A conversation with Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World
What initially got you interested in writing about the
I read a small article in a science journal about an incurable disease that - even though the general public hadnt heard of it - had the potential to destroy the worlds banana crop. I ended up with a magazine assignment, and wrote a story on the disease. I love bananas, and I couldnt believe that they could disappear.
Is it true that the bananas we eat now are not the same as the bananas from fifty years ago?
Thats right. The banana our grandparents ate was a different - and most people say better tasting - breed called the Gros Michel. But that banana was wiped out by a variant of the blight, called Panama Disease, that now threatens our version of the fruit, called the Cavendish.
Is it really possible that the banana could one day be extinct?
The Cavendish banana was adopted because it was immune to Panama Disease. But bananas are generally very weak, because, like human identical twins, each one is an exact genetic duplicate of the other. What makes one banana sick makes all bananas sick. So if something really virulent comes along, it can be a huge problem.
What are Banana Republics?
Through the 1950s, the big American banana companies - including the ones known today as Chiquita and Dole - were so hungry for land to grow their fruit that they asserted dictatorial, and often brutally repressive, power over the Latin American nations where their plantations were located. Often this would be behind-the-scenes, through puppet governments. Nations controlled by the big fruit growers became known as "Banana Republics."
What is Panama Disease and can it be stopped?
Panama Disease is a fungus, specifically of the Fusarium variety (three are lots of types of fusarium fungus - your garden tomatoes can catch them. The fungi dont travel between species, so you cant be infected by a banana, or anything else.) The version of Panama Disease that is now threatening our bananas appeared first in Southeast Asia, attacking newly planted Cavendish farms, and spreading from there. Right now, there is no cure.
What are some examples of how has the banana industry affected history politically?
In 1929, at the behest of the banana companies, an estimated 1,000 striking banana workers and their families were massacred by Colombian troops. The political instability that followed still plagues the South American nation today, and is partly responsible for the rampant terrorism and drug-related crime that makes Colombia such a dangerous place. Similar interventions, with similar - though less dramatic - consequences, occurred in Honduras, Panama, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and other countries in Central and South America between 1900 and the 1970s.
What is some of the folklore or mythology surrounding the banana?
The banana is a plant that has been revered for over 5,000 years. Theres a lot of evidence that the original Hebrew versions of the bible considered the fruit to be the one that tempted Adam and Eve in Eden. In Africa, where millions of people, even today, rely on the fruit as their main source of nutrition, bananas are said to be a gift from a god called Kintu; each banana breed eaten in Africa has a different significance, ranging from increasing fertility to celebrating weddings to secretly tempting a wayward spouse to return home. In Hindu mythology, the banana is known as the "fruit of the wise man." Buddha himself is said to have meditated under a banana tree.
How did slipping on banana peels become such a universal cultural joke?
Everybody thinks this is just a slapstick gag, but in fact, after the fruit became popular in the U.S. (around 1890), there was so much banana litter that walking on city streets became a real hazard. Ordinances against throwing away banana peels were enacted, and sanitation departments - some of them the first ever for their municipalities - were organized around solving the problem.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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