Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World
  • Paperback
  • 304 pages
  • Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World
  • Dan Koeppel
  • English
  • 08 June 2018
  • 9780452290082

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World➶ [Reading] ➸ Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World By Dan Koeppel ➫ – Read Dan Koeppel's posts on the Penguin Blog

In the vein of the bestselling Salt and Cod, a gripping chronicle of the myth, mystery, and uncertain fate of the world’s most popular fruit
Fate of ePUB ´ BlogIn the vein of the bestselling Salt and Cod, a gripping chronicle of the myth, mystery, and uncertain fate of the world’s most popular fruit In this fascinating and surprising exploration of the banana’s history, cultural significance, and endangered future, awardwinning journalist Dan Koeppel gives readers plenty of food for thought Fastpaced and highly entertaining, Banana takes us from jungle to supermarket, from corporate boardrooms to kitchen tables around the world We begin Banana: The PDF \ in the Garden of Eden—examining scholars’ belief that Eve’s “apple” was actually a banana— and travel to earlytwentiethcentury Central America, where aptly named “banana republics” rose and fell over the crop, while the companies now known as Chiquita and Dole conquered the marketplace Koeppel then chronicles the banana’s path to the present, ultimately—and most alarmingly—taking us to banana plantations across the globe that are being destroyed by a fastmoving blight, with no cure in sight—and to the hightech labs where new The Fate of MOBI ò bananas are literally being built in test tubes, in a race to save the world’s most beloved fruit.

About the Author: Dan Koeppel

Dan Koeppel is a well known outdoors, Fate of ePUB ´ nature, and adventure writer who has written for the New York Times Magazine, Outside, Audubon, Popular Science, and National Geographic Adventure, where he is a contributing editor Koeppel has also appeared on CNN and Good Morning America, and is a former commentator for Public Radio International's Marketplace.

10 thoughts on “Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World

  1. says:

    Cruel enemies are stalking the world’s bananas and have been for decades. Who knew? Apparently Dan Koeppel. He has tracked not only the diseases that wiped out the every-day, Gros Michel, banana in the 1930s, but has an eye out for the Panama disease that is wiping out the Cavendish banana, that is, the one that we see today in every supermarket and fruit stand. There is yet another mortal enemy to the banana in the world, called Sigatoka. And the up and coming threat is from a disease called Bunchy Top, which sounds more like a character from Sesame Street, or Carrot Top’s heftier cousin, than a lethal virus. No one knows what effect it might have on our ability to add some slices of the world’s favorite fruit and fourth largest crop to our morning cereal.

    image from the NY Times - by Vincent Tullo

    There is a lot to learn about the impact of the banana on the world. And I would bet that all, or surely most of it, is in this book. Banana was a fun, educational and often surprising read. There is a lot of information to take in, and while you may know some of the info here, it is certain that there is a bunch you do not. Did you know that the banana tree isn’t properly a tree, but a very large herb? Neither did I. Or that the bananas we eat are considered berries? Say it ain’t so.

    How about the notion that the banana was the fruit referred to in ancient texts about the Garden of Eden. The climate in the Fertile Crescent was not conducive to apples. And there is some softness in the translations of ancient writings. The forbidden fruit was called a fig, which is also what the banana was called. And really, doesn’t it seem a more fitting shape for the job? Which makes it all the more ironic that bananas are essentially asexual. They do not breed. The fruit we eat today came from cloned plants. Mass-consumption bananas have always come from plants that do not propagate themselves, but require man’s intervention.

    There is a hybrid grown in Asia that is high in beta carotene, promising an easier way to get vitamin A into picky children. Koeppel even traces the linguistic trail of the banana as it made its way around the world, noting similarities in local names for the fruit in diverse languages.

    He peels back the layers of time to reveal the banana’s place in history. Latin America is prime here, with many tales of corrupt agricultural corporations, such as United Fruit (now Chiquita) and their machinations against local governments. He also points out that many technological advances arose from the need to transport this perishable product long distances in a short time.

    So you get the idea, lots of info about something most of us never gave, well, a fig about. It is a fun read and you will find yourself saying (or thinking, if you don’t want to make the person next to you on the subway slowly edge away) “I did not know that.” Given that there are existential threats abroad to the common banana, and that we are not yet ready with a cross-bred version that is resistant to those threats, we should probably do what we can to appreciate the banana before it…um…splits.

    March 14, 2017 - This article from Wired is worth checking out - Humans Made the Banana Perfect—But Soon, It’ll Be Gone - by Rob Dunn

    August 4, 2017 - NY Times - Annie Correal pulls back the veil that has long hidden the banana's journey from freighter to table - The Secret Life of the City Banana. Don't let this article slip past.

    June 1, 2018 - (but first seen 3/17/19) - Aeon - Bananas have died out once before – don’t let it happen again - by Jackie Turner

  2. says:

    Rating: 3* of five
    2019 UPDATE Climate change bids fair to deprive us of a childhood icon, says this book.
    One step closer to reality.

