Banana Kings

Banana Kings

The history of banana cultivation is rife with labor and environmental abuse, corporate skulduggery and genetic experiments gone awry.


The banana is the most popular fruit in the country, and apparently the most popular fruit among publishers this year. Two new books detail the history of the fruit itself and the torrid past of the banana industry, which is dominated by the ubiquitous, oppressive United Fruit Company. With similarly ambitious titles–Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World and Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World–the books promise not a dull, compulsory soup-to-nuts account of the subject but a tale of corporate skulduggery, an irreversible lesson in agricultural folly and a musing on the banana’s place on our collective palate. A reader may be forgiven for wondering whether the story of a simple, unassuming fruit could provide such intrigue. Have Peter Chapman and Dan Koeppel bitten off more than they can chew? No, for as both authors demonstrate with convincing arguments, the impact of United Fruit’s banana on multinational corporate malfeasance, current agricultural practices and food consumption patterns is no small, sweet-smelling thing.

Chapman’s scope is narrower and more direct than Koeppel’s. A British reporter who has been following United Fruit since the 1970s, when he wrote his thesis on the company at the University of Sussex, Chapman has written an impressive indictment of a deeply flawed corporation. And there’s no shortage of material here; United Fruit (known now as Chiquita) was truly a terrorizing company–a kind of Halliburton, McDonald’s, Nike and Archer Daniels Midland all rolled into one. United Fruit set the precedent for the propaganda, exploitation and imperialism of modern-day corporate plunderers.

In many ways, United Fruit was the original agribusiness–if an accidental one. The seeds of the company began with Minor Keith, a young Brooklyn entrepreneur who ventured into the Costa Rican jungle in the 1870s to build a national railroad. The project cost more than 5,000 workers their lives but birthed a successful side business. In cleared areas of the jungle Keith planted banana cuttings to sell to the workers and eventually to an American schooner captain who hooked him up with Andrew Preston, the Boston importer with whom he would officially launch United Fruit in 1899. Their timing was good, as Americans were beginning a love affair with the exotic fruit that seemed the quintessence of upper-class privilege.

United Fruit was not the first company to introduce the banana to Americans, but it was the most successful in making it widely available. As the American appetite for the fruit grew, so too did the corporation’s appetite for market dominance. Pursuing profits and fleeing diseases afflicting their crops, the United Fruit men skipped from one country to the next in Central and South America, perfecting their pattern: strong-arm their way in; destroy natural habitat to make way for banana plantations; enslave the native population in low-wage, dangerous servitude; suppress labor movements; watch their banana crops fall prey to blight; spray the groves with toxic pesticides that also poisoned the workforce; and, when spraying failed, abandon the land for greener pastures on which to inflict their “progress.” This explains why countries in the region came to be known as “banana republics,” a term first coined by O. Henry in his 1904 novel Cabbages and Kings. The behavior also earned the company an enduring nickname: El Pulpo–the octopus. And no wonder: By the late 1920s, United Fruit was an international conglomerate, outstretched tentacles everywhere. The company owned 1.6 million acres of land, employed 67,000 workers and did business in thirty-two countries. It was worth more than $100 million and would stop at nothing to keep business humming.

The company played a major role in fomenting political unrest in countries whose policies didn’t favor its bottom line. These included the 1910 coup in Honduras orchestrated by Sam Zemurray, future president of United Fruit, and the 1954 overthrow of the Guatemalan ruling government, encouraged by the corporation and carried out by the CIA. Capitalizing on the anticommunist hysteria of the day, the corporation lobbied the US government and the United Nations to oust Jacobo Arbenz, the country’s president, after he expropriated its plantations as part of a vast land-reform effort. The Guatemalan coup, dubbed Operation Success, left more than 200,000 Guatemalans dead.

United Fruit’s brutal tactics extended, naturally, to labor issues. Low wages and dangerous working conditions were the norm, and any attempt by the workers to assert their rights was met with harsh consequences. In 1928 thousands of striking United Fruit workers in Colombia gathered in a town square to call for a six-day week, an eight-hour day, free medical treatment and wages paid in cash rather than scrip redeemable only at the company store. Government troops were called into the square to protect US interests, and after giving a five-minute warning, the Colombian military fired on the crowd with machine guns. The strike was broken and the massacre covered up. No one knows how many were killed that day–it’s widely believed that the bodies were buried in the forest or dumped in the sea–but a United Fruit estimate (likely low) put fatalities at more than 1,000. Gabriel García Márquez drew on the event in his 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Chapman views the case of United Fruit as a moral lesson for businesses, consumers and citizens; he concludes his tale with an excoriation, chiding not only the company but also the forces–namely, us–that allow its familiar (if extreme) story to play out over and over again: “We continually put ourselves in a position to be surprised. We assume the best…we are shocked when it is revealed that we have been ‘sold’ a lie. Then we get embarrassed and try to forget, as we did with United Fruit…. Today’s advocates of multinational power would have us all as banana republics.”

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.”

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.

“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.

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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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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