Has anyone ever told you that bananas are going extinct? I’ve heard this factoid from a few different people over the years, and, while I never troubled myself to look into the matter independently, it has always fascinated me. Well it turns out it’s both true and false: the bananas we eat in most places around the world are in danger of being wiped out by a deadly fungus, which will happen in the next 10-20 years, experts reckon. The good news is that there are many other kinds of bananas out there, some that may taste even better.
Why am I talking about bananas? Good question. I just heard a fascinating interview with Popular Science contributor and ersatz banana historian Dan Koeppel, whose new book, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World is now available; and as it turns out, the world’s most popular fruit has a long and turbulent history.
Here are a few highlights:
- When the banana was introduced in North America in the late 19th century, it was initially shunned and thought to be improper because of its “suggestive” shape.
- Guatemala’s first democratically-elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, was ousted by a CIA-backed coup organized by the United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita), who objected to Arbenz’ land reform plans. The political turmoil that followed would persist through the 1980s.
- Organic bananas are better for the planet because they don’t require the use of pesticides, but aren’t a sustainable crop, because they have to be grown at a much higher altitude than conventional ones.
- All of the bananas we eat are genetically identical clones, and therefore are highly susceptible to disease.