Bananas Represent Everything That Is Wrong With Our Food System

Ever wonder why bananas are the cheapest fruit in the supermarket? It makes no sense. They’re grown thousands of miles away by steely imperialist multinational corporations, and spoil within two weeks. A Times Op-Ed argues that bananas are on their way out, and may disappear entirely from store shelves in the next twenty years.

According to Dan Koppel, bananas are cheap because they are “the fruit equivalent of a fast-food hamburger.” Banana producers rely on a single genetic strain, the Cavendish, to guarantee that all bananas in a shipment ripen simultaneously. While this allows producers to enjoy economies of scale that keep our beloved bananas cheap, it also leaves bananas dangerously exposed to the vengeful wiles of genetics:

This has happened before. Our great-grandparents grew up eating not the Cavendish but the Gros Michel banana, a variety that everyone agreed was tastier. But starting in the early 1900s, banana plantations were invaded by a fungus called Panama disease and vanished one by one. Forest would be cleared for new banana fields, and healthy fruit would grow there for a while, but eventually succumb.

By 1960, the Gros Michel was essentially extinct and the banana industry nearly bankrupt. It was saved at the last minute by the Cavendish, a Chinese variety that had been considered something close to junk: inferior in taste, easy to bruise (and therefore hard to ship) and too small to appeal to consumers. But it did resist the blight.

Over the past decade, however, a new, more virulent strain of Panama disease has begun to spread across the world, and this time the Cavendish is not immune. The fungus is expected to reach Latin America in 5 to 10 years, maybe 20. The big banana companies have been slow to finance efforts to find either a cure for the fungus or a banana that resists it. Nor has enough been done to aid efforts to diversify the world’s banana crop by preserving little-known varieties of the fruit that grow in Africa and Asia.

Quick, banana producers, call the scientists who built the seedless watermelon. They may be our only hope.

Yes, We Will Have No Bananas [NYT]
PREVIOUSLY: Yes, We Have No Bananas!
(Photo: Getty)

Comments

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  1. Tightlines says:

    Mmm, peanut butter and banana sandwiches….

  2. T16skyhopp says:

    @Tightlines: qft

  3. Mike8813 says:

    Um… please don’t go? I heart bananas.

  4. bohemian says:

    Bananas already doubled in price. I am guessing due to gas prices and grocery stores raising prices everywhere.

  5. forgottenpassword says:

    “too small to appeal to consumers”

    WHAT? How big were the old strain of bananas? Jesus!

    The new current bananas seem to be perfect size!

  6. aphexbr says:

    Fairly pointless article. Bananas have flourished because they are quick and easy to eat without additional washing or preparation, contain lots of nutrients and enough sugar for a quick energy boost and are very versatile (they can be used for anything from banana bread to dried banana chips to plain old raw goodness). The time to spoilage really means nothing if you’re an intelligent enough shopper to take that into account (or eat enough of them so it doesn’t matter).

    If, and that’s a fairly large if, disease took out certain crops of the fruit, another crop or variety would be created to resist that disease. It’s too big an industry for this not to happen. Whatever the history, consumers (worldwide, not just the US) are too accustomed to eating the fruit for it to disappear completely.

    Of course, tastes may change over the years to make it less of a staple, but that happens with most foods anyway over a long enough period of time.

  7. tinky XIII says:

    @Tightlines: Thanks, you just chose my lunch for me! Now, to fry or not to fry…

  8. snoop-blog says:

    You can’t convince me that in 20 years my local grocery store will stop selling them.

  9. Lance Uppercut says:

    @bohemian: Our grocery store had a sign stating that bananas doubled in price due to an unusually rainy season in the growing areas.

  10. Well, if there is a disease that wipes out bananas, and it’s mutated to a form that kills the bananas we eat today, and once a field is affected, you can not grow bananas there again, where is the opinion in this article. Isn’t it more of a fact?

    Also, a vegetable or fruit that succumbs to a disease is something wrong? Then does the potato also represent everything wrong with our food system? I’m confused.

  11. Angryrider says:

    What a bummer… With all those petabytes of data in the scientist’s disposal, they’d better find a solution.
    Next is the pineapple.

  12. Sasha_Pie says:

    All I can picture is an (extinct) Giant Lemur eating a Giant Gros Michel banana. Lemurs are awesome. Have you ever seen them? They can only jump and skip, they can’t walk. So cute!

  13. AgentTuttle says:

    As long as they continue to look like a schlong, they will always be available. It’s all about demand.

