Hello Yellow: Up Close and Personal with the History of the Banana

history banana belatina

Did you know that the average American consumes a whopping twenty-seven pounds of bananas yearly? That’s nearly one-hundred thirty bananas per person. However, the banana wasn’t always this popular. In actuality, this versatile, bright yellow berry has had quite the journey. It has gone from being a novelty to continuously fighting for its worldwide survival thanks to the Panama Disease. So, if you are a banana-lover, it’s time to learn some of its history.

Let’s start by taking a look at this yellow delight’s many names. Even though there’s only one way to identify bananas in english, in Spanish it has many more names. I remember being really confused when someone referred to it as a guineo, but that’s the beauty of learning other people’s cultures. Whether you call it a guineo, banano (my go-to choice), or plátano we can all agree that this fruit —  in botanical standards it’s a berry —  is hard to ignore. 

In fact, the first few Americans to encounter the banana couldn’t ignore it either. Instead, they were amazed. Picture this, you’re in Philadelphia in the year 1876. Scrolling aimlessly through social media is not an option, prejudice is heavily present, and globalization is still in its early stages. So, you happily go out and step into a public event. Not any public event, but the 1876 Centennial Exposition, which was like a World’s Fair. The exposition was 1876’s version of Coachella … well, maybe to some. This was a great deal back then because that’s where the public would get introduced to innovations never before seen. The 1876 Centennial Exposition showcased the right arm of the Statue of Liberty, the typewriter, the first telephone created by Alexander Graham Bell — and the banana plant.  Though the exposition had a lot of gasp-worthy peculiarities, the banana piqued people’s interest. The banana plant stirred so much sensation that the plant had guards around it because people didn’t know how to act around this exotic delicacy.  

 Up until then, Americans, more specifically North Americans, hadn’t been fully acquainted to a banana plant, which explained their reactions. This was due to the fact that North American soil and climate factors was not (and still isn’t) fit to grow bananas. People from Latin America already had access to them, but importing them to their northern neighbor wasn’t an option. Importing them was out of the question during those times because the transportation methods available weren’t as advanced yet. Luckily, a few years later, transportation started evolving. Such transportational advancements included trains with mechanical refrigeration that rolled out in the 1920’s and the introduction of refrigerated trucks in the 1930’s. This accessibility finally made the importing of bananas a reality. Now that importing the bananas was a possibility, the need to manage them was even greater. 

Before Chiquita, Dole, and Del Monte, the banana companies we are familiar with today, there was only one big fish in the sea — United Fruit Company. This company was created in 1899 and impacted many for well over seventy years. United oversaw the cultivation and distribution of bananas. Needless to say, they were rather powerful. What made them even more advantageous to the banana industry was how they distributed these bananas. United Fruit had the largest fleets in business. These fleets were so large that they were even used for a brief moment during World War II. Though that was a kind act on their part, their main purpose was to deliver tremendous quantities of bananas as efficiently as possible. Truly, transporting the bananas to the United States had never been easier. 

United Fruit Company’s influence didn’t just stop at cargo logistics. Thanks to them, bananas weren’t seen as a luxury item for long. Their authoritarian stance led them to alter the prices of bananas exponentially. Prices were cut by more than half their original price. At this point, the famous fruit (berry) became a staple for the less fortunate, which still created quite the high demand. As the years passed by, United Fruit became even more powerful. They had impacted the world of bananas so much that they were at the nucleus of the banana industry. It seemed as though they wanted to hold on to anything pertaining to bananas. Their impact was so noticeable that people started referring to them as the Octopus because of its monopoly-style business. There was no denying that United’s metaphorical tentacles were tightly wrapped around this industry. United’s ambition didn’t stop there. They had acquired land in Central American countries, such as Costa Rica and Guatemala. 

