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Thursday, January 25 2018

Banana Republic

The definition of a banana republic is often depicted as a politically unstable nation usually in Central America, with an economy dependent on one crop.  There is a reason why we use the word banana to describe this reality.  Even though the banana is perhaps the world’s oldest cultivated plant, originating and being bred in Southeast Asia about 7000-10000 years ago, it wasn’t until some Spanish missionaries introduced bananas to the Americas in the early 1500’s that it began to move into fourth place of the world’s staple foods behind rice, wheat and corn.  The rapid rise in interest of bananas began in the latter part of the 19th century when two companies United Fruit Company (later to be Chiquita) and Standard Fruit Company (later to be called Dole), began importing bananas to the United States.  As the popularity of bananas grew these companies were able to pay countries like Guatemala and Honduras money for huge tracts of land to grow bananas.  These companies generated dollar revenues that exceeded these countries gross national product and gave these small countries an economic foundation, and the companies involved political influence that neither had before. 


The Gros Michel and The Cavendish Banana

Before 1950, all bananas sold here in the U.S., were a variety called Gros Michel.  However, in the 1950’s a fungus called fusarium oxysporum or more commonly called Panama Disease, or fusarium wilt, wiped out the entire variety of Gros Michel.  Gros Michel is French for Big Mike and this banana supposedly had a superior flavor and thick skin which was ideal for transporting bananas.  Within several years, another cultivar banana, the Cavendish banana replaced the Gros Michel.  The Cavendish banana has a slightly thinner skin and transporting it requires more care, but it has been able to resist Panama Disease for over 50 years and is now the most commonly eaten fruit by Americans.  Since the 1950’s millions of acres in Central America have been planted with the Cavendish variety and if you have been born after 1950, you would not know of a time when bananas were absent from grocery stores.   Unfortunately, that might change soon.  A new mutated fungus has evolved called Black Sigatoka, which turns the banana plants’ leaves black, and has already wiped out a large percentage of Cavendish banana plants in Asia and East Africa.  It hasn’t affected the crops in Central America yet, but scientists feel that day is coming soon.  Unless someone breeds a new resistant banana from another variety, experts estimate that the Cavendish will suffer the same fate as the Gros Michel in the very near future. 


The seedless phenomenon

Of the estimated 1000 varieties of bananas, only the commercially successful varieties such as the Gros Michel and the Cavendish are seedless.  Producing bananas or any other seedless fruit is a painstaking process. It can take decades of cross-breeding to bring a new strain of a seedless fruit or vegetable to commercial viability.  What most don’t realize is that once this happens, each plant is genetically identical to each other.  Therefore, what we are consuming are sterile clones.  Reproduction in the case of the Cavendish banana plant is heavily dependent on human input.  Humans propagate a rhizome that grows off the banana plant to grow a new plant and kill off the original plant.  All seedless oranges (the navel orange), come from a single mutation of an orange tree from Brazil in the late 1800’s.  Seedless grapes, and raisins also were the result of a single mutation that resulted in an under developed seed. The intensity of work to achieve a seedless watermelon would take up too much space in this newsletter to explain. 


Whether its hundreds or thousands of acres of monoculture plants like the banana plants, or navel oranges, the seedless plant is a genetically weaker plant that requires more input such as fungicides and pesticides.  On a smaller scale it is possible to produce these crops organically but eventually organic or non-organic become susceptible to the evolving bacteria and fungi. 


What we are losing

It is the genetic diversity of plants that keeps the fungal and bacterial evolutionary process in check.  This image taken from a National Geographic article on food diversity shows the loss of varieties of food in the past century.


The biggest reason for the loss of variety, is the lack of commercial usefulness of it.  This could be a thin skin, or taste.  However, seeds of fruits and vegetables have medicinal properties that we are just beginning to understand.  Resveratrol from grape seeds is one with benefits that I could devote an entire newsletter to.  The question then becomes, what are we losing besides seeds?  Are we losing what could be the phytochemical answer to a health condition or disease that we presently have no answer for? 


Svalbard Global Vault

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened in 2008 to preserve as many seeds as possible from around the world.  Located on an island off the coast of Norway, and built within a mountain it is about 800 miles from the north pole.  It is funded by various countries to ensure that varieties of plants don’t disappear completely.  As of 2017 it housed nearly twenty million seeds of one million different samples representing 13,000 years of agricultural history.  This is a wonderful example of the world acting proactively to preserve agricultural diversity. 


Final thought

In our fast-paced society most of us would rather not be bothered spitting out a watermelon seed or chewing a bitter grape seed when it would detract from the pure sweetness of a seedless variety.  I doubt any of us give thought to the agricultural implications of providing this amenity to ourselves, but, we should.  The folly of becoming overly reliant on cloned food satisfies our appetite, big corporate interests, amplifying the instability in the food supply, and our health.  Perhaps figuratively, it is us who are the banana republic. 

Posted by: Dr. Goldstein AT 10:32 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email

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