 20 [1 favorite]


Here's a good article about the drive to breed a better banana.
posted by rikschell at 10:45 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]


I actually slipped on a banana peel once, in the parking lot at work. Spent the rest of the day keeping an eye out for anvils.

I hope you didn't encounter any painted-on "tunnels" during your drive home.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:46 AM on March 20 [8 favorites]


mushhushshu and Etrigan, Re: banana flavor
Fair enough. I stand corrected.
posted by mystyk at 10:47 AM on March 20 [3 favorites]


The F1 Hybrids are starting to be grown from seeds now, and will bring additional disease resistance with them. As such, GMO may not be needed.

I've been following this, and am a huge fan of the WCR's work, but they still don't have access to the genetic diversity that Ethiopia guards. When you read a sentence like "This coffee's parentage is blah blah coffee, with blah blah coffee and X Ethiopian coffee, that means it was stolen, and smuggled through customs. I've known people who think the risk is worth smuggling live seed out of the regions where coffee grows wild, and have done it. But it's quite illegal to bring stable seed out of Ethiopia, and as far as my research has gone, they don't really grant academic or private access to their genetic stock. WCR's work could improve drastically by better access to better genetics, but Ethiopia is too protective to give it.

It's encouraging, and the quality of the coffee so far seems to be there. Those hybridizing efforts have been done in the past, but they're just move the goalposts for rust. Catimor is fairly rust resistant if it's young and fed well, but it tastes like butt.

I'm still a huge proponent of using genetic modification techniques to improve coffee quality and sustainability. (I mean, I personally would love to see something hardy enough to survive a frost, so you could plant coffee outside the tropics). Monocultures aren't good, but especially plants that have a super-fucking-hard time reproducing without human help, and clone themselves instead of propogating by pollen, are prime candidates for GMO tinkering.
posted by furnace.heart at 10:49 AM on March 20 [6 favorites]


SOYLENT YELLOW IS MADE OF BANANAS! ITS MADE OF BANANAS!




I'll show myself out now...
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:55 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]


And banana seeds are rare as hens teeth

My partner likes bananas and I don't, but I'm the one who cuts them up and puts them in the (Working) glass of yogurt she takes out of here most mornings, and so far just one time have I opened a banana up and thought 'what the hell horrible tropical disease got this one?' as it fell apart into 3 sections that somewhat resembled elongated sections of an orange, each infested with numerous regularly spaced round black objects the size of very small peppercorns, which did indeed turn out to be hard little seeds.
posted by jamjam at 11:06 AM on March 20 [4 favorites]


I hope you didn't encounter any painted-on "tunnels" during your drive home.

I'm lucky that the closest one that I know of is a good hour and a half outside my normal commute in the wrong direction.
posted by radwolf76 at 11:07 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]


The song "Yes, We Have No Bananas" was either written about, or popularized by (depending on whose story you want to believe) the Gros Michel blight, when grocers were frequently bereft of bananas.
posted by foldedfish at 11:08 AM on March 20 [5 favorites]


I actually slipped on a banana peel once, in the parking lot at work. Spent the rest of the day keeping an eye out for anvils.

I hope you didn't encounter any painted-on "tunnels" during your drive home.


Or any pianos, upon which you'd be irresistibly compelled to play "Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms."
posted by MrBadExample at 11:12 AM on March 20 [6 favorites]


Still, unlike the other previously noted comedy cliches, slipping on a banana peel occurs more in live-action slapstick, and not almost exclusively in cartoons. More like spit takes and pies in the face. And that is my quota of Cartoon Pedantry for this week.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:51 AM on March 20 [2 favorites]


And that is my quota of Cartoon Pedantry for this week.

Just then, oneswellfoop glanced down and realized he was standing in thin air, having wandered off the comedic cliff of pedantry. He has time for only a mournful look back at the thread before plummeting to his doom.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:57 AM on March 20 [11 favorites]


ctrl-F "Bananapocalypse"

no results found.


Metafilter, I am disappointed in you.
posted by dinty_moore at 12:03 PM on March 20 [3 favorites]


I came in here to say "Eh. I guess I could live without bananas" but instead I'm saying "Coffee?! HOLY SHIT GENETICALLY MODIFY THE FUCK OUT OF THAT RIGHT NOW WE COULDNT SURVIVE A SINGLE DAY OF AN INTERRUPTED SUPPLY CHAIN!"
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 12:20 PM on March 20 [14 favorites]


The only anti-capitalist option is just to stop eating them altogether.

Not so! While bananas in particular are really difficult, it is possible and common to breed apples and grapes and the like. (Here in central New York, Cornell University does a lot of research on breeding new varietals for these sorts of purposes.)

One of the funny things about apples is that even mutant trees that have poor flavor for eating out of hand tend to make great cider. If you have a whole bunch of trees, each of which are mutated in different directions, they all tend to balance out well when you press juice from the batch.

I actually have a crazy personal experiment running in breeding a few different types of native fruit trees for wine. (Because grapes are very susceptible to climate change, and climate change is scary, and scary is easier to cope with when you have wine.) I'll let you know how it's going in thirty years.

