Bananas as we know them are in peril because they lack genetic diversity, but every time I stop at the banana section at Co-opportunity, I get a sweet surprise.
Though the bananas I found look freakishly large, I believe the ones I got are still Cavendish bananas — genetic duplicates of all other Cavendish bananas — pretty much the only type of banana sold in most U.S. supermarkets. The perfect sameness of all these bananas, however, could prove disastrous. Writes Dan Koeppel, author of "Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World," in a Popular Science article:
After 15,000 years of human cultivation, the banana is too perfect, lacking the genetic diversity that is key to species health. What can ail one banana can ail all. A fungus or bacterial disease that infects one plantation could march around the globe and destroy millions of bunches, leaving supermarket shelves empty.
Banana disease could mean “massive destabilization,” especially in East Africa where people rely on bananas for nutrition and on banana plants to serve as cover crops for other plants. Of course, even banana farming as it is now is riddled with problems, from pesticide pollution to unfair labor practices….
To address that pending disaster, farmers and scientists are raising experimental breeds — and experimenting with genetic modification. Koeppel warns in a New York Times op-ed, however, that we may just have to change the way we think of and consume bananas.
“The Cavendish is the fruit equivalent of a fast-food hamburger: efficient to produce, uniform in quality and universally affordable,” Koeppel writes. But just as fast food’s getting a bad rap for its fatty, unhealthy content, bananas’ reputation’s changing. In a 2006 Q&A in Grist, one reader asked Jonathan Rosenthal, former top banana at fair trade fruit company Oke Banana: “Don’t you think it is strange that people will cheer your environmental efforts when you transport fruit a thousand miles?” Jonathan’s answer: “Yes I do” — with elaborations, of course. Koeppel’s thoughts on the issue are somewhat similar:
In recent years, American consumers have begun seeing the benefits — to health, to the economy and to the environment — of buying foods that are grown close to our homes…. But bananas have always been an emblem of a long-distance food chain. Perhaps it’s time we recognize bananas for what they are: an exotic fruit that, some day soon, may slip beyond our reach.
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