The Bandemic: When Will the Next Banana Pandemic Strike?Photo by Mike Dorner/Unsplash Food Features food culture
Out of all the fruits we consume in the U.S., the banana is by far the most popular. It’s sweet, it’s cheap and it’s easy to access, despite the fact that most states do not have a climate suitable for its cultivation. Even though we eat a lot of bananas in this country, most of us haven’t even scratched the surface of banana diversity. There are over 1,000 different types of bananas, but you’re probably only going to see one variety in the supermarket. This variety, known as the Cavendish banana, is widely exported from banana-growing regions to countries around the world.
Cavendish bananas are the kinds of bananas you always see at the grocery store. They’re long, relatively thin and have that distinctly banana taste you either love or hate. You probably know them well, which is why it’s so strange that just a few decades ago, banana consumers were getting a totally different product.
Before the 1950s, people weren’t packing Cavendish bananas in their kids’ school lunches, and they rarely appeared in peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Instead, the most widely produced and exported banana species was the Gros Michel. According to reports, the Gros Michel banana had a totally different flavor profile than today’s bananas; many say it was tangier, creamier and more complex. So why did banana producers decide to nix the Gros Michel and move onto the Cavendish?
It actually wasn’t a choice at all. In the 1950s, a fungus called fusarium wilt, or Panama disease, infected Gros Michel plants all over the world, killing them and leaving very few plants in its wake. The disease took such a dramatic toll on banana populations because cultivated bananas are purposefully bred not to have seeds. Therefore, they can not reproduce—they’re clones. Since all Gros Michel bananas were genetically identical, they were all extremely susceptible to the same disease.
In classic human fashion, we did not learn our lesson. Instead of planting a wider variety of banana species to stave off possible extinction, we instead turned to a new variety: the Cavendish. The Cavendish was chosen because it was more disease-resistant than other cultivars, but since it too is a clone, it still puts us at risk for another banana pandemic.
Using clones in this way for large-scale agriculture is referred to as monocropping, and it has both advantages and drawbacks. Monocrops generally produce larger yields in less time and for less money than does more biodiverse farming. It’s simply a more efficient way to farm, and it’s a huge part of the reason I can find bananas in Boston year-round despite the fact that they only grow in tropical climates. Monocrops have created the food system we have today—our lives would be very different without them.
But not only do monocrops leave our food supply unprotected from disease and pests, they also drain the soil of its nutrients, which can affect long-term yields, and they can spur catastrophic erosion. Creating more biodiverse farms, though, is an expensive and time-consuming undertaking. Most farmers, who are already struggling to survive in the face of Big Ag’s greed, just don’t have the funds or the support to abandon their monocultures and switch to more sustainable, regenerative farming methods.
So, yes, we were, once upon a time, eating much better bananas en masse, and we ruined it for ourselves through—what else?—unfettered capitalism and a myopic view of the future. If we continue to refuse to learn from our past mistakes, the Cavendish banana (and a whole host of other crops) may meet the same fate as the Gros Michel.
There are still a few places in the world that grow Gros Michel bananas these days, but they’re not commercially produced or exported on a wide scale, and they’re generally sold under different names. If you find yourself in Myanmar, Cuba, Malaysia or Hawai’i, you might get the chance to try a Gros Michel, though you’d have to know what you were asking for, as they look almost identical to Cavendishes.
As for me, I’ve never been a big banana lover, so I’m not sure it’s worth it to cross borders just to taste a banana. But who knows? Maybe if I’d grown up eating Gros Michels, I’d have more of an appreciation for the fruit.
Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.