I was driving to Manoa to pick up Meda yesterday afternoon and got hooked on an episode of Public Radio International’s program, Living on Earth.
“Top Banana” originally aired back in 2004. It’s a short history of the banana industry in Central America. It’s also a tale of industrial mono crop agriculture, corporate imperialism (for lack of a better word), and the appeal, as well as the limits, of genetic modification.
The problem is that the Cavendish variety of bananas, the kind we see most often in our supermarkets, is facing the threat of a new mutation of an old disease that could wipe it out, at least as a commercial crop.
There are companies researching a GMO solution, creating a disease resistant banana that tastes like the bananas we’re used to.
But, as the story notes, there are major problems with this approach. First, the global anti-GMO sentiment would likely mean GMO bananas would have difficulty in the marketplace. And, second, small farmers will never be able to afford the patented genetically modified varieties.
So in Honduras, they are hard at work trying to achieve the same result through traditional plant breeding.
At the Honduran Agricultural Research Institute Adolfo Martinez likes to show off rows and rows of banana plants that are all different.
MARTINEZ: This is our future we think. Some are big, some are tall – they all have different properties, they have resistance to disease, different flavors.
CARTY: Adolfo has 368 varieties of bananas here (out of about 1000 species that are known around the world by the way). For four decades Adolfo’s institute has been trying to get different varieties to mate with each other – and Adolfo gives them a helping hand. Literally. His workers put ladders up into banana plants and scrape the pollen off the male flowers of some varieties … then, walk over to a field with a different variety of banana, and, by hand, pollinate the female flowers. A few months later they harvest the fruit. They peel and squish the bananas and go through that mush to look for seeds. And they find a few – not many – maybe three in 100 bananas. But those are the seeds of brand new banana varieties. Like the one that Adolfo shows off with the pride of a new daddy.
CLIP: This is the best. It has a huge bunch. It is a plant that is practically immune to Sigatoka, immune to disease, very resistant. They have slightly different flavour than the Cavendish and that is why the company has not accepted it yet. But even if Panama disease comes here we have some alternatives right now.
CARTY: Aldofo believes his breeding program will save the banana and also help the small farmers of the world who would never be able to afford a patented, genetically modified banana anyway. Adolfo’s new breed is already being used in more than 50 countries. Cuba is growing them because they don’t need pesticides.
CARTY: But are North American consumers ready for a new banana? The banana companies have spent so much money promoting just one kind of banana that they’re loathe to tackle the huge job of changing public attitudes about what a banana looks and tastes like. So instead of six kinds of apples, and five kinds of pears – we’re offered usually just one kind of banana.
In any case, it’s a very rich program.
And as I was searching online for a link to the program, I ran across a couple of other tellings of the banana’s story, “Poisoned by profit: how the banana trade shaped history” and “Bananas: The Uncertain Future Of A Favorite Fruit.”
The story of bananas also links back to Hawaii. Castle & Cooke, one of the original Big Five factors that controlled Hawaii’s economy and politics through much of the 20th century, began in sugar, expanded by taking over the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (later named Dole), and then later took over Standard Fruit Company, which became the largest supplier of bananas to the U.S. market. In the process, though, the “banana boys” from Standard Fruit, steeled in the rough & tumble politics of Central America, prevailed in an internal corporate power struggle and captured wrested control of the company from its local management that had a missionary heritage and a more genteel, although paternalistic, approach.
But that’s a story for another day.