  14. Fitwit says:

    Great source of potassium, fiber and energy. 33% of daily vitamin C and 41% daily vit. B6 in 8oz. worth. See [tinyurl.com]

  15. humphrmi says:

    @snoop-blog: I got a definite bias vibe from Mr. Koppel’s article (which is fine, because it’s an OP-ED, not a news story) but I think he hopes to convince us to stop buying bananas.

  16. Trai_Dep says:

    @aphexbr: Did you bother reading the article? NEW VIRULENT strain.
    And, despite what CSI: Produce Isle shows, it’s *tough* to create a new plant to arbitrary specs. As far as genetics go, we’re children slapping together mud patties.

    Nature is really, REALLY complicated and interrelated. That’s what is so troubling about our current model: we’re pygmies. Monocrops are especially problematic since they push out other varieties, which leave us FAR more vulnerable when, inevitably, nature adopts and “balances” things out. By then we’ve lost the other strains that weren’t vulnerable. Or we’ve turned a local, easily-mitigated problem into a global fruity apocalypse.
    That’s a key concern about GMO: we really have little appreciation for these processes that have run the planet a thousand times longer than we’ve existed. Simply slap something together, throw it out in the fields and pray it doesn’t crash the ecosystem.

  17. Trai_Dep says:

    If the bananas go, what will we use in our Safer Sex classes? The Horror!!

  18. geoffhazel says:

    What’s this double in price thing? We used to have bananas for 69c a lb, now its 89c and 99c a lb.

    Yeah, occasionally they’d be on sale for 49c but I don’t see the current price as double if you have to count the sale price.

    Geoff in Seattle

  19. geoffhazel says:

    @Trai_Dep:

    cucumbers

  20. snoop-blog says:

    @Trai_Dep: I say use real penises.

  21. Nihon no Purin says:

    PORQUE?!??!?!??!

  22. alejo699 says:

    @Tightlines:
    Don’t forget the honey!

    I love bananas too, but it realy isn’t very responsible for Americans to be eating them. The energy necessary to get a banana to our supermarkets is ludicrous. But I sure owuld miss them….

  23. Panamapeter says:

    In panama we have Chiquita (export only, for sale here) and smaller growers. We also occasionally have small 2 inch bananas that are very good tasting. They do not seem to be commercially grown but are a nice treat. Large bananas $.05 ea, pineapples $.50 small, $1.00 large. Of course, gas ranges from $4.80 in the cities to $6 to $8 in the hard to reach villages.

  24. satoru says:

    @aphexbr: The problem is that there isn’t anything even remotely close to a Cavendish banana that could replace it. It’s not a matter of switching varieties like say from a Granny Smith apple to a Mcintosh one. The genetic diversity of bananas grown worldwide is almost zero. Thus their succeptability to this new strain of fungus. Containment efforts were only partially successful, recently several hurricanes and typhoons basically wiped out all of these efforts an decimated entire regions.

  25. packetsniffer says:

    @aphexbr:
    Couldn’t have put it better myself. Typical of the Times to send out another gloom-and-doom article to scare people into thinking something will go extinct or something will kill us. *yawn*

  26. satoru says:

    @Trai_Dep: The problem isn’t making a banana that’s resistant to the fungus, this has in fact already been done. The problem is that the resultant banana has a problem with some combination of the following: taste, time for ripeness, toughness to bruising, appearance.

    Thus if the Cavendish banana is in fact wiped out, we will probably have to settle for another sub banana that probably bruises very easily or looks a tad more green than we’re used to.

  27. forgottenpassword says:

    cant they find some old seeds of the old variety & attempt to get them going again? I understand seeds can last for years & years dormant. In fact…I recently read an article where they managed to get a 2000 year old date seed to grow into a plant.

  28. Kitteridge says:

    The solution: Plantains!

    Mmmmm….

  29. Paul D says:

    This is why that creationist video with Kirk Cameron and the banana is so mind-bogglingly stupid.

    LOL, “the atheist’s nightmare” indeed.

  30. scottr0829 says:

    The health benefits of bananas

    Hopefully they don’t go away. I love to just be able to grab a banana before bringing my dog for a walk or bringing one to work and eating it about 30 mins before I go workout.

  31. Squeaks says:

    They had a discussion about this on a Scientific American podcast: [www.sciam.com]

  32. dragonfire1481 says:

    I love bananas, I’d take one over burger almost anytime.

  33. consumersaur says:

    Good riddance. Bananas are groadie.

  34. cortana says:

    Start getting used to plantains. They’re the close cousin of bananas.

  35. ninjatoddler says:

    Definitely not good news for Banana Man!

