By Rosie Spinks
City on a Hill Press Columnist
It’s nutritious, sweet, individually wrapped in its own natural packaging and filled with potassium and fiber. As the Chiquita Banana slogan puts it, bananas are “quite possibly the world’s perfect food.” Yet the banana as we know it is going extinct. Some scientists predict that in five to 10 years the fruit will go from dietary staple to grocery store anomaly.
The role of the banana as a ubiquitous food item and staple of our diet points to the larger problems in our food system. In today’s food culture of year-round convenience and diets that see little seasonal variation, it’s really no surprise that an exotic fruit, able to be grown only in tropical areas, would become the most widely consumed fruit in the United States. But rarely do we as consumers stop to ask ourselves just why that banana costs a mere 19 cents.
There are over 1,000 different varieties of bananas grown around the world, each varying greatly in size, sweetness and color. However, to Americans there is only one — the firm, yellow, sweet, seedless and uniformly-sized fruit we put in our breakfast cereals and blend in our smoothies, the Cavendish banana.
Therein lies the problem. The Cavendish, lacking seeds, is essentially a sterile plant. Instead of reproducing on its own, new Cavendish plants are grown from previously existing plants, resulting in a worldwide crop of bananas that are genetically indistinguishable from one another. Because of this complete lack of genetic diversity, the entire crop is incredibly vulnerable to any ailment, disease or pest that may come along.
Over a decade ago, a fungus known as Panama disease, or Race 4, began to afflict Cavendish crops in Asia. Experts say that if this disease spreads to other continents where bananas are grown as cash crops for export, such as Africa or Latin America, the Cavendish crop will no longer be viable. In an increasingly globalized world, the transfer of this pathogen is nearly inevitable.
The extinction of bananas may sound pretty far-fetched, but it’s actually happened before. In the early 1960s, unbeknownst to the average American consumer, the widely consumed Gros Michel (or “Big Mike”) banana was replaced by the Cavendish banana when a similar disease wiped out the former variety entirely.
When it comes to fossil fuel consumption, bananas are essentially the Hummers of the produce aisle. They are grown in equatorial or tropical regions thousands of miles away by corporate agribusiness giants like Chiquita, which have a history of mistreating laborers and clear-cutting rainforests in countries like Ecuador, Costa Rica and Honduras.
Bananas must be picked on a precise time schedule and transported in refrigerated containers to ensure ripeness upon reaching the supermarket shelves. In addition, the fruit has a limited shelf life of less than two weeks from the time they are cut.
It’s not that eating bananas is inherently bad, or that we should deem them as the forbidden fruit and stop consuming them altogether. Instead, we should be more conscious of the environmental externalities, or hidden costs, that allow bananas to be so cheap and consistently available. We should consider the kind of food culture that allowed an exotic fruit grown nowhere in the United States to become our everyday staple. We should stop to think of the forms of pollution, genetic modification, land-use change, human rights abuses and corporatization that brought the fruit to our table.
I’m the first to admit that banana pancakes and banana bread will always be favorite treats of mine, but eating a banana daily seems silly when a multitude of other options exist. So take the time to learn and explore the extraordinary variety of locally grown and organic crops that are available on the Central Coast. The start of spring marks a perfect opportunity to learn what’s in season and really notice a difference in the seasonal produce you can buy directly from the hands that grew it.
And when it is a banana you crave, consider spending a little more to buy an organic, fair-trade variety. By doing this, you’ll not only notice a difference in taste, but also feel empowered knowing the food you buy strengthens your community rather than exploiting a foreign country’s land and people.