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April 15th, 2014

Reefer Madness

BY Christian Ford

I bet I know the name of the banana sitting on your shelf.  The one malingering in your refrigerator.  The one turning black in your fruit bowl.  If we were identifying apples, the odds would be against me, but when it comes to bananas, confidence is high.  The reason is that the banana in your home and the banana in my home and just about every other home in North America are clones and every last one calls itself “Cavendish.”

The plummy English name belongs to the Sixth Earl of Devonshire, in whose greenhouse the cultivars were originally identified in the nineteenth century.  If Old Blighty seems an unlikely place to find bananas, we should recall that bananas have been traveling for centuries.  Their homeland is Southeast Asia, but no one’s quite sure where.  The ambiguity is because humans were already moving and cultivating bananas between seven and ten thousand years ago.  In other words, we’ve been farming bananas for as long as we’ve been farming wheat, barley or anything.

By two thousand years ago, bananas were being grown in Africa.  The Arab world took a particular liking to them and bananas moved with Islam between the years 700 and 1500, first reaching Europe proper in the southern reaches of the Iberian Peninsula.  From there, Portuguese sailors took bananas to the lands that most of us probably imagine when we think “banana plantation,” the West Indies and Central America.

Today, around 150 million metric tons of bananas are produced every year.  It’s the most-consumed fruit in the world, the most consumed non-grain, the fourth most consumed food crop, period.  The vast majority are grown for local consumption and perhaps the best way to understand the role of the banana is to see it as the old world/warm climate equivalent of the new world potato.  Bananas are, in fact, quite close to potatoes.  They can be prepared in all the same ways and have equivalent calories.

Given our multi-millennia history with bananas, it would seem normal for the banana to be an integral part of everyday life.  But for anyone living outside the tropics, that sense is actually an act of logistical and marketing genius.  In order to get bananas to non-tropical markets, we first had to develop industrial transport capable of moving it fast enough.  It happened, more or less, by accident.

In the 1871, the government of Costa Rica hired an American railroad entrepreneur to link the capitol city with the Caribbean port of Limón.  It was a long, difficult project and Minor C. Keith — the boss after the first boss died — started planting bananas along the rail line to provide cheap food for his workers.  By the time the railroad was complete in 1890, a government default had left Keith holding 800,000 acres and a 99-year lease on the rail line itself.  But it turned out, nineteen years after construction had started, that not very many people wanted to take the train between San José and Limón.  Keith was slowly going broke.

Except all those bananas he’d planted were still there, pumping out fruit alongside the tracks.  All he had to do was load them onto the trains and deliver them to Limón, where the rails ran right to the wharves.  Before long, the railroad man was a Banana Mogul.  But Keith didn’t hit the big time until he merged his Tropical Trading and Transport Co with rival company Boston Fruit.

Boston Fruit, too, had roots in bananas.  In 1870, the year before Costa Rica’s railroad began construction, Boston Fruit’s future owner, Lorenzo Dow Baker, took a flyer.  Out of he own pocket, he bought 160 bunches of bananas  and stowed them on the deck of his fishing schooner, a vessel bearing a name which bespoke both modernity and speed — the Telegraph.  Luck and a fair wind brought the Telegraph from Jamaica to Jersey City in eleven days and Baker made two bucks profit on each bunch of bananas — six thousand dollars in today’s money.  Boston Fruit was born.

Two decades later, corporate wedding bells rang as railroad tied the knot with steamship and the new United Fruit Company strove to dominate the banana trade.  They did it by buying out competitors and buying off governments.  United Fruit wasn’t shy about overstepping the bounds of propriety, so while they were busy becoming Central America’s largest employer, they also did things like run Guatemala’s national post office, control Central America’s railroads and, in the form of United Fruit Director Bradley Palmer, become a confidante of American presidents during a time when the United States serially invaded virtually every country in Central America.  The writer O. Henry, casting a bemused eye on all this, coined a phrase you may have heard:  “banana republic.”

This rueful dynasty was all built on the foundation of something called Big Mike.  That’s the colloquial name of the Gros Michel banana, and boy was it something, better than any banana most people alive in North America have ever eaten.  It was big, creamy, with a much superior taste to the Cavendish — in fact, the Cavendish was once considered a “trash banana” from the commercial standpoint.  What’s more, Gros Michel was highly productive and had a thick, tough peel that could resist the rigors of travel.

But still, it was risky.  The banana magnates had 7-10 days to get their ripe-picked fruit to market.  A delayed sailing, a washed-out track or even a warm day and the shipment could be overripe trash by the time it got to market.  It meant that American sales topped out at around fifteen million bunches per year.

But there was another way.  In 1881, while Minor Keith was still hacking his way through the jungles of Costa Rica, a ship set out from New Zealand.  She was the SS Dunedin, and though she was a cargo vessel, she was a thing of beauty, with clouds of sail flying from soaring masts.  There was only one thing that ruined the effect — a funnel amidships, belching coal smoke, blackening the sails.

