Bananas and Apples: Another Monoculture

banana-bunch_d.gif Yes, we will have no bananas, again:

Most commercial growing facilities handle just a single banana type — the one we Americans slice into our morning cereal.

How much time is left for the Cavendish? Some scientists say five years; some say 10. Others hold out hope that it will be much longer. Aguilar has his own particular worst-case scenario, his own nightmare. "What happens," he says, with a very intent look, "is that Panama disease comes before we have a good replacement. What happens then," he says, nearly shuddering in the shade of a towering banana plant, "is that people change. To apples."

Can This Fruit Be Saved? By Dan Koeppel,, June 2005

Cavendish is the variety of banana eaten the world around. "Quite possibly the world’s perfect food," says Chiquita. But perfection comes with a price if it leads to monoculture. And that’s what we’ve got with bananas: every commercial Cavendish banana tree is grown from cuttings of the original tree, and so is genetically identical. Banana monoculture has borne the fruit of disaster before.

Growers adopted a frenzied strategy of shifting crops to unused land, maintaining the supply of bananas to the public but at great financial and environmental expense — the tactic destroyed millions of acres of rainforest. By 1960, the major importers were nearly bankrupt, and the future of the fruit was in jeopardy. (Some of the shortages during that time entered the fabric of popular culture; the 1923 musical hit "Yes! We Have No Bananas" is said to have been written after songwriters Frank Silver and Irving Cohn were denied in an attempt to purchase their favorite fruit by a syntactically colorful, out-of-stock neighborhood grocer.) U.S. banana executives were hesitant to recognize the crisis facing the Gros Michel, according to John Soluri, a history professor at Carnegie Mellon University and author of Banana Cultures, an upcoming book on the fruit. "Many of them waited until the last minute."

Denial in the face of a clear and present ecological danger. We’ve seen this before.

Before with the boll weevil and Mexican and U.S. cotton production, with phylloxera vastatrix and European vineyards, with the Irish potato famine, and for that matter the Worcester tornado or nowadays with hurricanes and tornadoes in New York City and many other places, such as the coast of Georgia. Or, for that matter, for a worst case worm or other perils on the Internet.

Panama disease has already hit numerous banana plantations on several continents, just like the boll weevil was observed to wipe out cotton crops in Mexico before it got to Texas, and in Texas before it got to Oklahoma. Banana growers are paying attention this time, and have a good chance of finding or engineering a replacement banana.

It seems to me that it would be better to grow multiple varieties. Same for software operating systems and major applications. I don’t know whether banana eater pain will become high enough to demand that (or maybe different banana varieties will become popular in different recipes for foods outside today’s typical consumption). But computer software is not a luxury anymore; customer pain could well become strong enough.


PS: Speaking of unexpected side effects, this one is fascinating:

The problem of banana litter helped lead to the development of the earliest urban refuse-removal networks, according to Virginia Scott Jenkins, author of Bananas: An American History.

What beneficial side effects would widespread distribution of some new strange fruit software produce?