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See Inside April 2008

Attack on the Clones

The fate of the world's favorite fruit


Where would we be without bananas? The silent-movie industry, founded on images of men in bowler hats being launched into the air by banana skins, might never have gotten off the ground, so to speak. Kids would have to pack drippy citrus into their lunch boxes. The band Bananarama could have been the more fetid Apricotarota. When Shakespeare “let slip the dogs of war,” what do you think they slipped on?

I am banana-powered. When I was growing up, my daily breakfast carried the official name of “Rice Krispies, banana and milk.” Nowadays I often tuck a banana into a pocket on my cycling shirt, for a midride potassium pick-me-up. In fact, I’m taking a short break to eat a banana right now.

Okay, I’m back. (I smeared a little peanut butter on the banana, something that doesn’t work that well while biking.) What’s my lifetime banana record? According to Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, “If you are an average American, about forty years old, you’re probably approaching banana ten thousand.” So I’m probably up to about 15,000 bananas. (Because of my age? Because I’m not average? I’m not telling.)

While researching his book, Koeppel spent a week on a banana plantation in Honduras. This winter I found myself in a similar environment. On January 31, I left a message for myself on my digital voice recorder: “It’s really fricking hot.” The same heat that wilted me, however, contributed to the healthy development of hundreds of thousands of bananas growing all around me, just to the north of Honduras, on a banana plantation in Quiriguá, Guatemala. I found myself in Central America because I had been invited to speak on a Scientific American–sponsored cruise in the Caribbean. (Yes, tough job, someone has to do it.) One of the day trips available to cruisers was to the banana fields. And I wasn’t going to say nah to bananas. (The previous day I observed howler monkeys in Belize, so bananas also completed a kind of cartoon symmetry.)

Our guide, Julio Cordova, informed us that this medium-size, 80-acre plantation and packing center fills five container trucks a day. Each truck carries 960 boxes. Each box holds perhaps a dozen hands. (What we call bunches are actually referred to as hands, with each banana a big yellow finger.) In the midst of the plantation, an assembly line of a few dozen workers takes apart huge bunches—the full banana assemblage on the tree—and converts them to the boxed, plastic-wrapped hands that will wind up on your table a week after being harvested. That work, on the “fricking hot day,” truly is a tough job that someone has to do.

Some of the banana leaves showed signs of black Sigatoka, a potentially deadly fungus. Koeppel explains, however, that copper sulfate was found to cure the disease (sometimes at the expense of the workers’ health). He also shares in his book these banana tidbits: what I just referred to as the banana tree is in fact the world’s biggest herb; the fruit is actually a gigantic berry. And although more than 1,000 kinds of bananas exist around the world, most of us eat just one kind—the Cavendish. And the Cavendish, my fellow banana-enamored, is slowly dying. Another fungus, called Panama disease, is coming for it.

The killer has struck before. In fact, today’s banana is a blander stand-in for the bananas our grandparents ate, a variety known as the Gros Michel, or “Big Mike.” Koeppel explains: “It was larger, with ... a creamier texture, and a more intense, fruity taste.” But our favorite bananas are all clones of one another. (Notice how delectably seedless they are?) Which means they lack any genetic variability by which some individuals may be lucky enough to ward off a pathogen. Panama disease had wiped out Big Mike worldwide by the 1950s. The Cavendish took over and was thought to be invulnerable. But, Koeppel says, “the Cavendish had never actually been immune to the blight—only to the particular strain of the sickness that destroyed the Gros Michel.”

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