Death of a Banana
June 2, 2008 10:34 AM   Subscribe

The world loves the banana - they are the world's most popular fruit and the fourth most consumed food on our planet. According to Johann Hari in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, it appears that the variety of bananas loved the world over - the Cavendish - is headed for extinction due to Fusarium oxysporum (Panama disease).

Apparently, this is not the first time that a variety of bananas has gone extinct. Before 1960, the Gros Michel was the world's most popular banana - it was said to have been bigger and tastier than the Cavendish -until Fusarium oxysporum wiped it from the face of the earth.

By the way, the U.S. Government used Fusarium oxysporum, as a biological weapon in South America in an attempt to eradicate the coca plant.

As you may have gleaned from the articles above, troubled and violent history of the business of bananas (involving the C.I.A.and United Fruit) as well as the future of the seemingly innocuous yellow fruit are explored in David Koeppel's Banana:The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.
posted by cinemafiend (32 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
posted by mullingitover at 10:47 AM on June 2, 2008

perhaps we should ensure that cavendish bananas continue to flourish by getting the United States Government to attempt to wipe them out?
posted by shmegegge at 10:53 AM on June 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

Wasn't there an exhaustive post about bananas here recently? Can't find it on search...
posted by sciurus at 10:54 AM on June 2, 2008

Metafilter's own Dan Koeppel, that is.
posted by ericost at 10:56 AM on June 2, 2008

I've never liked bananas. I don't like to eat anything that in both shape and consistency so closely resembles a turd.
posted by The Gooch at 10:58 AM on June 2, 2008

Ahh, that's where I saw it.
posted by sciurus at 11:00 AM on June 2, 2008

As someone who really, really hates bananas more than any other food (always have, no good reason), I'm struggling to feel sad about the economic implications of this for certain poor countries, while doing a little happy dance that maybe someday I'll never have to smell a banana again.
posted by gurple at 11:05 AM on June 2, 2008

Is Peak Banana caused by the Banana cartels? Is the government under the control of Big Banana? Find out tonight, on BNN!
posted by blue_beetle at 11:07 AM on June 2, 2008

Wow, there is some weird-ass banana hate going on in this thread for some reason. Did anyone think to store samples of that other banana before they went extinct? I'd imagine with modern cloning we'd be able to get it back.
posted by delmoi at 11:10 AM on June 2, 2008

Snopes thinks Peak Banana is bunkum.
posted by Addlepated at 11:14 AM on June 2, 2008

there are two primary complaints about GM food... one, that it's just magically bad because we don't know what will happen when we eat it, it's not been tested, etc, etc, etc... and two, that it can threaten species diversity, spread out of control, destroy non-gm food. The second is a moderately valid concern... but edible bananas are seedless, sterile, and don't reproduce or spread on their own. Bring on the GM bananas! Better yet, GM the better-tasting banana varieties that don't ship well so they ship well, and bring them on!
posted by Narual at 11:16 AM on June 2, 2008

That's cool, I prefer red bananas over Cavendish anyway.
posted by 1adam12 at 11:21 AM on June 2, 2008

I love bananas. There are a zillion varieties of bananas with different flavours, textures. Alas, all we get is the one common yellow banana. Maybe a little variety will help address the monocultural plague?
posted by Nelson at 11:28 AM on June 2, 2008

It's typical sloppy reporting, but the Gros Michel isn't extinct, just not commercially cultivated. In fact it may hold the key to developing newer fungus resistant varieties of banana
posted by Mitheral at 11:38 AM on June 2, 2008

The FPP incorrectly claims that the Gros Michel has gone extinct. The link given does not say so, and from Wikipedia:

The Honduras Foundation for Agricultural Research cultivates several varieties of the Gros Michel. They have succeeded in producing a few seeds by hand-pollinating the flowers with pollen from diploid, seeded bananas.

I've eaten bananas that farmers told me were Gros Michels, and they really are good bananas, lovely flavor, big, etc. (It is possible that what I ate were not true Gros Michels, but were similar enough to be called that, I am not a banana researcher and don't know. Basically, any banana on a small-scale banana farm makes the things you get at the grocery store taste like ground up cardboard in comparison.)

Here is an interesting piece, with banana researchers giving their response to the New Scientist piece that has sparked a lot of the publicity over the Cavendish's problems; their proposed solution is to go back to conventional crossbreeding, rather than genetic engineering. My guess is that both will be involved in finding new breeds that can be grown on a large scale and can tolerate the rigors of shipping.
posted by Forktine at 11:43 AM on June 2, 2008

I read the book, it's short, brisk, interesting. I really hate sub-titles "changed the world" or "the race to.." but stuck with it beyond the front cover. What I took away is what Nelson said is the amazing variety of banana's in the world, the one we all know is among the least tasteful, only because of its shipping properties, you have to go to south climes to experience the variety. And that our grandparents ate a different (better) banana entirely. And that it's really really hard to get a banana seed and takes a lifetime (or more) of work to hyberdize a new variety and that the only real hope lies in genetic manipulation.