    This is yet another entry in the single-subject world of non-fiction. The narrowness of focus in books such as Salt and Cod and The Book on the Bookshelf and The Pencil and Longitude seems to be an increasingly preevalent trend in publishing. I am all for it on one level, since I like delving into the abstruse and wallowing in details that leave most people I know colder than a penguin's butt in the middle of the Antarctic winter; but on another level, I want to stop these publishers before they bore again with books inadequately edited and organized.

    There are three pieces to the banana...the history of humanity's first cultivated plant (modern evidence from New Guinea shows human cultivation from 9000 years ago was of bananas, but for their corms not the fingers we eat today); the politics of the modern cultivation of the banana (the term banana republic, which I have used without thinking for 30+ years, has a very literal beginning and a scarily modern ring); and the future of humankind's most basic and widely distributed food crop (essential to survival in several parts of the world, the banana is also under threat from several pests that defy modern chemistry to abate, still less conquer, and squeamish food-o-phobes in wealthy countries oppose all modern genetic engineering that could save the survival crop of many parts of the world). These three strands are awkwardly interwoven, with no obvious guiding editorial hand to make sense of their interrelation.

    It's a shame, too, because this is a huge, important topic, and the author's not inconsiderable talents are well-used in bringing the facts to light. The loss of our American favorite banana, the Cavendish, from grocery shelves will be an inconvenience at most; the fact that two major American corporations are, double-handedly (is that a word?), responsible for the spread of the blights that threaten the world crop with the complicity of the American government, should mean that we as a country are liable to find solutions to the pressing problems of food security in the places we've so screwed over. Free. But that won't happen, you can bet on that.

    Back to the book...too much narrative drive is lost in the author's back-and-forth cross-cutting of the basic story. I wish someone had said, Yo Dan...first third of the book is the banana as a plant; second third is the politics of the banana; last is the science of the plant. I wonder if that was what they tried, and the interconnections of all the information prevented its success? I somehow don't think so.

    It's a good-enough book on an important topic that SHOULD cause each person who reads it some discomfort at our societal callousness and myopia. I recommend it to those most likely to be irritated by progressive politics and social liberalism. Isolationists particularly encouraged to apply!

  3. says:

    Do you ever get to the middle of a book and think to yourself, Why on earth am I reading this? I generally manage to avoid this feeling by choosing my reading material wisely, but this one managed to slip through somehow.

    Bananas. Do I care? Sort of.

    I found about half of this book to be incredibly interesting. The political implications of banana production, the fact that the banana as we know it may soon cease to exist altogether, a bit of banana history - these are the parts that managed to hold my attention. The very meticulous accounts of every aspect of banana breeding and cross-breeding and growing (and on and on and on) I can do without. I admit, I had to skim through some of it, and I never skim unless I feel like I'm wasting my time.

    I wont say, do not read this book, but I will say, do not read this book unless you are terribly interested in bananas and/or horticulture. It just wasn't my thing, and I usually get really into books about food. Ah, well.

  4. says:

    Bananas on Bennies

    I’m a big fan of “commodity histories” -- books on how everyday objects and products have become interwoven into our daily lives. It's odd that while many educated Americans know the year the Titanic sank, for example, scarcely any of them know the provenance of the items on their breakfast table – the coffee in their cup or the banana sliced onto their cornflakes. And this is a shame, really, for it’s quotidian details as much as major events that shape our lives.

    It turns out that bananas have a fascinating back story. What a disappointment, then, that this book falls short of doing it justice. I’d rate Bananas two and a half stars – I enjoyed the subject matter but was often irritated at author Dan Koeppel’s manner of telling it. His book bore a curious resemblance to the Cavendish banana (that’s almost the sole variety consumed in the U.S. and Europe, by the way): a product packaged for popular consumption, a little bland and inoffensive. It’s a pity, really, for I’d love to see such a quirky subject handled with more verve, but Koeppel seemed intent on watering it down for the masses.

    The book also suffers from a strange sort of bibliographic ADD: it can’t seem to focus on any subject for more than a few pages. Now I know that weaving back and forth between several narrative threads is de rigueur these days, but Koeppel goes to extremes. The 241-page central story is broken up into thirty-six chapters, some a mere three pages long. The result is an overly choppy, jittery narrative with capricious sequencing.

    For example, Chapter 12, which focuses on the ambitious rise of banana entrepreneur Samuel Zemurray, is followed by a three-page exposition on Tin Pan Alley and the genesis of the song “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” Then, willy-nilly, Koeppel treats us to another short three-page discourse, this time on the spread of that bane of banana plantations, Panama disease.

    Chop-chop-chop…. On and on it goes, jerking back and forth among narrative threads, some of which are only peripheral to the two major components of the story, either of which would have been a book in its own right.