  36. Vicky says:

    People have a love/hate relationship with the advanced horticultural practices which could help alleviate this problem. In a college course about 9 years ago we were given the option to taste one many different engineered crops – some through advanced cross-breeding, others through genetic modification, some through radiation-based forced mutation, and still others from natural mutations which have been preserved through careful propagation techniques. The professor pointed out that many people were disgusted and off-put by the idea of GMO foods, but when put to the question, they could not identify which foods they were uncomfortable with or say why. Read up on the history of the red grapefruit, for example.

    Trai_Dep is of course correct that we have a long way to go when it comes to plant genetics, but I for one am pretty confident that the banana producers will use whatever horticultural methods available to them to prevent their ruin – and those methods are not limited to direct genetic manipulation.

  37. Trai_Dep says:

    @snoop-blog: Geez. As though being a middle school boy wasn’t awkward enough as is…

  38. OletheaEurystheus says:

    the problem with the piece is its a bunch of bullshit. Yes the old
    Gros Michel strain had a blight problem but its not even remotely
    extinct, its commercially unlivable (because of the blight) thus the
    TRUE reason behind why they are not growing it anymore. They COULD
    grow it in mass quantities but unlike our current banana, where you
    could guarantee a large crop, you can not with the Gros Michel
    anymore. While this IS a problem with our food system, its completely
    different from the fear-mongering this jackass is going about causing.

    All it means is bananas are going to be expensive and we wont get as
    many of them, which in turn might produce a switch back to the Gros
    Michel since they might then become viable again. Also scientists
    have been genetically engineering a blight proof Michel strain for a
    while now, so its very likely one will be developed before long.

  39. Trai_Dep says:

    @satoru: Yup, that’s my point. It’s HARD. Goes without saying that the fruity solution has to, you know, sell.

  40. garbagehead says:

    it would be nice to know what has made our Cavendish species susceptible to this virus. Genetic modification? If so that would mean that we eliminated a link in our precious food chain. Bad news, especially for Banana Man

  41. girly says:

    I thought our bananas were essentially seedless now and that they all come from cuttings of a previous plant, so that they are all in essence from a common plant way back when. Don’t quote me on it….

  42. @Tightlines: fluck yes!!!! thats pretty much the only thing i eat….

  43. Kali Mama says:

    @OletheaEurystheus: It’s the produce version of the “blondes will be extinct in 200 years!!” urban legend.

  44. seanSF says:

    But I like bananas… Please stop telling me the food I enjoy is “dangerous.” Ignorance is tasty, tasty bliss.

  45. XopherMV says:

    I love all the conservative idiots attempting to use economics, supply and demand, and the free market to dismiss the biological fact that our current banana supply is going to disappear in a few years.

    The Cavendish is dying and no amount of demand will bring it back. The same thing is true with the Gros Michel. Economics can’t work without a product. Free markets can’t solve everything.

  46. WakefulD says:

    Oh no! What will Mr. Bananagrabber grab?!

    Although it never really made sense… if he was a banana, why was he grabbing other bananas….

  47. Egakino says:

    This argument always makes me facepalm. Really do they NOT know what non HUMAN made bananas look like? They are round/lumpy/any shape with tough skins. The current Bananas have been made that way over decades of human selection.

    So they are really debating the genius of man in the face of god’s inadequate design? Very interesting……

  48. Egakino says:

    @Paul D: meant to link to this comment

  49. Crabfeast says:

    What about the apple bananas from here in Hawaii? What will become of them?

  50. Trai_Dep says:

    All I know is that the kid in the above picture would look awfully goofy hoisting two pomegranates over his head…

  51. MrEvil says:

    Yeah, I always thought that the layman wouldn’t know a wild banana if it fell off the tree and hit him on the head. That isn’t to say that we can’t just domesticate another wild variety, even though it could take a rather long time, and people would be put off by the unusual color and appearance.

  52. Dakine says:

    i have bananas growing in my backyard.

  53. mikelotus says:

    we have been eating bananas since we lived in trees. in St. Lucia, we had many different types of bananas not available here and they were much superior in taste.

  54. Rusted says:

    @XopherMV: Free markest are more effective then witless gummint idiocy, per se, the CAFE standatrd which got trumped by economic reality. Fear not, some one will build a more perfect banana

  55. CaptZ says:

    Wow…..reading thru this thread made feel as though I was going back in time and some of my lesser descendants were making comments. Survival of the fittest (or smartest) is failing.

  56. I’m reading this as I’m eating dried bananas and banana-strawberry yogurt… SAVE THE BANANAS!

  57. Wubbytoes says:

    I don’t think I would be able to live in a world without bananas.