Chiquita Banana Bananas
Photo Credit IG @chiquitabrands

United Fruit understood that these countries were ideal for production since it had the necessary climate and soil. Not only did they choose these countries because of their optimal climate conditions, but also because of how cheap their land and labor was. United Fruit didn’t waste a moment to make their move. Interesting enough, United Fruit had supporters. Foreign companies were willing to clear land and invest towards the land. All this eagerness to contribute didn’t come out of anywhere though. The foreign companies were already led by United Fruit Company, so it was a no-brainer at this point. They wanted to set everything for success in order to produce hefty amounts of bananas for the U.S. market.

Unsurprisingly, there were conditions to their terms. The foreign companies requested that they’d be exempt from taxation among other requirements. These initial negotiations created something that would be quite significant to the banana industry, the banana republics. Believe it or not, there was actually a time where banana republic was more than a brand. During this time, a banana republic was simply described as a vulnerable nation, whose economy and political stance would be improved by whatever they could export. All this power was worrisome because it didn’t leave much room for actions outside of what was expected from United Fruit. 

This is exactly the case for the past Guatemalan president, Jacobo Arbenz. In the early 1950’s he tried to establish a land-reform program that would’ve reclaimed all the properties associated with the banana industry. This didn’t sit well with United Fruit and sure enough they retaliated. To make this banana republic look bad, they started lobbying the United States to take action against Guatemala — and they did. The C.I.A. ended up helping in the ejection of Arbenz from his presidency. I do want to clarify that the decision for the United States to intervene in Guatemala’s politics wasn’t just because of United Fruit’s influence. The U.S. felt it was necessary because Guatemala seemed to be heading towards Communism, which was very common during the era of the Cold War. From then on, United Fruits continued meddling in the political matters of other banana republics. It seemed as though the might of the United Fruit was not going dwindle down, but it did happen eventually. 

The U.S. started noticing that United Fruit’s actions were becoming too monopolistic and started retracting from them. After that, United Fruit’s legacy was further halted by Ecuador. Since the United Fruit Company realized they had to branch out from the banana republics, they attempted to make their way into Ecuador.  Being that Ecuador has always had the adequate conditions for banana growing, this was something that could’ve been very beneficial to United. However, their methods used in the banana republics weren’t valid in Ecuador. The lands in Ecuador were always sold to independent farmers, meaning United’s political and economic gimmicks would not work. United’s tentacles were finally starting to be chopped off and that was probably for the best. At some point in the future, Chiquita became the successor of United Fruit. Soon after, other banana companies surfaced, such as Del Monte and Dole, which created a more reasonable market for the banana industry. 

Who would’ve thought the world of bananas was ever this controversial? All because the demand for bananas kept growing. I mean, being a cheap and delicious fruit is just a win-win for people around the world. This is especially true in the times where an even sweeter banana existed. At the time when bananas were gaining their fame,  Americans were brought into contact with the Gros Michel, popularly known as “Big Mike.” As dangerous as “Big Mike” sounds, it was just the name given to the banana. “Big Mike” was nothing more than one variety of bananas. In reality, there are over one thousand varieties of bananas, but not all of them are suitable to be imported. Some are just too fragile to travel or even undesirable for our palate. Some people who had the pleasure of eating the “Big Mike” in its primetime recount that it was even tastier and juicier than the banana we now eat. Oh yes, our banana is no longer “Big Mike” and with reason. 

That reason being the Panama Disease. 

Panama Disease, which is also called Fusarium wilt of bananas, is a fungus that attacks the banana plant at its roots. Once the fungus contaminates the plant, it contaminates the soil forever, leaving inadequate conditions for banana growing in the future. Sadly, the Panama Disease is unforgiving and it unleashed its wrath over the Michel Gros crops. The strain that eradicated the Gros Michel was Tropical Race 1 or TR1. Companies and farmers tried to outrun the widespread of this fungal monster, but it would always catch up. Fortunately, there was a solution. Since there are over one thousand types of bananas, farmers and scientists found that the Cavendish, another banana breed, did not have an adverse reaction to the exposure of the TR1. So, that was great news. Up until now. The Panama Disease is back and it’s after our beloved Cavendish. Well, it’s been back since the 1990’s and we have been trying to combat it ever since. They discovered the fungus in Indonesia and it has already made its way to the Philippines. Farmers have been forced to move away from these areas to try to salvage their banana-growing business. So far, the farmers of the Asian banana industry have relocated to Mekong Delta or to Myanmar. 

