A History of Bananas and Trade

The last LAGS lecture for the spring was intellectually fascinating as well as delicious.

Going Bananas Over Bananas: Ecology and World Trade

In April, Dr. John Kirchner, professor of geography emeritus at CSULA discussed his many years studying the global banana trade, how bananas are grown and why we eat the kinds we do today.

First of all, Dr. Kirchner and the LAGS officers brought several boxes of bananas to share with the attendees.  So I recommended attending lectures about food.  Just saying.

The lecture started out with some surprising facts and background information, such as the banana trade is big business.  Bananas are the fourth most important food in value and the largest grower is located not in South America as many of the lecture attendees thought but in India!  Brazil though is number two.

Bananas are part of the Musa (genus).  They are a herbaceous plant, not a tree.  Domestication began in Southeast Asia with more than 300 cultivators today though only a handful export commercially.  They grow best on well-drained alluvial soils.  The plant’s productive life can last a decade or more.  After the stem is cut, the plant is cut too and the next generation grows from the suckers and root stock.

Banana trading in the past via sailing ships was a risky business because the fruit would often spoil before reaching America or Europe.  Transportation from the plantation was long and difficult too.  Some went from pack mule to train, others from the farm to steam railways.  At port, laborers would load the heavy stems one at a time.  Conveyor belts later made this process more efficient but rough handling was still the norm.

The “Gros Michel” aka “Big Mike” was the most popular banana until the Panama Disease almost completely wiped it out.  It had another problem, such as growing too tall, which resulted in it being easily blown down.  The Panama Disease was a vascular disease that was resistant to fungicide, so once it was in the soil and water that was it.  This loss of the Gros Michel caused plant growers to find a replacement, the Cavendish banana, which is the one most commonly eaten today.

The switch was not easy though.  They were introduced in the 1960s and seemed perfect: they were not as tall, produced more fruit than the Gros Michel and were resistant to the Panama Disease.  The downsides though are that it is not as good tasting as the Gros Michel and that the Cavendish is very fragile.  This made handling and transportation difficult.

Before better handling methods were invented, the Cavendish would arrive badly bruised and customers were dissatisfied.  This lead to special cutting techniques.  After the stems were cut, they were carefully lowered onto a foam rubber “bed” carried by workers.  Another method is to use a ladder, cut the stems and attach a chain to carefully lower the bananas.

An internal transportation method for the plantation is a type of banana funicular, using a network of cables.  Another way is to have the workers haul the bananas via hanging on a cable.  A worker can haul about 17 stems this way and the physical labor involved is no worse than carrying one stem by hand.  The larger plantations use gas-powered “mules” or locomotives to move about 100 stems at a time.

The rest of the process involves washing the bananas, placing them on racks, applying labels, placement in cardboard boxes and strict quality control inspections.  Many bananas are rejected based on the smallest of bruising and these bananas end up as cattle feed.

The planting and production process of bananas today involves new irrigation techniques.  Growers are moving from channel siphons and overhead sprinklers to underground tubing.  This change also helps reduce problems with another disease “Black Sigatoka,” which creates leaf wilt and is worse during humid periods.

On one Ecuador farm there is a new disease resistant banana called Israeli “Meristema”.  Ecuador is also an usual place concerning bananas because most production is in the hands of local farmers, creating 5,000 banana farms in Ecuador.  The biggest farms provide a luxurious life for their owners while the majority of farmers live on the borderline of poverty.  Despite this these farms provide a stable income for their owners and give them a chance to participate in the global economy.

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