  58. Ciao_Bambina says:

    @Crabfeast: Love, love, LOVE apple bananas! I eat as many of them as I can every time I’m in Hawaii. Wish I could get them at home.

    (Eating an apple and a banana simultaneously just isn’t the same thing…)

  59. @Git Em SteveDave has a crush on the Swedes: “Also, a vegetable or fruit that succumbs to a disease is something wrong? Then does the potato also represent everything wrong with our food system?”

    It did during the Irish Potato Famine, when lack of diversity in potatoes grown in Ireland made it possible for a disease to wipe out the entire crop.

    A potato disease today would probably destroy McFries (largest potato crop, all very uniform, very specific to their task), but there are several varieties of potato available commercially and hundreds more available from small farms.

  60. jdsmn says:

    I think somebody’s trying to bump the price of bananas.

    This is the first I have heard of this, and coming from Consumerist and NYT? As of late, both of questionable credibility.

  61. lemur says:

    @Sasha_Pie: Yes, I have seen lemurs.

  62. yungjerry703 says:

    wow this is an easy 5 years late. popular science did a story a long time ago how there are these high end genetics labs working on different strains of bandannas because they are anticipating a virus. they had a few that stayed ripe longer, one that tasted like vanilla pudding, etc…

  63. consumersaur says:

    I blame this whole mess on banana speculation and banana hedging and futures.

  64. XianZomby says:

    @forgottenpassword: Exactly. I’m not a size queen.

  65. @aphexbr: Is this like the Fox News version of the banana crisis?

    It’s not actually happening. And when it does happen, we’ll blame someone else!

    The article seems pretty clear. We don’t have a suitable replacement for mass production of the banana and the current variety is likely to succumb. The author is advocating research to prevent this from happening. Your advice is: it’s not happening.

    Excellent.

  66. freejazz38 says:

    well, here’s a good NON-story.

  67. Trai_Dep says:

    With no bananas, no banana cream. With no banana cream, no banana cream pie. With no banana cream pie…
    Uh oh: Clown Apocalypse!

  68. Trai_Dep says:

    (But I’ll skip with joy like a little girl when our secret Mime Overlords bite the dust)

  69. witeowl says:

    @Trai_Dep: Compltely OT, but in answer to your unasked queston…


    + Watch video

  70. satoru says:

    @forgottenpassword: Current Cavendish bananas are seedless and thus you can’t actually grow them via seeds. They are replicated currently via grafting. The main problem isn’t finding a replacement, it’s more of finding a replacement that’s even close to being commercially viable as the Cavendish or its predecessor. Current substitutes have varying degrees of issues with durability during shipping, ripeness timing, taste, resistance to other diseases, and crop yields.

  71. Joey B says:

    @satoru: It’s not actually grafting, which would entail taking a piece of the desired variety and attaching it to the rootstock of a hardier species.

    Bananas are generally propagated from a sucker shoot that is formed from the root of another banana plant.

    Frankly, I could care less if Cavendish disappears. I’d rather spend a little more for a better tasting variety that has to be babied a bit.

  72. veronykah says:

    @Paul D: To the guy in the video…don’t bananas, by his rationale, fits great in a MONEKY hand too???
    How does that bode for their religious undoubtably creationist view???

  73. no.no.notorious says:

    @Paul D: yes, that video is a little out there. not to get off topic, but your post is so mind boggling stupid. lookie, i can name call too.

  74. Aresef says:

    A few months ago, bananas at the store I work at were 49 cents a pound. They had been for ages. Then they were 54. Now they’re 59. Shenanigans.

  75. sleepbaby says:

    No bananas? My god… the toddlers of America will rise up and smite us with their sippy cups as we sleep. Bananas are the *perfect* toddler food and are widely known as god’s gift to beleaguered parents.

    Oh well. I guess there’s always the heaven-sent cheerio (or cheeto, as I first wrote).

  76. They are hiding all the good banana strains in Area 51 for after the apocalypse.

  77. saerra says:

    “…and too small to appeal to consumers”

    Soooo… does this mean bananas were the original victims of the evil shrink-ray?! ;) *ducking*

  78. johnfrombrooklyn says:

    Raise your hand if you “knew a girl” in high school that had to go the doctor to remove either a broken off banana or hot dog from her coochie.

  79. Yay! More Doom and Gloom! Enjoy your weekend, folks!

  80. mrsender38 says:

    And yet asparagus and those disgusting Fig Newtons get off scott free? That’s messed up!

