Banana Kings | The Nation


Banana Kings

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"A banana's taste and visual appearance are as predictable as a Big Mac's," Koeppel writes. Smooth, bright, seedless, conveniently wrapped; the banana is the original fast food--thanks in no small part to the marketing effort by United Fruit. But by supplying us with only one kind of banana all of these years and doing everything in its power to incorporate it into our daily diet and consciousness, the company put itself in a kind of pickle. How can consumers accept any other kind of banana as a banana? As it turns out, scientists in Honduras have bred a banana that can withstand Panama disease and Sigatoka. But the supposed problem with the Goldfinger, as the breed is known, is not its hardiness but its inability to conform to our preconceived notion of a banana. It doesn't look like what we expect; Koeppel calls it "rotund" and claims it doesn't rot. But more significant, it apparently doesn't have the familiar banana taste--though as much a banana as any other, it is very different from the Cavendish. Many people call it the "acid banana" or "apple banana," and it's described as "tart" and "less creamy." In taste tests, consumers pick the Cavendish over the Goldfinger, and according to Koeppel it "tastes so different than what we're now accustomed to that the transition could be more jarring than the Gros Michel changeover." In other words, United Fruit was so successful at convincing us that its banana was the only kind of banana that companies are reluctant to sell anything else, even in the face of extinction and lost profits.

About the Author

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

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Koeppel sees the answer to our banana woes in genetic engineering. As farfetched as it may sound, scientists are currently working to map the banana genome, and experiments are under way to modify bananas genetically to carry the hepatitis B vaccine and contain extra quantities of vitamin A from fish. According to Koeppel, genetic manipulation is the best hope for a hardier, disease-resistant banana. "Genetic transformation...is revolution, not evolution," he quotes a leading banana scientist as saying.

Is this the kind of food revolution we really want? After all, the story of the modern banana--and, in fact, modern agriculture--has been about man attempting to tame nature through technological and business innovation. But nature has always rebelled. To sell more bananas and to determine the idea of the banana, the businessmen grew and sold just one kind. But that leaves the crop especially vulnerable to pathogens, so when disease threatened, the company doused the plants with pesticides. When those no longer worked, they abandoned the land ravaged by monoculture and chemicals and moved elsewhere. Now on the run, the banana men are turning to the lab for a genetically modified miracle. Yes, it's very possible that genetically manipulated bananas are safe to eat and won't create science fiction-inspired disaster. The jury's still out on the health consequences. But technological innovation has never been the panacea it's advertised to be; unintended consequences and vulnerabilities to nature have always emerged. Why does Koeppel think things will be different this time?

While small-scale organic farming all over the world is going a long way toward countering large-scale monoculture practiced by agribusinesses everywhere, I'm not sure the world can rely on those good methods for our supply of bananas. It's a crucial fruit, especially for people in poorer countries. Ugandans, to take an example, eat more than 500 pounds of bananas per person per year, and so whatever the solution is, it has to be big, and replicated many times over. Large-scale farming too often goes hand in hand with monoculture, and though there may be a way to integrate crop rotation and biodiversity into our banana plantations, I don't know if that's realistic--especially right away.

But one solution can come in the form of altering our idea of the banana--the very idea that was so firmly shaped by the banana moguls themselves. The banana is not a Big Mac, and its taste and visual appearance should not be as predictable as one. It's a fruit from nature, not a complicated cocktail of additives and preservatives, and we should come to expect from it that which we associate with nature: variety and imperfection. With that comes unpredictability, but also pleasure. Repurposing our expectation of the banana in this way will make room in our grocery stores for funny-looking, strange-tasting bananas like the Goldfinger. Our expectations broadened, maybe we won't need to rely on the mechanized salvation promised by genetic scientists.

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