To you, the banana may be a fruit that you slice onto your cereal at breakfast. To me it is a slice of history, an examination of a moral dilemma, and an explanation of why the government grows bigger. It is also a tale of mortality because the banana, as we know it, is facing extinction.
Let us begin at the end: The banana that we now enjoy, called the Cavendish, has already been wiped out by Panama disease–a lethal fungus prevalent in Asia and Australia. In the near future, that varietal is expected to be under attack in the large growing areas of the Caribbean and Central America.
The trouble is that the banana cannot fight back: It cannot mutate to meet the new threat in the normal way of plants because the cultivated banana is a clone. Evolution interruptus.
Before the Cavendish was the choice of exporters around the world, there was the Gros Michel banana. But in the 1950s, it fell victim to Panama disease and the Cavendish, in many ways an inferior fruit, had to be substituted.
Bananas, which originated in Asia thousands of years ago, somehow made their way to Africa, and Arab slave traders brought them to the New World. The global banana trade got underway in the 1870s, when entrepreneurs found that they could pick bananas green and they would ripen on their way to market.
American foreign policy in Central America became captive to the banana companies, most famously the United Fruit Company. While the banana trade was a blessing to the campesinos of Central America, it enslaved them to the companies. To support the banana trade the United States invaded, threatened, cajoled and buttressed dictators. The governance of Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama reaped the trade benefits, but paid the price of banana dominance. The banana traders, particularly United Fruit, now known as Chiquita, were vilified in Europe as America’s neocolonial exploiters.
But the truth is more complicated.
In his masterpiece “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the great Colombian novelist and Nobel laureate, wrote poignantly about the Colombian government’s massacre of striking banana workers. But in his memoirs “Living to Tell the Tale,” Marquez also refers to the hope in rural Colombia that United Fruit would return after it had ceased operations in the aftermath of the massacre.
The banana, a nutritious fruit, has often had a bitter harvest. While the United States placed the so-called banana republics of Central America as in its sphere of influence, Europeans, particularly the British, became possessive of banana producers in their Caribbean colonies. As these colonies gained their independence, Europe sought to assist development in the Caribbean by establishing floor prices for bananas. This led to a trade war with the United States, which began in 1993 and ended in 2001.
The banana wars may not be over.
Large fruit exporters, like Dole and Chiquita, with assistance from U.S. laboratories and universities, are seeking to bioengineer the banana to protect it from Panama disease and other lethal attackers that can threaten it at any time. But Europe opposes bioengineered foods and bans their import. Will the Europeans turn their backs on the bioengineered version of a banana that they have known for 140 years? Will they fight U.S. fruit companies that want access to European markets?
The banana, seemingly so benign, illustrates the complexity of foreign relations, the unintended consequences of commodity dependence in poor countries, and why the U.S. government grows like Topsy. Before the banana crisis is resolved, the government will hire more scientists, let more research contracts, and beef up the diplomatic corps with banana trade experts. Banana policy is a slippery business.