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Peak Bananas?

by afew Thu Jun 19th, 2008 at 05:11:29 AM EST

Johann Hari in The Independent tells an edifying tale:

Johann Hari: Why bananas are a parable for our times - Johann Hari, Commentators - The Independent

...bananas are dying. The foodstuff, more heavily consumed even than rice or potatoes, has its own form of cancer. It is a fungus called Panama Disease, and it turns bananas brick-red and inedible.

There is no cure. They all die as it spreads, and it spreads quickly. Soon in five, 10 or 30 years the yellow creamy fruit as we know it will not exist.

Panama Disease is caused by a fusarium fungus. Chemical treatments don't eradicate it, and other methods are cumbersome and inadequate: uprooting diseased plants and burning them along with half a tonne of rice hulls to kill the soil pathogen, to take one example. Possibly new resistant hybrids will be developed, but they're unlikely to have the flavour, sweetness, and texture of the yellow bananas developed nations import. Yet the bananas we eat now, cultivars of the Cavendish type, are already a fusarium-resistant replacement for the better-tasting Gros Michel, that ended up by being wiped out in the mid-twentieth century by an earlier version of Panama Disease. The fusarium that's going the rounds now is a different strain that began to proliferate in the 1980s.

So Nature's a bitch. She doesn't want us to have the big-flavour sweet meltingness of our beloved bananas. This is what she does:

That was a Cavendish plantation in Malaysia, 1995. Did I say plantation?

Originally published on May 23 - Bumped by Migeru

Here's a plantation, in Honduras.

The bananas are Cavendish type, waiting to be destroyed, like the Gros Michel type they replaced.

Plantations are big.

Plantations are monocultures.

Plantations are colonial...

Oops, I should talk about "trade" rather than colonies. Colonies are something that used to happen long ago. Countries had colonies. Companies trading in faraway foodstuffs never had colonies, did they? Check out the Dutch East India Company, you say? And it isn't the only example? All right, let's see what Johann Hari says:

Johann Hari: Why bananas are a parable for our times - Johann Hari, Commentators - The Independent

A corporation called United Fruit took one particular type the Gros Michael out of the jungle and decided to mass produce it on vast plantations, shipping it on refrigerated boats across the globe. The banana was standardised into one friendly model: yellow and creamy and handy for your lunchbox.

There was an entrepreneurial spark of genius there but United Fruit developed a cruel business model to deliver it. As the writer Dan Koeppel explains in his brilliant history Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, it worked like this. Find a poor, weak country. Make sure the government will serve your interests. If it won't, topple it and replace it with one that will.

Burn down its rainforests and build banana plantations. Make the locals dependent on you. Crush any flicker of trade unionism. Then, alas, you may have to watch as the banana fields die from the strange disease that stalks bananas across the globe. If this happens, dump tonnes of chemicals on them to see if it makes a difference. If that doesn't work, move on to the next country. Begin again.

This sounds like hyperbole until you study what actually happened. In 1911, the banana magnate Samuel Zemurray decided to seize the country of Honduras as a private plantation. He gathered together some international gangsters like Guy "Machine Gun" Maloney, drummed up a private army, and invaded, installing an amigo as president.

The term "banana republic" was invented to describe the servile dictatorships that were created to please the banana companies. In the early 1950s, the Guatemalan people elected a science teacher named Jacobo Arbenz, because he promised to redistribute some of the banana companies' land among the millions of landless peasants.

President Eisenhower and the CIA (headed by a former United Fruit employee) issued instructions that these "communists" should be killed, and noted that good methods were "a hammer, axe, wrench, screw driver, fire poker or kitchen knife". The tyranny they replaced it with went on to kill more than 200,000 people.

United Fruit isn't around any more, of course. Neither is Standard Fruit. Look at the stickers on your bananas. Chiquita? Dole? Look no further.

Read here for recent news of Chiquita, one of the biggest and most powerful food marketing and distributing companies in the world

So we, and Hari, were talking about a badass disease that is going to stop us getting nice bananas, and perhaps we should get back to that instead of digressing about multinational food and agriculture corporations and their more or less tyrannical colonial tendencies. Right. Plantations are big long-term monocultures. They zero in on a narrow selection of plant types (just one in the case of the banana) because these correspond to the needs of cost-cutting efficiency, long-distance transport, and market appeal in the rich countries. (This has nothing to do with what went before, of course.)

And the result is, they create the conditions for their own demise. They produce imbalance, and the narrowness of their selection makes them vulnerable. They are not sustainable.