The Dunedin, however, wasn’t a steamer.  The coal was fueling a brand new invention, the Bell-Coleman refrigeration system.   The Bell-Coleman gobbled three tons of coal every day as it worked to keep the carcasses of 4331 sheep, 598 lambs and 22 pigs frozen solid.  The voyage of the Dunedin wasn’t the first time this had been attempted, but it would be the first time it was a success.  Ninety-eight days and 1,681,680 tons of emitted CO2 after setting out from New Zealand, the Dunedin tied up at a wharf in London’s labyrinthine docks.  Only one carcass was condemned.  The age of refrigerated food transport had begun.

Refrigeration was the banana’s ticket to the big time.  Cooling bananas to temps in the fifties and maintaining that cold chain changed their shelf life from a week to a month.  In 1903, United Fruit built the SS Venus, the world’s first refrigerated produce boat — their first “reefer.”  They were hooked, for sure, because 1904 saw three more reefers built, this time to United Fruit’s own specifications.  By the end of the decade, United Fruit had thirteen more reefers making the run, with bananas below decks and passengers above.  The market which had been at fifteen million bunches per year was now forty million bunches.  United Fruit’s white hulled ships (painted to keep the holds cooler) became known as the Great White Fleet.  Business couldn’t be better.

Except that the business was, literally, dying.

In the same year that the Venus made her first run, something happened on a banana plantation in Panama.  Some trees started to wilt, showing signs of drought stress even though they were well watered.  Before they could bear fruit, the trees died and toppled.  No one understood what had happened.  If you cut the banana stalks, there was clearly something wrong — blackened rings throughout showed that the plant had died of dehydration— but why or how remained a mystery.

So they called it Panama Disease, not knowing that it had first been described in Australia, twenty-seven years before.  They abandoned the plantation and moved on to fresh ground, but the sickness followed, first from one plantation to the next and then from one country to the next.  It moved through Central America, into South America and the West Indies and the far across the Pacific to Java.

United Fruit didn’t yet know it, but they were dealing with a fungus, Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense, that lurked in the soil and spread through the hapless bananas using the plant’s own vascular system.  And though they called it Panama Disease, the truth is that fusarium actually hailed from the banana’s homeland, Indonesia.  This was an organism that had been dueling with wild bananas for the entire history of human civilization, engaged in an evolutionary arms race, banana and fungus adapting and counter-adapting as millennia passed.

The problem was that the Gros Michel had stepped out of that arms race.  Wild bananas come in a bewildering variety of size, color and form, but they also come with big tooth-breaking seeds and almost none of them travel well.  The Gros Michel was different in that it was a triploid cultivar, which means that it had three pairs of chromosomes instead of two.  In other words, it was a mutant incapable of reproducing itself and it surely would have died out had not someone noticed how very tasty and non-tooth-breaking it was.

So humanity stepped in to act as the sexually-impaired Gros Michel’s midwife.  The way it worked that was that you’d take a cutting from the root or “rhizome” and plant that.  What you’d get would be a clone of the original plant, which was good news for getting a copy of that banana you liked and disastrous news for an industry built on an organism with near-zero genetic diversity with which to resist a plague.  For fusarium, the huge monocultures of Gros Michels were a dream come true — endless, defenseless food.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, United Fruit kept starting new plantations and loaning out its ships to help the US Army with its serial “interventions” in Central America (usually in nations proving troublesome to United Fruit) and all the while whistling past the graveyard of the Gros Michels.  Some years were worse than others, and it was got bad enough in 1923 that Eddie Cantor had a number one hit with “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”  By the 1940s, research had revealed true nature of their adversary and a powerful fungicide was developed.  But it must have been pretty damn hairy because — back in the heyday of DDT — it was decided that the fungicide was too toxic to use.

By the late 1950s, fusarium was globally ubiquitous; the Gros Michels had nowhere left to run.  The big fruit enterprises hadn’t really thought this day would ever come, but here it was.  Their product, all around the world, was dead or dying; their industry was nearly bankrupt.

And then they found the Cavendish.  It, too, was a triploid with no diversity, but it was tough.  Too tough for Panama Disease.  The universally infected soils of Central and South America were replanted with armies of Cavendish clones and everything went on like it had before.  For a while.

Adversarial organisms co-evolve straightforwardly:  one side comes up with a better mousetrap and the other side has to top it or simply lose out.  It’s science that’s easy to intuitively grasp because we experience the same mechanism in all forms of competition, from boardgames to geopolitics.  And it’s the rule under capitalism, too, which makes it particularly strange that the titans of agribusiness can’t seem to understand that building massive monocultures of zero-diversity crops wasn’t a good business plan.

How else to explain the thinking — in the early 1990s — behind establishing plantations of Cavendishes in Indonesia?  This is fusarium’s home turf, its zone of  maximum genetic diversity, millions upon millions of different adaptations pitted against a plant with exactly one.  It was like a poodle taunting a hyena and what it got us was Tropical Race 4.