Clearly, Metafilter has no bananas.

He also goes into the history of the "Yes, we have no banana's" craze of the 1920s.

Another "fruit book" out now is getting very good reviews The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce, and Obsession
posted by stbalbach at 11:43 AM on June 2, 2008

Did anyone think to store samples of that other banana before they went extinct? I'd imagine with modern cloning we'd be able to get it back.

I believe I've read/heard that there are still some Gros Michel bananas out there in people's back yards and whatnot. It's not that it's completely extinct, but rather that the plantations all became infected and so switched to the Cavendish. The Gros Michel is commercially extinct. And yes, there are banana genome repositories, which doubtless have Gros Michel in their collection, for all the good it does. Resistance to Panama disease isn't something that cloning alone can do for the beloved Gros Michel.
posted by mumkin at 11:43 AM on June 2, 2008

The Cavendish may be loved all over the New World, but not elsewhere! My grandfather had a plantation in South India on which he grew -- among other things -- bananas and plantains. There is just no comparison beween the pale imitation you get in supermarkets here with those magical fruits, especially the variety known locally as nenthrangai (romanicization approximate, and I don't know its western name), a large fruit with orange flesh. Yum!!!
posted by phliar at 12:14 PM on June 2, 2008

Many samples of banana/plantain tissue from various cultivars/landraces are now held worldwide and indexed by the Musa Germplasm Information System (click MGIS link in sidebar, it's an IP rather than a domain so I'm not linking it directly).

I, for one, welcome our new non-Cavendish bananalords. Let a thousand bananas bloom. Not only because the Cavendish is a little too sickly sweet for me, but because maybe if we chose an appropriate variety per region we could keep the plants in better health with fewer chemicals.
posted by eritain at 12:24 PM on June 2, 2008

Maybe big grocery stores can also stop selling the giant strawberries that look impressive, ship easily, don't bruise, but taste like crap?
posted by yhbc at 12:38 PM on June 2, 2008

Good call, yhbc. Same request goes for the enormous gala apples with the texture and taste of wet cardboard.
posted by mitzyjalapeno at 12:46 PM on June 2, 2008

The banana we eat today is not the one your grandparents ate. That one — known as the Gros Michel — was, by all accounts, bigger, tastier, and hardier than the variety we know and love, which is called the Cavendish. The unavailability of the Gros Michel is easily explained: it is virtually extinct. Introduced to our hemisphere in the late 19th century, the Gros Michel was almost immediately hit by a blight that wiped it out by 1960. The Cavendish was adopted at the last minute by the big banana companies — Chiquita and Dole.
posted by quonsar at 1:24 PM on June 2, 2008

Big Banana Is Watching
posted by quonsar at 1:25 PM on June 2, 2008

Here I was sitting at my desk feeling hungry and sullen as the workday wound down, and this post reminded me I had a delicious banana sitting in my backpack! Thanks, cinemafiend!

posted by kittyprecious at 1:36 PM on June 2, 2008

I blame the Geostationary Banana Over Texas. It is a Terrible Omen for all bananakind.
posted by Rhaomi at 1:37 PM on June 2, 2008

Apologies to soulbarn: Dan Koeppel not David Koeppel as stated in my post.

Also, apologies on my hyperbole on the demise of the Gros Michel. I really need to hire an editor and a fact checker before I submit my next post.
posted by cinemafiend at 1:41 PM on June 2, 2008

I shurely welcome the bananacolypse.

Over here, where I live I call the Average Joe "Swedish Banana". It's because they are all boring, identical, sexless clones. Just like the banana.
posted by uandt at 2:30 PM on June 2, 2008

I ate about five different kinds of bananas on my last trip to Brazil. Almost all were sweeter and more flavorful than the Cavendish, including the ones I was told (aftewards) are not traditionally eaten raw.

Bring on the Panama disease!
posted by jewzilla at 2:33 PM on June 2, 2008

I've become addicted to apple bananas, a small Brazilian variety popular here in Hawaii. I don't think I could go back to Cavendishes - they seem tasteless in comparison.
posted by kyrademon at 3:19 PM on June 2, 2008

Dan has been saying this for a while now.
posted by tellurian at 8:29 PM on June 2, 2008

Gooch, whatever you do, stay far away from this thread.
posted by TedW at 6:11 AM on June 3, 2008

Personally I don't fancy the Cavendish that much either; my favourite banana is known as the pisang mas in Malay. Its not as starchy as the Cavendish, and is sweeter in a honey-like way. A cursory Google search shows that there was a trial of this variety of bananas going on in Yorkshire; I've managed to find it for sale at some Asian grocery stores before too. Specifically, a Chinese grocer in Pittsburgh.

If you do land your hands on some, don't eat them till at least some black spots appear and its soft to the touch. It tastes so much better when fully ripe.
posted by destrius at 8:53 AM on June 3, 2008

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