So Gaia wins? Not so simple. As Hari tells us Until 150 [years] ago, a vast array of bananas grew in the world's jungles and they were invariably consumed nearby. Some were sweet; some were sour. They were green or purple or yellow. That biodiversity is now under threat because the monoculture of the marketable sweet yellow banana has provided for the proliferation of an unstoppable pathogen. Some varieties will resist, others will not. And foodwise, 85% of the world's banana production is locally consumed. The banana is also allied to the plantain, a staple in a number of parts of the world, also susceptible to Panama Disease.

No victory in sight there.

Interestingly, if you check Panama Disease on Wikipedia, you'll read this:

Fusarium oxysporum - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Fusarium oxysporum, also referred to as Agent Green, is a fungus that causes Fusarium wilt disease in more than a hundred species of plants. It does so by colonizing the water-conducting vessels (xylem) of the plant. As a result of this blockage and breakdown of xylem, symptoms appear in plants such as leaf wilting, yellowing and eventually plant death.

Interest in Fusarium oxysporum as a herbicide was first raised after the discovery in the 1960s that it was the causative agent in the destruction of the Hawaiian coca population.

The United States government was involved in a controversial program to use Fusarium oxysporum for the eradication of coca in Colombia and other Andean countries, but these plans were cancelled by president Bill Clinton who was concerned that the unilateral use of a biological agent would be perceived by the rest of the world as biological warfare. The Andean nations have since banned its use throughout the region. Use of biological agents to kill crops is potentially illegal under the Biological Weapons Convention.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 10:33:32 AM EST
potentially illegal


Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.

by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 10:39:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Great post, afew!  My head was exploding through the whole thing.  Awhile back, I wrote about the fusarium oxysporum plan:



and have been meaning to do an update.  During my move I found a brief mention that some folks in Britain are also on board with this, despite the EU having banned the whole idea.

The banana story fits in well as an object lesson about what this shit can do when let loose.  And don't even get me started on the dates and tomatoes...

Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding. -Hobbes

by Izzy (izzy at eurotrib dot com) on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 03:50:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It rang a bell when I read about the plans to spray coca, but I'd forgotten it was you who'd written about it!
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 04:39:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And why would you remember?  I barely did.  In fact, it seems very unlike me...

Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding. -Hobbes
by Izzy (izzy at eurotrib dot com) on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 09:22:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
At first i was going to write a deeply satirical comment about how all you damn hippies have no understanding about the joys of colonialism, nor of the pleasures of drinking tall mint juleps on the plantation porches, or a singapore sling down at Raffles, or a sloe gin fizz at the tables down at Morey's, knowing that the slaves keep picking the harvest for us.

I was reminded of the pleasures of running the world, and of the sloe-eyed women who gravitate toward the plantation owners, especially in the warmer climes where slinky silks frame the female form.  We uplifted those unlettered indians and mestizos in Honduras, so they could taste the joys of working on our team.

But the banana story is just too sad for words, and Hari's spin on it works for me.  I think the beginning of my political consciousness began even before my teens, upon hearing of marines in Central America.

That the peons who slaved for United Fruit came from cultures who had learned from their disastrous earlier versions of monoculture in the jungle, and would have honored banana (potato, chocolate...) crop diversity, makes it even more sad.

Maybe i should be commenting in anger, at the imbecility that rules our societies, because they have no relationship to the planetary ecosystem which supports their very existence.

(Though i'd like to know what bananas make up the organic banana crop that is being sold in every box store in Germany.)

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Anas Nin

by Crazy Horse on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 11:19:13 AM EST
Colonel Crazy-Horse, Sir, I raise my glass to the only gentleman among us who can go from a sloe gin to a sloe-eyed woman in one line of elegant prose.

Bananas and Germany: Germany has consistently argued that, as a real big banana importer, it wanted the right to bring down the EU tariff wall that protects the so-called ACP countries, and get Latin American bananas that offer the world's lowest prices. At the same time, German consumers want organic. Well, that's OK. I hope that's what they get. As long as it doeesn't mean vast "organic" plantations...