Not very economical, of course, but if you're going anti-Capitalist, go all the way, I say.
posted by ragtag at 2:15 PM on March 20 [7 favorites]


"Overspecialize and you breed in weakness. It's slow death."

-Scarlett Johansson
posted by glonous keming at 3:30 PM on March 20 [2 favorites]


The only anti-capitalist option is just to stop eating them altogether.

I don't like bananas OR apples, so I'm ahead of the game. Huzzah!

You can try taking coffee from my cold, dead hands though. Or what Slarty Bartfast said.
posted by littlesq at 4:00 PM on March 20


As a plant pathologist, I ought to defend my field. What we do is reactive, trying to fix what currently exists, which is monoculture. Yes, we shouldn't rely on single cultivars; we know that. I'd encourage all of you to grow diverse heirloom vegetables in your home garden. However, beyond that I'm stuck: at its current population, humanity can't sustain itself without mass cultivation of monocultures. Either we need to modify our monoculture crops to usher in a new "Green Revolution" at the expense of the environment, or we need to reduce our population to make other kinds of agriculture possible. Knowing that we may be losing 4-8 years of scientific research at this critical period makes me heartsick, because we need to deal with this. It's not just coffee and bananas. It's everything.
posted by acrasis at 4:08 PM on March 20 [24 favorites]


Metafilter: It's not just coffee and bananas.
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:16 PM on March 20 [2 favorites]


There are other species of coffee besides arabica that have potential. There's a guy in town promoting C. liberica as better suited to the lowland humid tropics where I live. He sources from local growers and roasts it himself - it's a great brew. My only complaint is the beans are so large they don't fit well in grinders designed for arabica. My hand grinder can't accept them at all. I have to keep pushing them down the chute of my electric mill with a little plunger tool I made. Presumably when arabica starts to die out, Krups and the gang will retool.
posted by BinGregory at 6:05 PM on March 20




There's also a really crazy Coffea cousin. I've had a little bit of it, and the potential for hybridization is apparently kind of there (from what I'm told). It's called Eugenioides (woah there sexy name...) There's a better write up than I could do it justice here.

It tastes kind of like coffee without any of the acidity. It's really sweet, and the stuff I had tastes kind of like fruitloops? It's an odd experience, but the flavor shift is somewhat akin to the 'banana' vs 'banana flavor.'

Are there any Coffea species out there that don't operate explicitly between the tropics?
posted by furnace.heart at 7:08 PM on March 20 [3 favorites]


I'm trying to grow diverse heirloom varieties in my backyard but it's so bloody hard to get hold of the rarer banana varieties that it's well nigh impossible to find any - almost entirely due to the "you're not allowed to grow them because you might well contaminate the farms" policy, even though I am 1000km SOUTH of the nearest commercial plantation. There are cold-weather hardy banana varieties (like the Blue Java, or Dwarf Red Dacca )but I'll be damned if I can get my hands on them.

I don't even want the fruit. I just want the leaves, stalks and flowers to cook with!
posted by ninazer0 at 8:04 PM on March 20 [2 favorites]


This might be the best metaphor I've ever seen for late-stage capitalism.

"Late-stage capitalism" implies that there's some sort of way out.

Blights happen. Potatoes in Ireland were largely grown for individual consumption, yet the blight still hit. American chestnuts were native to this continent, yet they're gone. (That disease changed the economy of Appalachia, from what I've heard.) That disease that's killing citrus trees in North America kills our native citrus variants, too.

Hoping for "natural" alternatives is something we can't afford to do. Even if there is a single disease-resistant variety of plant, that's a single variety -- and it's resistant to the diseases we currently have, not to diseases that might arise in the future.

I lived in the Elm City for four years, yet I've never seen a living elm. If CRISPR could bring the elms back, bring it on.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 8:32 PM on March 20 [3 favorites]


I couldn't give a flying fuck about bananas, but what in hell's name is an Easy fucking Peeler? Supermarkets used to be full of Tangerines, Mandarins and Satsumas -- now, the only small citrus fruits they sell are these Easy Peelers.

I've no idea what they are, but I refuse to eat them on principle. Easy Peeler is an adjective, not a noun.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:58 AM on March 21 [2 favorites]


And what's the deal with how I can't buy an unsliced Hormel Cure 81 anymore?
posted by thelonius at 5:18 AM on March 21


Don't worry guys, there are free bananas in the kitchen!
posted by bilabial at 5:58 AM on March 21 [1 favorite]


It's only tangentially relevant, but I'm very excited that I planted a banana tree in my garden last week and it already has two new leaves! It's a lady finger, so not totally exotic, but also not bog-standard Cavendish. I can't believe it took me two years of living in Sydney to realise that our climate is perfect for banana growing.
posted by lollusc at 6:49 AM on March 21 [1 favorite]


From the Wired article linked as 'humans made the perfect banana, soon it'll be gone' -
As a result, a smaller number of people on earth go hungry today than at any other moment in the last thousand years.

