Panamanian bananas infected with the Fusarium fungus, commonly known as Panama disease. Photo courtesy of environmentmove.com
When Andy Warhol designed the iconic banana album cover for 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico, the artist didn’t tap the aromatic Lacatan banana, or the red Dacca banana, with its light pink flesh, or even the obscenely long rhino horn banana to be his muse. Instead, he opted for the obvious choice: the curved, 6–9-inch, bright-yellow variety known as Cavendish, a variety that is so ubiquitous in our markets that it’s come to define what we picture when we think of bananas. Between lunch boxes, flambés, and cream pies, the average American consumes over 28 pounds of bananas every year—more than any other fruit.
All that’s about to change. For the last 20 years, the Cavendish—which accounts for 95 percent of all bananas sold internationally—has been hounded by a deadly, incurable fungus that can demolish entire plantations. Until last year, the Tropical Race 4 strain of the Fusarium fungus, commonly known as Panama disease, was contained in southeast Asian countries like China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
Now, like a lumbering goliath, Panama disease is on the move. In October 2013, the fungus reared its head in Jordan. One month later, an outbreak was confirmed in Mozambique. There are currently unconfirmed reports in Oman, and central Asia as well.
If—or more likely, when—Panama disease hops the Pacific or Atlantic oceans and hits Latin America, the impact will be devastating. Latin America and the Caribbean, home to 80 percent of all exported bananas, and are by far the leading source of America’s favorite phallic fruit. “This could really be the devastation of the Latin American banana trade,” says Dr. Gert Kema over the phone from Costa Rica, where he’s attending a banana conference. Kema works at Wageningen University, in the Netherlands and is a preeminent authority on the subject.
Panama disease spreads through spores and, as such, is easily transported by contaminated water, or workers and researches as they move from one plantation to another. Kema says he recently analyzed trace amounts of soil under a pair of tennis shoes he’d worn while visiting an infected farm in the Philippines and found 142 disease spores per gram of dirt. Once the fungus infects a plantation, it renders it fallow for decades. “I really think we are not exaggerating the case,” Kema says. “This is a very, very serious threat.”
And if this still sounds like a false alarm, just look back 70 years. Before the Cavendish was king, Americans wolfed down a sweeter and stockier cultivar known as Gros Michel, or Big Mike. Once as commonplace as the Cavendish is now, throughout the first half of the 20th century Gros Michel was plagued by the original iteration of the Panama disease—Tropical Race 1. By the 1940s and 50s, Gros Michel plantations were being wiped off the map. The banana industry was in crisis until, at the last moment, the Cavendish—by all accounts an inferior substitute—was introduced. But now the Cavendish is going the way of Gros Michel, and there’s no heir apparent to the throne.
Hanging banana stems. Photo via Christopher Augapfel
To discuss this banana bummer and possible solutions, I called Dan Koeppel, author of 2007’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World and a man deep in the banana game. Koeppel estimates that since his book came out, he’s spent almost half his time writing banana-related articles, lecturing on bananas, and consulting food growers on bananas—he’s currently working on a new edition of his book. We discussed alternatives to the Cavendish, the problems of monoculture production, and the historical impact of Panama disease on work conditions.
VICE: You published your book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World back in 2008. What’s happened with Panama disease since then?
Dan Koeppel: Since my book came out, Panama disease has spread to many places. It has not yet arrived in Latin America, but it’s almost certain to arrive at some point. We just don’t know when. There’s no predictable curve or model to say when this will happen. But we do know that when it arrives, it’s game over. And that’s not an exaggeration.
You’ve been to banana plantations across the world—what does Panama disease look like on the ground?
You have to catch it at the right time because the plantations go down pretty quick. Much of the time, a plantation affected by Panama disease isn’t a plantation anymore—it’s just empty. The one time I saw a truly big commercial plantation in the midst of Panama disease was in south China. This was a place where they had just identified the disease. The plants die from within and the leaves wilt (the technical name for Panama disease is Fusarium wilt). The leaves don’t provide shade anymore, so the plants get too much sun and start to literally crumble and dry out. So it looks a lot like a banana plantation that’s dried out. But if you cut into the plants, you can see something happening: they’re sort of rotting. Panama disease destroys the banana’s vascular system, so it loses the ability to absorb and use water—they die pretty quickly.
The first incarnation of Panama disease wiped out the Gros Michel variety in half a century. Do we know if the disease is spreading slower or faster this time?
There’s not a lot known about what makes Panama disease spread rapidly or not rapidly. With Gros Michel and Cavendish, it’s pretty clear that in some places it spread shockingly fast, and in some places it didn’t. Certain things can play a role in that, like water, soil conditions, and ambient temperature, but we don’t really know. My argument is that this uncertainty needs more urgency, not less.
Panama disease hasn’t come to Latin America yet, but once it comes, it’ll spread pretty quickly. That’s a certainty. Will it wipe out country X’s crop in three, ten, or fifteen years? Who knows. The question is whether or not the banana industry will have someplace else to grow bananas. They can’t just roll in, take new land, and start plantations the way they used to. One can argue that the spread will be quicker than it was before because now the industry is more global. People in the 1920s weren’t flying around the world with dirt on their shoes the way they do now. On the other hand, the banana industry now knows more about the disease and quarantine procedures, which are temporarily effective, at best. That might slow it down.