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 12:24:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Colonel Crazy-Horse

Had the Lakota only embraced the hierarchical structure of their opponents, it should be General Crazy-Horse, as he united the Cheyenne and various bands of Lakota to wipe out Custer.  But many of the Lakota gave credit to Sitting Bull, who was on a nearby peak, deep in trance, "making medicine."  Hence the title of the 70s movie with Paul Newman playing a supremely preening, narcissistic Colonel Custer in "Sitting Bull's History Lesson."  I agree about the elegant prose.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 03:51:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Colonel seemed to fit better with the plantation porch...
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 04:06:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
yeah what is it with germans and bananas?

national potassium deficiency in the soil?

i'm thinking demanding organic would mean better plants' immune systems, and more micorrhyzae, meaning more sustainable soil health.

i remember red-skinned bananas, with pinky-orange flesh, growing in hawaii. they were called 'cuban', locally.

very good too, as are the little ladyfinger yellow ones, with just a bite in each one,

dried bananas are brilliant, dark and chewy as beef jerky. i used to buy organic ones from ecuador, imported into hawaii. (!)

dried papaya is great too.

i imagine in the future we'll go back more to dried fruits, so much easier to transport, without all that water, yet retaining much of the taste and goodness.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Sat May 24th, 2008 at 08:55:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Indeed, the history of banana industry is perhaps the most desperate "feel good" story of glorious capitalism.
by das monde on Mon May 26th, 2008 at 03:04:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Europe is to blame for all of this, of course:

DJ Nozem: Europe: Against Stronger Monocultures

Or, why I despair at libertarianism, take 2287623.

From Marginal Revolution:

It turns out, by the way, that the world's supply of Cavendish bananas -- the ones we eat -- is endangered by disease (more here) and many experts believe the entire strain will vanish. Most other banana strains are much harder to cultivate and transport on a large scale, so enjoy your bananas while you can. The previous and supposedly tastier major strain of banana -- Gros Michel -- is already gone and had disappeared by the 1950s, again due to disease. Today, European opposition to GMO is one factor discouraging progress in developing a substitute and more robust banana crop.
Bad Europeans. Preventing progress towards a more successful monoculture because of their silly green ways.
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 11:34:12 AM EST
<bangs head off desk several times>
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 11:43:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
<picks Colman skull shards off keyboard, steals Colman's Mac>

Well, of course. Europe just has to say yes to GM bananas, and the problem is solved. There are currently no resistant GM varieties, research horizon at least 5-10 years. And if this is to continue monoculture, how long will it be before another pathogen strikes? Wankers.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 12:16:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Ah but this story actually gets a lot better when you dig a little further.  The plot thickens -- or sickens -- or both...

Glyphosate/Fusarium Connection:

WASHINGTON, Aug 20 (IPS) - Scientists are expressing alarm after finding elevated amounts of potentially toxic fungal moulds in food crops sprayed with a common weed killer widely used with genetically engineered (GE) plants.

Roundup, produced by food-industry giant Monsanto, contains a chemical called glyphosate that researchers are blaming for increased amounts of fusarium head blight, a fungus of often very toxic moulds that occurs naturally in soils and occasionally invades crops, but is usually held in check by other microbes.

If true, the allegations could not only call into question the world's number one weed killer, but they also jeopardise global acceptance of Monsanto's flagship line of genetically engineered Roundup Ready crops.

Those crops are themselves unaffected by the Roundup weed killer, which kills all competing plants, such as weeds, in the same area.

Monsanto has been producing a series of GE Roundup Ready seed stock for various crops, including cotton, soybean, wheat and corn, to be used exclusively with their successful glyphosate weed killer Roundup. But because they are genetically engineered, the crops have not found easy acceptance in many countries outside the United States, and they are still banned in Canada and Europe.

A four-year study found that wheat treated with glyphosate appeared to have higher levels of fusarium than wheat fields where no glyphosate had been applied, said Myriam Fernandez of the Semiarid Prairie Agricultural Research Centre in Swift Current, in Canada's Saskatchewan province.

Google for "glyphosate fusarium" and you find a number of other links, including many hand-waving denials by various "Monsanto representatives".

Glyphosate and other powerful weedkillers are almost inevitable in monocrop agriculture because the monocrop is a wildly unbalanced system, incapable of self-regulation.  "Weeds" live fairly amicably alongside food crops useful to humans in diverse dense polyculture, but to "optimise" use of a huge land parcel by planting it exclusively in one cash crop requires draconian elimination of all "competitors" (and this again is a madness deriving from a neoDarwinist ideological mindset which believes only in competition, not in symbiosis).  Eliminating "weeds" also eliminates the cycle of succession planting and green manuring that keeps soil viable, and ... well, here we go.  

A biotic system is not a factory;  industrial agriculture tries to impose the factory template onto a biotic system;  the result is an ever-escalating round of bandaids to address a never-ending series of disasters.  Compared to the idiocy of plantation industrial ag, the old practise of killing the king every year and burying him in the corn field looks like rock-solid sanity.

Recommended reading:  Biomimicry by Benyus, especially Ch 2, "How Will We Feed Ourselves?" -- a good overview of the lunacy of monocrop agriculture and the robustness of dense polyculture.  Of particular interest is the Land Institute's experimentation with "edible prairie," a very promising form of permaculture.

