Yes, We Have No Bananas

by Dave Schuler on March 8, 2013

When I was a kid bananas tasted better than they do now. I know that old ladies are always reputed to say that but in the case of bananas it’s actually true.

Sixty years ago the predominant variety of banana grown commercially, shipped internationally, and that you were most likely to see in your local supermarket was the Gros Michel (pronounced “grow miSHELL”). The Gros Michel had a tougher skin and, consequently, was easier to ship and handle and, frankly, it tasted better than the Cavendish that you see in the store today. The Cavendish is bland and tasteless by comparison.

In the 1950s the Gros Michel began to succumb to a fungus called “Panama disease”. By the 1960s it had become commercially nonviable. It’s still grown, just not commercially in large scale cultivation. IIRC Chiquita (United Fruit Company) was the last holdout against the Cavendish but it stopped cultivating the Gros Michel in the 1960s. During that period we actively sought out Chiquita bananas. They just tasted better than the bananas from other producers. The Cavendish was selected because it was resistant to Panama disease and could be shipped.

Roughly ten years ago a strain of Panama disease to which the Cavendish banana is susceptible was identified in Asia. The fungus has now spread throughout East Asia and to Australia. Panama disease Race 4, as it is called, has wiped out plantations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and Taiwan, and it is now spreading through much of Southeast Asia. It’s just a matter of time before it makes its way to the New World.

Once that happens the Cavendish is doomed and there is presently no ready alternative. When this new strain of Panama disease struck it wiped out Malaysian plantations in just five years. It’s not that there are no other varieties of bananas. It’s that there are no other varieties that are palatable and suitable for shipping long distances waiting in the wings to substitute for the Cavendish.

Banana growers are trying to develop a commercially viable substitute for the Cavendish both by natural means and by genetic modification but it’s quite possible than in just five years bananas will be as rare in American stores as they were in the 1880s when they were first shipped here in quantity.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Icepick March 8, 2013 at 2:05 pm

I’ve got several thoughts concerning international trade and mass extinctions, but I can’t really pull a coherent thought out of the mess at the moment. It would be a shame to lose bananas.

PD Shaw March 8, 2013 at 3:03 pm

One longs for the days when the United Fruit Company could get on the phone to the White House and deploy a marine unit to some third world cesspool to incinerate product deemed dangerous to profits.

(a little exaggeration)

Jimbino March 8, 2013 at 3:16 pm

Haha! I’ve got bananas, sugar cane, persimmon, limes, avocados and mangos growing on my small estate here in Brazil. Our two types of banana—banana prata and banana ouro—are small but delicious. I can barely stomach the bananas I buy in the states. Tasteless, just like store-bought tomatoes.

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