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Banana Kings | The Nation

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Banana Kings

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Koeppel focuses on the other casualty of United Fruit's policies: the banana. There are more than 1,000 varieties of banana worldwide, but most Americans don't know this because they are offered a single kind in grocery stores: the Cavendish. In the early days, the banana men cultivated one kind of banana: the Gros Michel. It was easy and cheap to grow and transport, and United Fruit used the heavy hand of modern propaganda to convince consumers that their one type of banana was the only type of banana. It set up an official "education department" that produced pamphlets and other materials to hook children; it hired doctors to endorse the practice of feeding infants mashed bananas; it convinced cereal companies to line their packaging with coupons for free bananas so that consumers could more easily prepare the recommended breakfast of corn flakes and sliced bananas. Not everyone was impressed with the marketing scheme. In a letter to a friend in 1904, Edith Wharton bemoaned the vulgarity of Americans: "What a horror it is for a whole nation to be developing without a sense of beauty, and eating bananas for breakfast."

About the Author

Emily Biuso
Emily Biuso is on the editorial staff of The New York Times Magazine.

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The banana tycoons were able to conquer the American palate, but they couldn't triumph over nature. In 1903 Panama disease, a banana-killing illness transported by soil and water, appeared in Central America. In 1910 the first banana genetics lab opened in Costa Rica, but an enduring friction emerged: should scientific research focus on breeding disease-resistant fruit or on concocting stronger and harsher pesticides and chemicals to fight the blight? The banana men chose the latter and continued to do so throughout the following decades. But though an excess of chemicals may have initially stopped the spread of disease, it bred other problems: illness in workers, tainted food and eventually plants unresponsive to the pesticides' effects. Indeed, in 1935 a new banana-killing malady called Sigatoka appeared. Again, United Fruit protected its crop with chemistry: a potent cocktail called Bordeaux Mixture, which had the nasty side effects of turning workers' skin blue and stealing their sense of smell and their ability to keep food down. It killed an unknown number of banana laborers. By 1960, when the Gros Michel had been rendered extinct by Panama disease, the solution was not to change the agricultural practices that had bred this disaster but to find another kind of banana to cultivate in the same way. Forty years after the Gros Michel disappeared, the Cavendish is now facing extinction as two diseases pursue it around the globe.

In growing only a single variety and not rotating it with other kinds of crops, United Fruit has been practicing monoculture, the bedeviling phenomenon that makes agriculture cheap and fast but makes farmers and agribusinesses far more susceptible to pestilence, disease and major crop failure. Michael Pollan has produced an impressive body of work documenting the folly of this system, noting as an example the terrible potato famine in 1845, which wiped out one in eight Irishmen in three years as a result of the country's unfortunate reliance on a single variety of a single crop: the Lumper potato. A fungus afflicting the Lumper quickly and uninterruptedly spread from one potato to the next, until all were rendered inedible, leaving nothing for the Irish to eat. As an early, persistent and continued practitioner of this system, United Fruit doomed its bananas, the land, its workers and ultimately its bottom line.

Koeppel's book, a hybrid of scientific adventure, mystery and biography, tracks this unraveling and the attempt to remedy it, which he calls the search "for the ultimate solution to a crime in progress." His is a tale of a threatened species and the scientific heroes hunting to save the fruit. There's more of a driving force and an urgency in his book, and it feels less stale than Chapman's--whose story, for some unexplained reason, trails off after the 1970s, virtually ignoring the wrongdoing of current-day Chiquita, most notably recent disclosures by the Justice Department that between 1997 and 2004, Chiquita paid more than $1.7 million to the right-wing Colombian terrorist group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC) for "security." The company was fined $25 million. While it's possible that Chapman's book went to press before the public announcement of this development in March 2007, recent history of the corporation gets thin treatment in the book; also ignored is its battle with the Cincinnati Enquirer over a lengthy investigative article that appeared in the paper in 1998. Because some of the information in the report was gained illegally by an Enquirer reporter, the paper eventually disavowed the story and paid Chiquita somewhere in the area of $14 million in damages. The settlement included stipulations that prevented the paper from writing about Chiquita in the future. Most interesting, the allegations in the story--which included tales of labor exploitation, environmental degradation and foreign government interference--were never adequately disputed.

Koeppel's writing style isn't as alluring as the arc of his story, and his sense of irony could be keener. Koeppel informs us, for example, that after retiring in 1951, United Fruit mogul Sam Zemurray "provided cash to support The Nation, the weekly liberal newsmagazine." Recall that this is the same Zemurray who had a hand in the 1910 coup in Honduras. An interesting side note that Koeppel doesn't mention: Zemurray, the so-called Banana Man, wrote to this magazine in 1950 to dispute a prior report on the United Fruit Company that had described it as an "obstacle of progress in Central America."

Today, banana moguls are running out of land to slash and burn, and breeds of bananas that will resist illness. If the Cavendish is going extinct, what will replace it? It turns out there's no easy answer.

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