Note again that fusarium is a naturally occuring fungus normally held in check (in balance, in other words) by other microbial populations.  Plantation ag specialises in destroying the microbial population of the soil, rendering it a sterile "growing medium" salted with artificial fertilisers.  What it does is essentially to kill off all the antibodies, white blood cells, etc. -- and then wring its hands and act shocked, shocked I tell you, when the patient's compromised immune system collapses.

The plantation monocrop model is inherently futile.  However, it is the most "efficient" way of stripmining soil resources and funneling profit into the hands of rentiers.  Capitalism requires the plantation monocrop model to ensure (temporarily, anyway) delusional rates of return on loans.  But the rate of return is contrabiotic, hence the agriculture method is contrabiotic, therefore doomed.  Finance capitalism has to give way to biotic reality, or experience a Jared Diamond Collapse due to its own pigheaded insistence on the primacy of imaginary money over real biology...  The banana is just one poster child for this process, there are plenty of others.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 12:58:30 PM EST
The glyphosate link is interesting. Of course that herbicide has been the object of a huge load of hype (biodegradable, innocuous, etc), but interesting things are surfacing here and there about it. I doubt you'll have missed last month's publication by Barney Gordon of Kansas State (no less!) showing manganese uptake deficiency in RoundUp Ready soy (explaining lower yields than conventional soy).

Gordon (from the Google cache, the pdf is for some reason disabled...)

There is evidence to suggest that glyphosate may interfere with Mn metabolism and also adversely affect populations of soil micro-organisms responsible for reduction of Mn to a plant-available form. Manganese availablity is also strongly influenced by soil pH. As soil pH increases, plant-available Mn decreases. It is unlikely that Mn deficiencies will occur on acid soils. It stands to reason that the addition of supplemental Mn at the proper time may correct deficiencies and result in greater GR soybean yields.

Quite un-glyphosate-connected, my neighbour who grew 50 hectares of GM BT maize last year - MON 810 - had fusarium problems with it. This makes it officially unsaleable in France because of the microtoxins present. (Spanish buyers are less fussy and the crop just went South of the border). Where there might be a link is the effect on soil micro-organisms of the transgene from bacillus thurengiensis, which is a... soil bacterium.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 04:34:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's unfortunate but information in papers presented by researchers and scientists working for the Ag Companies (In-House and Out-House :-) cannot be trusted.  

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Thu Jun 19th, 2008 at 11:38:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's true that Gordon's explanation of "yield drag" (consistently lower yields from GM crops than conventional) is a sweeter one for Monsanto than a plain genetic one: ie to get performance of a specific nature from an engineered plant, you inevitably have to sacrifice yield. (That, btw, is the opinion Marie-Monique Robin stated the other evening.)

Still and all, he's saying you need to sprinkle some Mg fairy dust over the field on top of the rest. So what was meant to simplify farmers' lives (easy weedkilling) turns out to be less simple (and more costly) than promised.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Jun 20th, 2008 at 05:20:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Capitalism requires the plantation monocrop model to ensure (temporarily, anyway) delusional rates of return on loans.

That's one aspect of the system.  

The other is monoculture temporary replaces people with machinery.  This, in turn, "frees" rural labor allowing them to move to cities, increasing the available labor force in the metropolitan areas.  As the supply of labor increases in the cities it drives down wages.  

This is only one result of a system that seems to be designed to embrittle and then beggar the rural economy while ensuring the metropolitan areas are forced into wage slavery and poverty.  In both cases, labor is stripped of the economic rewards of their labor by the predators and parasites.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Thu Jun 19th, 2008 at 11:33:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Afew, but what about the abiogenic banana theory?


by Francois in Paris on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 02:19:23 PM EST
You've got me in trouble there. Would that be the one where the elves magic the bananas out of stalactites in the fairy grotto, or the Utterly Spontaneous one where yellow magma (Light Sweet Crude) bubbles up all by itself from the deepest core?
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 04:12:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think it's the one where they splice banana genes into Syngenta executives...

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...
by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 05:25:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Possibly. But I always assumed executive-grade DNA was sourced from vegetables.
by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Jun 19th, 2008 at 05:46:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Turnips in particular.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Jun 20th, 2008 at 05:07:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The one with bits of elves in it.
by Francois in Paris on Fri May 23rd, 2008 at 08:44:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate Of The Fruit That Changed The World, has an op-ed in the NYT dated June 18:

Yes, We Will Have No Bananas.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Thu Jun 19th, 2008 at 04:39:26 AM EST
I was thinking of linking to your story from the Salon, too...

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Jun 19th, 2008 at 05:10:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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