Instead of putting all our banana eggs in one basket—first with the Gros Michel and now with the Cavendish—wouldn’t it make more sense to diversify the crop, thereby avoiding industry-wide pandemics?
I think at this point the banana industry is thinking of a non-diversity-based solution—in other words, finding another monocultural banana to replace the Cavendish. There just isn’t a very good candidate out there. The Cavendish was a pretty poor replacement for the Gros Michel, but it worked. There isn’t even a poor candidate to replace the Cavendish that has all the properties an export banana needs: toughness, slow ripening, proper taste, proper color, proper size, tree height.
I believe that the Cavendish will ultimately be replaced by a non-monoculture product. Not having monoculture will definitely slow the spread of disease, though it won’t stop it. But it will enable multiple price points, which will make the banana a more profitable fair trade product for workers. Just like apples—there are dozens of commercial varieties, and some apples cost a dollar a bag and some cost $2 each. I see that model happening in the banana industry. However, there will always be a need for a primary, super-cheap banana. And the only answer, I believe, is a genetically modified banana. It will probably be a genetically modified Gros Michel, or Lady Finger, which is another variety. Since there’s no good off-the-shelf or out-of-the-tree Cavendish replacement, the answer for the commodity banana is going to have to involve some form of transgenics, which would mean cross-breeding with another species of plant—I know some researchers have experimented with radish genes—or cisgenics, using genetic engineering to breed two varieties of bananas together.
Can you describe the two most likely replacements for the Cavendish, the Gros Michel, and the Lady Finger?
You can still get Gros Michels. They’re not viable commercially, but they’re found in large parts of Africa on family farms. Everything that’s said about the Gros Michel—that it’s a bigger, better-tasting banana—is fundamentally true. Is the worst Gros Michel better than the best Cavendish? Probably not. But as a whole, it’s a way better fruit. It has a premier, richer taste.
Lady Finger is a different sort of banana entirely. It tastes quite different. It’s not as sweet—it has a tarter flavor. One of the nice things about Lady Finger is that the fruit doesn’t turn brown when cut. On the other hand, one of the issues with Lady Finger is that for it to be sweet, you have to let the flesh go pretty brown; otherwise you get a starchy banana. The question is whether consumers are going to let their bananas get brown, whether they’re willing to learn how to handle a banana differently. When we see a banana that’s brown, we think it’s rotten, and we throw it away. So it’ll require some education to make it work. Now, many of these things could be ironed out in the genetic mix—because while you’re breeding resistance to Panama disease, you could also be looking for other things like changing the ripening characteristics, or the flavor, or even adding beta-carotene and vitamins to the banana.
In your book you draw a relationship between Panama disease and the violence perpetrated on banana workers in the early 20th century, particularly in Colombia. Can you describe that correlation?
Colombia is a lab for the banana industry’s growth and behavior in Latin America. It’s the home of the great banana massacre of 1929, when workers attempting to unionize were massacred by the predecessors of the CIA at the behest of United Fruit, which is now Chiquita. The story is chronicled in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Workers and their families were killed Sunday morning as they came out of church. More than 1,000 people died, and their bodies were dumped into the sea.
It isn’t just the profit motive that made that massacre happen. Panama disease made the banana companies more evil. Looking at why that is can really give you an idea of what can happen in the future. The banana business industry model, founded over 100 years ago, remains the same today. The banana is the cheapest fruit in the supermarket, and that’s an amazing phenomenon if you think about it. Bananas are half the price of apples, yet they’re grown over 2,000 miles away, while apples are grown in almost every state that consumes them. Bananas are perishable, unlike apples, and they need to be refrigerated when they’re shipped. So how is it that bananas are the cheapest fruit? And the reason is that now, as then, the business model requires absolutely cheap production and labor. That involved, back then, exploiting workers and land. If you add this advancing disease into the mix—making it impossible to grow bananas—the banana industry’s response to anything else raising costs, like workers advocating for better pay or conditions, has always had the potential to be brutal.
So we might expect to see added pressure on Colombian banana workers if and when Panama disease crosses the ocean.
Colombia is a pretty good place to be a banana worker, and I’m talking relatively. They have a high level of unionization. However, recent history in Colombia does not give you good evidence that banana companies will behave well when pressure is brought to bare on them in the form of losing plantation to disease. Just as recently as seven, eight years ago, Chiquita was forced to pay huge fines for supporting terrorist organizations in Colombia. When you look at anything that raises banana prices, the banana industry will react in a very aggressive way if it’s to maintain its 100-year-old business model.
Yes, there are other business models they could try. But I like to compare banana companies to McDonald’s—how easy would it be for McDonald’s not to sell hamburgers? They'd probably fight tooth-and-nail for the right to sell hamburgers. And Panama disease is something that banana companies aren’t able to effectively fight. There’s no cure for it, and it doesn’t look like there will be a cure for it any time soon, as far as I can tell. The question is not when Panama disease will come to Latin America. The question is, what is the banana industry going to do about it?
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