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.