  81. Avery says:

    Typical American response in these comments:

    “Sigh, more bad news. Not news. This is just anti-banana propaganda. We don’t care because it’s not happening. Even if it does happen, we can’t do anything about it. This is irrelevant to how other crops are produced. If it is relevant I don’t want to hear about it. I certainly don’t want to know why it is that bananas are so cheap or any sort of history about the subject. I do love peanut butter and banana sandwiches though.”

  82. theczardictates says:

    @Avery: mmm… peanut butter and banana sandwiches… What was the rest of that stuff?

  83. parrotuya says:

    If only the fungus could kill Wal-Mart! Save the bananas, kill Wal-Mart!

  84. TeraGram says:

    We’re particularly fond of the little red bananas in our house. They’re extremely flavorful. The fruit is somewhat firmer and they handle being in a 2nd grader’s lunch box quite well. A Cavendish never could, it’d be black and bruised and much by noon. Ick.

  85. BlackFlag55 says:

    As unto Microsoft, all I can say is Potato Blight.

    One crop thinking = disaster.

    Good article.

  86. ironchef says:

    With global warming….hell we can grow them here.

  87. orlo says:

    Well, bananas are kind of the white-bread of fruit from a nutritional standpoint. Perhaps we can put that acreage to better use and develop a peanut butter with artificial banana flavor.

  88. packetsniffer says:

    @Paul D:
    The video is being slightly facetious — and it’s obvious. But regardless, you aren’t even making a point with your post. What does the physical design of the banana have to do with a banana plague?

  89. LUV2CattleCall says:

    “The new current bananas seem to be perfect size!”

    @forgottenpassword:

    That’s what she said…

  90. tankertodd says:

    Re: steely imperialist multinational corporations

    I hope that was sarcasm because if it weren’t for those corporations you wouldn’t have the option of eating a banana. If you don’t like the companies, don’t eat their products and tell everyone to do the same and why.

    I for one enjoy a world where a person on food stamps can buy kiwi fruit. 20 years ago a kiwi was a effing alien thing. Like, WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO THAT LIME?!?! It’s got BLOODY HAIR ON IT!!! I don’t know whether to eat it or shave it!!!

    Now kiwis are passe’.

  91. Doc Benway says:

    does this much quoting of a NYT article constitute fair use?

  92. APowerCosmic says:

    I have come to realize when there are slow news days for this blog! After seeing this headline, I have come to believe today was one of them!

  93. eviladrian says:

    @girly: That’s why this is such a big problem compared to already bad news like wheat and corn blights.

    Being seedless, each variety of bananas is genetically homogeneous, so there is no way for them to evolve immunity to a new disease.

    You pretty much have to switch to another strain (like when the cavendish took over) and hope that nothing shows up that can kill it too.

  94. Charred says:

    I like bananas. Bananas are good!

  95. Metropolis says:

    WoW, good for this guy he remembered something from his genetics class. And as comparing bananas to fast food is beyond ignorant and shouldn’t have been published in a new paper.

  96. That-Dude says:

    @forgottenpassword: my thoughts exactly . . . unless in the early 1900’s they were the smaller variety that you typically see used in countries not named USA or Canada. I mean the bananas we have now are huge.

  97. Underpants Gnome says:

    [xkcd.com]

    Bananas need to be much further to the upper-right in my opinion.

  98. Bye says:

    @forgottenpassword: I was wondering that too. Any bigger than what’s currently available would make me feel like I’m on a date with Michael Brandon – happy to have it but wondering where I’m going to put it all.

  99. Jmatthew says:

    @jdsmn: I read an article about this in National Geographic about two years ago. Apparently modern bananas are essentially clones of each other, so there’s not much diversity, which makes them particularly vulnerable.

    I will miss my bananas :(

  100. Sian says:

    Because Bananas are the perfect food and clear proof of God’s design!

    right I’m sorry I just can’t keep a straight face through that.

  101. sean77 says:

    @Sian: that was my first thought.

    I’m guessing that the “banana god” guy now says “Bananas are proof that God exists, and their destruction is proof that He hates us”

  102. Ciao_Bambina says:

    I keep thinking of a little song that my dear old Dad always sang whenever he saw us eating them:
    “I like bananas because they have appeal!”
    Appeal/a peel – get it?

    Yeah, shut up, we were little and stupid, and laughed at anything our Dad did ’cause he was awesome.

  103. stre says:

    @snoop-blog: your local grocery store may not have a choice. they may essentially be extinct.

  104. georgeted says:

    The bad problem with the cavendish is that it is sterile, so if the disease hits , it will soon hit all.