Bananas for bananas

bananas

Image by Fernando Stankuns via Flickr

J is a HUGE fan of bananas, and it was his love of this fruit that inspired me to learn a little more about it awhile back. If I asked you what the four largest crops in the world are, you might correctly guess that wheat, corn, and rice top the list. If you’re like me, you might suspect that soybeans were #4, but you’d be wrong. One of the many interesting things I learned from Dan Koeppel’s book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, is that the humble banana comes in fourth, which also makes it the world’s largest fruit crop. And did you know that a banana tree isn’t a really tree but instead is the largest herb on the planet? And that the fruit itself is a giant berry? Or that the bananas we eat today cannot reproduce without human intervention?

Koeppel’s book provides an in-depth look at the history of the banana, including the political, economic, and social forces that it helped to shape around the world and especially in Latin America. He discusses the fate of the Gros Michel variety of bananas (which used to dominate the market) that were decimated by disease. The variety that replaced it, the Cavendish, is reportedly less flavorful but meets the requirements of an agricultural commodity (e.g., handles being shipped long distances, ripens on time, etc.) Alas, the Cavendish too is currently under threat. Bananas face the dangers of all large-scale monocultures on a particularly grand scale, since the reproductive features of bananas mean that every daughter plant (as they are called) is genetically identical to the mother plant that spawned it. This uniformity, which helps ensure a fairly consistent grocery store staple, spells disaster in the face of disease.

For a taste of Koeppel’s book, check out his piece in Saveur that was nominated for a James Beard Foundation award, or listen to his great conversation with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air.

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