*Record scratch*

Can't let that slide. Can I trust the rest of the article?

You are going to have to show your working on that one! It would appear that proportionally there are less people who are undernourished, but the global population is continually increasing. Massive, and unsustainable, increases in yield are not going to solve the hunger issue without inequalities in food distribution being tackled.

Global human population numbered 1 billion around 1800, today it is estimated that one in nine go to bed hungry, a total of 795 million people*. A thousand years ago there were only around 275 million people globally.

* It is estimated that 1 in 4 children in the US are malnourished, 1 in 5 in the UK.

Anyway, the global homogenisation of bananas is a tragedy for banana lovers everywhere! This Friday my friend was wistfully remembering a small white banana she had in Tanzania which tasted like banana toffee. When I say a small white banana, I mean a bunch that were devoured immediately. Driving around you would find each area had a distinct kind of fruit. I had a pink banana in Queensland, Australia, that was absolutely delectable.

I would love to try a Gros Michel!

Like everything else that is profit driven for maximum output, we are neglecting the interesting varietals to our own disadvantage. Genetic outliers are the survivors in evolution.
posted by asok at 7:07 AM on March 21 [2 favorites]


Steady-state strawberry, work is being done to restore the American Chestnut with disease-resistant strains. My understanding is the research breeding program is nearing completion, trial forest plantings are happening (several thousand acres), and large-scale reintroduction is a decade or so away.
posted by ryanrs at 7:14 AM on March 21 [1 favorite]


large-scale reintroduction is a decade or so away

I very much want this to be true, but resistant american chestnut and elm were a decade away from reintroduction two decades ago. Maybe this time!
posted by BinGregory at 7:59 AM on March 21 [1 favorite]


asok: I would love to try a Gros Michel!

Someone asked about this on Quora, and the top answer provides a few routes to getting a Gros Michel, including finding them on the menu of a fancy restauraunt or contact a well-connected fruit produce vendor.

For those in the US, Going Bananas has almost 60 varietals for sale as corms or tissue culture. They're based in Florida, FWIW.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:01 AM on March 21 [1 favorite]


"As a plant pathologist, I ought to defend my field. What we do is reactive, trying to fix what currently exists, which is monoculture. Yes, we shouldn't rely on single cultivars; we know that. I'd encourage all of you to grow diverse heirloom vegetables in your home garden. However, beyond that I'm stuck: at its current population, humanity can't sustain itself without mass cultivation of monocultures. Either we need to modify our monoculture crops to usher in a new "Green Revolution" at the expense of the environment, or we need to reduce our population to make other kinds of agriculture possible. Knowing that we may be losing 4-8 years of scientific research at this critical period makes me heartsick, because we need to deal with this. It's not just coffee and bananas. It's everything."
Seriously, this.

While opposition to monoculture has been a popular way to take the complex discipline of agronomy and distill it down to a pithy platitude that is as simple and easy to understand as it is wrong, we should be better than that here. We might like to pretend that science denial and the kind of thought stopping exercises that allow people who have given a subject less than five minutes thought to feel as if they know better than experts are the exclusive domain of the right wing, but this thread is a perfect example. Farming is the art of growing useful plants to the exclusion of non-useful plants, and its a lot easier to do in a lot of very important ways when you are only growing one plant at a time.

In the modern world with 7 billion mouths going on 10 billion, opposition to monoculture is precisely synonymous with support for famine, a horror you sitting in front of a keyboard will hopefully never experience as a result of the efforts of researchers like acrasis who didn't google up their knowledge of plant pathology.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:48 AM on March 21 [4 favorites]


I find it fascinating how often people will comment on how artificial banana flavoring tastes nothing like bananas themselves. The flavor we associate with banana candies was originally developed to taste like the Gros Michel, and now that the Cavendish is the default people think of as a banana, the candy just seems odd in comparison. What's truly interesting for me is that the time of the Gros Michel is well within living memory for most Boomers, but they frequently have no memory of the change having happened, and instead insist that it's the artificial flavor that changed, not the banana.

Cuties, the brand of orange things sold in major grocery stores, is just whatever seedless orange things are currently ripe. It is different species and different cultivars practically every time you buy a bag.
posted by srboisvert at 10:48 AM on March 21 [2 favorites]


I went looking for basic info on GMO bananas (I *think* I remember that one of the hold ups is that bananas are hard to transform, but maybe I'm thinking of something else. pineapples?) and this is the top image result that popped up for me and now I will be amused for the rest of the day. If I had a banana I would be recreating this picture for you right now.
posted by maryr at 11:30 AM on March 21 [1 favorite]


Cuties, the brand of orange things sold in major grocery stores, is just whatever seedless orange things are currently ripe. It is different species and different cultivars practically every time you buy a bag.

This explains so much about my experience in eating cuties and sometimes loving them and sometimes hating them (I am very picky about my citrus).
posted by dinty_moore at 11:32 AM on March 21 [3 favorites]


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