TR4 is state-of-the-art Panama Disease, meaner, faster, stronger and it kills Cavendishes with the same ease that its forebear erased Big Mike; It emerged in the 1990s and demonstrated its prowess by transforming Malaysia’s banana plantations from business as usual to game over in five years.  After that, TR4 moved inexorably through the Western Pacific — Australia, Indonesia, Taiwan, the Philippines, China.  The same globalized industry that the banana barons helped create created the conditions where fusarium (which can move by soil, water and probably air) could easily hitchhike to its next massacre.

For the first decade of the twenty-first century, TR4 bade its time.   Then, in October of 2013, TR4 was confirmed in Jordan.  The kingdom isn’t a big banana producer, which is probably for the best, because by the time TR4 was identified, 80% of their plantations were infected.  The real concern, actually, wasn’t for Jordan, but for the continent on Jordan’s doorstep — Africa.  The banana isn’t just a snack in Africa, it’s an important staple food.

The question was, how long until TR4 reached Africa and the answer turned out to be “right about now.”  One month after the reports out of Jordan, TR4 was found happily murdering bananas in Mozambique.  What’s more, evidence suggested it had been in place for two or three years, years when no one took the safety precautions all that seriously because, after all, the nearest infected plantations were thousands of miles away on the shores of the Pacific.

It means that, as of five months ago, the tropics of the Americas are the only (potentially) uninfected banana-growing region remaining.  From fusarium’s point of view, those regions are the motherlode, the same endless buffet that Panama disease made of meal of a half century ago.

The industry is doing everything they can to prevent this apocalypse, but you get the sense that no one has any faith that they’ll succeed.  Fusarium simply has too many ways to move and the banana industry’s whole business model is built around the reefer madness of transport.  There are, of course, crash research and breeding programs working ceaselessly to produce a new resistant banana.  Some are pursuing traditional breeding and hybridization techniques, others are busy splicing alien genes into bananas, even though there seems to be a particular aversion to the notion of a GMO banana, no doubt the result of decades of kid-friendly banana marketing.

They’ve found TR4 resistant bananas, too.  But no one’s jumping up and down because in the devolution from the Gros Michel pinnacle, these new potentials are too far down the trash banana continuum.  So the clock is ticking and there’s no new banana waiting in the wings.

This is the point at which imagination fails.  Try as I might, I find it difficult to conceive that, one day, the bananas in my local grocery might be priced on par with organic strawberries.  Or that they wouldn’t be there at all.  The global industrial food system’s efficiency and perseverance at simply getting stuff on the shelves creates a reality which, like the banana crop, has very little variation.

But — at least according to the very guys in charge of finding a way to fix this mess — I won’t have to use my imagination much longer.  In dirt wedged into the sole of shoe, floating in a water bottle, or simply dusted on the surface of a banana leaf wrapping someone’s in-flight lunch, TR4 will make the leap and the Twilight of the Cavendishes will begin.  The fleets of reefers (individually cooled freight containers these days), the atmosphere controlled ripening houses with their ethylene gas generators, the gps-linked tracking and inventory systems, the whole immense high-tech banana delivery system will one day find itself scanning the help-wanted pages.

United Fruit’s descendant is Chiquita Foods.  They’re the ones that trademarked the phrase, “Quite Possibly, the World’s Perfect Food.”  From the point of view of an industrial food system, the banana really is the perfect food.  Those billions upon billions of Cavendishes are interchangeable parts, as identical as you can get and still be a product of nature.  But nothing lasts forever.

But before we hold a wake for our friend the banana, there’s something we should know.  The Cavendish may be the export banana, but of all bananas cultivated for food, the Cavendish accounts for only 13%.  It seems impossible, but the truth is that most bananas are a local food, grown by smallholder farmers for sale at the local farmers market or destined for their own tables.  And since they’re growing it for themselves, well, they’re not growing Cavendishes.

So it may be that what we’re really looking at here is not so much the end of a beloved food, but rather the extinction of a business model predicated on using prodigious amounts of energy to deliver a profoundly mediocre product.

•      •      •

Thirty years ago, I bought a bunch of bananas from a roadside vendor on the island of Kauai.  They were tiny, little bigger than my thumb, so I got an extra big bunch and took them with me. It wasn’t until later that I finally opened one, took a bite and discovered a taste and texture that I’d never even imagined — sweet but tangy, creamy and just at the very edge of crisp.  It was stunning.  Every fruit I had ever tasted paled beside this.  So I ate every one and then went back to get more.

But my roadside vendor was gone.  I kept looking for the next few days, but he never came back.

In the years since then, I’ve eaten a lot of bananas.  In fact, were I to do the math, it would tote up to thousands and thousands of them.  So, I guess the lowly Cavendish is good enough for me, except maybe for the fact that I don’t remember the taste of a single one.


Smiling Jack by Gordon
Banana Flower by Gerard Adriaanse
Donkey Cart by Rod Waddington
Processing Plant by Thomas Ault
SS Dunedin by Frederick Tudgay
Dole Reefer by Dale Frost