The Doomed Banana

The Doomed Banana

I never really thought about bananas until I read a recent Slashfood article titled "Kiss Bananas Good-Bye?"  When you go to the store you have the choice of several different kinds of apple - Gala, Pink Lady, Macintosh, what have you.  (And a new variety called Aurora, which I recently tried for the first time.  It was delicious, but that's a story for another day.)

But then you hit the bin of bananas, and it's just "bananas." 

Turns out that all bananas sold in the West today are actually one particular variety, the Cavendish.  Bananas are a huge monoculture.  And like all monocultures, this leaves them very susceptible to disease.  Which is what's happening right now.  The world's crop of Cavendish bananas is being threatened by several very serious diseases which could spell doom for the "regular old banana."

From our perspective, this isn't necessarily a big deal.  Some other banana crop will slip in to fill the space left behind by the demise of the Cavendish.  Maybe it will usher in a new world of banana varieties, when you get to choose which kind of bananas you want to buy today. 

I look forward to this after reading one banana expert's comment that "There are such diverse qualities to be found in bananas - small, medium, large, yellow, red, creamy, tart, sweet, balanced."  Just like apples, there's a banana best suited for every purpose, whether it's eating out of hand, cooking, or for dessert.  The author himself gets to taste a new variety which he describes as "creamy and sweet, although far from cloying.  I detected hints of strawberry, vanilla and apple - perhaps even a dash of cinnamon.  […] This banana was in a different league."

But the demise of the Cavendish could have a much more serious impact in other countries.  Bananas are a staple in many parts of the world, analogous to rice or wheat.  Like rice and wheat, less desirable varieties and grades are used as livestock feed.  Bananas are a survival food in Africa, in regions like Cameroon, which can hardly afford to lose a keystone food. 

Bananas are a domesticated crop, like corn.  There's no such thing as a wild banana plant.  The banana is a hybrid plant, a sterile descendant of two wild plants.  The first ancestor is a wild plant called Musa acuminata which had small fruit like okra, and big seeds "that resemble peppercorns."  This plant was hybridized with a wild plant in India called Musa balibasana which was large and prolific, but also chock full of seeds.

Thousands of years ago in India, people hybridized M. balibasana with M. acuminate, to create the plantain we know today.  Bananas are sterile (which gives us the lovely seedless banana) and propagate vegetatively by spreading rhizomes and suckers.

The Cavendish banana isn't the best tasting banana.  It's not the easiest to grow, or the most nutritious, or even the prettiest.  However, it IS the easiest variety to ship and store, which has doomed American consumers to a relatively lifeless, flavorless, starchy banana. 

I can't wish for the progression of banana diseases, because this would cause a lot of human suffering in the world.  But I can certainly wish for a broader variety of bananas to come to market.  Imagine the smoothies of the future!

Photo credit: Flickr/pykmi