diseased banana Belatina
Photo Credit worldatlas.com

Being that the Panama Disease has already stirred up the world of bananas in the past, we are a bit more prepared. Scientists have isolated the strand of this Panama Disease, TR4, and are diligently working on alternatives. Since technology is much more advanced than it was in the times of the first Panama Disease outbreak, scientists and farmers have different techniques to use for a solution. The first option is to find a different variety of a banana that’s not susceptible to the TR4. Similar to what was done when this occurred to the Gros Michel. Well, in a perfect world, that’s what could be done. The Cavendish was a banana that  fit all the attributes a desirable banana should have, just like the Gros Michel did. They somehow got lucky in finding that breed of banana. 

Now, most of the bananas out there are wild bananas, which are really hard, not suitable for travel, and not tasty at all. The world is really used to their sweet bananas, so pulling one out from the wild is not an option any longer. However, scientists have found that they may be able to help the world keep the components of the Cavendish, without being compromised by the TR4. This would be done by trying to genetically modify them. Scientists began trying to perfect this process in 2012, in a banana field located in a small town in Australia named Humpty Doo. Humpty Doo was the perfect place to conduct their field trials since this once very fertile field had been wiped out by TR4. Throughout their trials, scientists planted genetically modified and non-G.M. bananas and had made some interesting discoveries. They found that the non- G.M. bananas had been completely infected by the TR4, meaning that the soil was still unusable.

On the bright side, they noticed that the genetically modified bananas had all survived. None of them had been infected with TR4. With that information at hand, the scientists then took a gene from a genetically modified wild banana that is immune to the Tropical Race 4 and put that gene into the Cavendish. This resulted in producing a banana with genes resistant to TR4. The Cavendish had tremendous success with this, but still needed a little help. 

That’s where gene-editing comes into play. 

Basically, gene-editing is where scientists go into the DNA and adjust the genes that are already there. Apparently, it’s almost equivalent to natural processes. As with anything, there are various types of gene-editing and the one used for the gene editing of bananas is called CRISPR or “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” CRISPR gives human beings the ability to have more control of evolution in ways that would be favorable for the world. At the end of the day, humans have been altering the course of evolution for a long time, but now we have the chance to promote a more positive course in the altering of evolution. 

By this point, there are two budding scientific methods that might help the world against the Panama Diseases. We have the ability to use CRISPR gene-editing technology and the opportunity to introduce genes not susceptible to TR4 to other bananas. All of these technological advances should be greeted with a lot of cheer, but that’s not always the case. People are still skeptical when it comes to genetically modified anything, even though it truly is a just a natural process that’s received some help. But it is understood that people are hesitant to try something new and improved. This happened with the pasteurization of milk. The information was released to teach us that this was better for our health, but some people still kept insisting on drinking raw milk even if it caused harm to them. 

Sometimes it just takes time for people to adjust. In the meantime, the other alternative is to cross-breed bananas and hope to acquire a banana that would have similar characteristics to the Cavendish. Please note that cross-breeding is another way of altering evolution. With all these options to choose from, it is safe to say that we are on track to dodging a world without bananas. We might not even have to choose what method we want to have used to save these yellow pieces of joy. It is even said that there might even be different kinds of bananas in the markets of the future. Just like there is with grapes, apples, and other produce. I wouldn’t mind that. We already live in a world full of options, so why not let our bananas join? 

Bananas Ripe Belatina
Photo Credit National Geographic.com

It’s pretty apparent that the significance of bananas in our world is unbeatable. Whether you use it in your breakfast smoothie, your post-workout snack with some peanut, or even to whiten your teeth, it’s alllll good. Do it all, so as long as you’re not being wasteful. Millions of edible bananas are tossed everyday and I really would hope you aren’t part of this. To avoid this, use the seven-stage color chart the industry uses to judge the bananas. See, there’s always a solution to a problem. As for now, let’s just focus on enjoying these bananos. There’s plenty to go around!