America’s Journey to Banana Land: Part 2

[Missed the first part of this food history article? Click here to read it.]

By the end of the 19th century, bananas became available to everyone at low prices. While they quickly lost their elite status and disappeared from the tables of the wealthy, their popularity among the growing middle class exploded. Unlike many fruits of the time, they were uniformly sweet, healthy, and available year-round. But perhaps more importantly, they were (and still are) cheap. In just the first ten years of the 20th century, consumption of bananas tripled—from around 15 million bunches annually to over 40 million. Still, United Fruit wanted bananas to be more than just the occasional snack.

When, in 1929, a consumer survey found households with children bought more bananas than those without, they began a marketing campaign aimed at families that would last for decades. When researchers found mothers sometimes fed mashed banana to babies as one their first solid foods, United Fruit both hired doctors to endorse the idea and launched an advertising campaign encouraging more mothers to do the same, ensuring children grew up eating bananas from the very start.

Not content with marketing only to children indirectly, United Fruit established an “Education Department” (reportedly separate from their advertising department) that created teacher’s guides on the food value of bananas, lesson sheets, filmstrips, classroom posters extolling bananas—even a full-color 20-minute educational film, called “Journey to Banana Land” showing bananas traveling from charmingly rustic fields to modern supermarkets, while also extolling the virtues of United Fruit, bringing “20th century living” to Central America.

Still, the biggest change to the banana was yet to come, and this time, it wasn’t a change implemented by United Fruit. It would come from a fungus: Fusarium oxysporum, better known as Panama disease.

The bananas we eat, as you’ve probably noticed, are seedless. (The black specks at the center of a banana are its vestigial seeds; any viability was bred out millennia ago.) Every banana plant is an offshoot of a rhizome, much like a potato when the “eyes” sprout. Each offshoot from the original rhizome will become its own plant. While they may differ slightly in appearance or even in taste, because of this unique form of propagation, every banana is genetically identical, sharing the same DNA, the same strengths, and the same deadly weaknesses.

When Panama disease first appeared in the early part of the 20th century, virtually all the bananas grown for export to the United States were the Gros Michel, or “Big Mike” variety. They were large and reportedly sweeter than the Cavendish variety we eat now. They were also remarkably sturdy — the bananas could simply be cut down by the bunch and tossed into ships’ cargos‚ making them ideal for transporting long distances.

Surinam, along the northern edge of South America, was the first to report the new fungal disease that was destroying its banana plantations. Upon entering the plant through water taken in by the roots, the fungus spreads into the trunk and leaves, internally gumming up the flow of water and nutrients, until the plant wilt and buckles. Spraying with fungicides was found to have no effect — the only thing banana plantations could do were to simply pick up stakes and move operations to uncontaminated land. This strategy worked, in the short term, but the fungus continued to catch up to the relocated plants.

Over decades, the fungus spread to the Caribbean and then to Central America, the heart of United Fruit’s plantations. By 1960, the Gros Michel banana was all but extinct. The Cavendish variety‚ with its resistance to this fungal disease‚ would take its place. Nearly twenty years after the first commercial trials of the new variety began, the switch to the Cavendish banana was completed‚ and with such success that 1970 saw an overabundance of bananas on the market, and the already-low prices dropped even further. Realizing the new variety needed to be handled more delicately than its predecessor, United Fruit not only adapted quickly to this banana variety’s need to be gently boxed and bagged, they found an opportunity to expand their brand even further: they began putting branded stickers on every other banana in the bunch.

While Panama disease was perhaps the most recent and most drastic change for the banana, it may not be its last. A new, even more virulent strain of Panama disease, one to which the Cavendish has no resistance‚ began appearing in Asia in the late 1980s. The question now is not if it will arrive in every banana plantation around the world, but when.

In just under 150 years, the banana has gone from being a distant, tropical luxury, virtually unheard of by most Americans, to what is now a healthy snack found in every home in the country and a cheap staple we perhaps rely on too much. What will happen if and when the Cavendish banana, with its homogenous gene pool, goes the way of the Gros Michel? There is, as of right now, no new cultivar poised to step in and take its place. Perhaps then the next step for the banana will be one that wipes out all its previous changes, and less durable banana varieties will be grown on a small scale in a handful of remote locations‚ at that point, bananas could easily return to being a rare extravagance to be enjoyed by the affluent.

Here’s hoping we won’t also have to return to eating them with knives and forks.


Endnotes: Speaking as my own worst enemy editor, I’m not especially happy with this second half. I had a limited amount of time and words for this piece and I ended up rushing through (or past) much of the details in this half, like the incredible marketing campaign United Fruit put on for decades — the story of when they switched from being United Fruit to Chiquita, which I didn’t really even touch on, could have been its own paper. (The catchy jingles! The Chiquita Banana lady logo [drawn by the Hagar the Horrible guy]! Even Chiquita Banana costume patterns for Halloween!)

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2 thoughts on “America’s Journey to Banana Land: Part 2

  1. I totally get the own worst enemy thing, and the Chiquita name and lady might have been a nice digression in a New Yorker-length piece. But you did good, Kristen. You told me lots of stuff I didn’t know (always a plus to me) and struck fear in my banana-loving heart with the news of the fungus. And the closing line was perfect.

    1. Coincidentally enough, there WAS a big article about bananas in last week’s New Yorker. (Evidently, a strain of Panama disease is wiping out the bananas in Australia right now.) And thanks — I love coming up with a good kicker at the bottom of a piece.

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