    These two aspects are the political and the agricultural. I was more familiar with the latter, having read an interesting article in The New Yorker in December 2010 on the spread of a devastating fungus that is jeopardizing the world’s supply of what has become a monoculture: the Cavendish banana. However, I was less familiar with the fruit’s political history, and in particular the rise of the “banana republics.” This part of the story has been dealt with in several other books, which is perhaps why the author chose to hedge his bets and include material on the efforts of banana breeders and genetic engineers to come up with a disease-resistant and marketable successor to the Cavendish banana.

    I was less than enamored with Koeppel’s style, a combination of pedestrian prose and forced attempts at humor, often with a creepy confiding tone. There were some cutesy metaphors I could have done without, such as when he likens gene splicing to splicing together reels of film, producing “the best qualities of both: Rhett Butler played by Harrison Ford and Scarlet O’Hara with a cinnamon-bun hairstyle.”

    Come again? Do I need that image in my mind as I slog through the details of gene splicing?

    Or, for that matter, do I need this?

    “I remember the first time I ever understood that the retelling of ordinary events could become magic. I a teenager, just beginning to write, searching for inspiration. I’d always loved books about other worlds – science fiction, Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan series, even old pulp novels I bought at a local junk shop. But it had only recently begun to occur to me that the greatest constructed worlds could be found in works that were considered to be ‘true’ literature. That point was made most sharply with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude…”

    This is how the author leads with his arse into a discussion of the “banana massacre” in Colombia in 1928, when the United Fruit Company violently put down a strike. Now, I just have to say that there are writers who can pull this sort of indulgent reminiscence off, but Koeppel isn’t one of them.

    Last, but not least, I wish Koeppel had used footnotes to cite his source material. I suppose he deemed them too “academic” for the average reader or something. Instead, his sources (both major and minor) are dropped into the narrative with an audible CLUNK! –

    “Because Panama disease was permanently making fallow so much of its existing holdings, the fruit companies had a continuous need for new land, according to John Soluri, author of Banana Cultures: Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States.”

    Ultimately, I have to say the reason I finished the book at all was that I began enjoying rewriting it in my head. There's some champion material here, but the writing is lackluster and the organization is downright addled.

  5. says:

    Wow. This is a Feb 2019 update: I just read an article that confirms that the banana is at great risk. I thought the author of this book was trying to give a dramatic spin to his work, but apparently it’s all very serious! Here is the article:

    I loved looking at history through banana-colored lenses. Dan Koeppel did a really nice work here. He did a lot of research, went around the world to interview experts, and managed to write a book that focuses on the history and science of the banana. The book kept my interest quite high from beginning to end. The structure / organization is not linear at all, it would be best visualized with a firework explosion, but in a sense it works even better this way: it's like sitting down in a pub with one of the top experts on bananas, getting him completely drunk, and listening to him rant away. The result is a narrative that jumps around, gets distracted, goes back, has sudden moments of humor and unexpectedly moving paragraphs, but it all kind of fits together nicely. I really liked it that way. Despite the large amount of facts and trivia, the book is a light read.

    The author tried to infuse this work with an overarching drama, which is a banana blight that is tearing through banana crops worldwide. This is a fact, however there seem to be some solutions in place, and at least several alternatives. In any case, some chapters end with sentences like this is why the banana you eat today might be the last of its kind you eat. Ever!. Hilarious! But please, go on! Bring us another one of whatever this guy is drinking!!

    Koeppel spent many chapters on the history of United Fruit, the modern Chiquita. I knew it was a history of violent colonialism, but I didn't know to what extent. The history of the banana republics of Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, etc. is fascinating, dark and disturbing. Guatemala in particular, with the CIA-orchestrated conspiracy / coup that was very much related to United Fruit and bananas.

    One minor flaw: the focus seems to be almost entirely on American bananas and their history, only a little bit on South-East Asia, and almost nothing on Africa. The book would have been more complete if it expanded a bit more on Africa and what the fruit meant for African history, too.

    In the end, the author recommends us to buy fair trade bananas, to help plantation workers, and he gives us a bit more background, without pushing that agenda too much.

  6. says:

    A review (with digressions) for people considering this as a book club choice

    Avoiding responsibility, like lying, should be practiced even when not strictly necessary if one really wishes to stay at the top of one's game. Still, the inability to bi-locate leads to occasional and unavoidable assignment of responsibility in one's absence, like when the book club (while I was at work) recently assigned me to choose a book for the coming reading season. Perhaps my real error occurred days earlier, when I mentioned to the Long Suffering Wife (LSW), a fellow book club member, that the book club's list of potential reads never included the micro-history, a genre of which I am very fond.

    (Sometimes, on long car trips with LSW, we compete for who can make up the absurdest micro-history title, following the pattern “X: The Y that Changed the World”, where X is the name of an object and Y is the category to which the object belongs. I remember suggesting X=Mauve, and then found out later there is really a book about this, proving that politics is not the only endeavor where satire has become obsolete.)

    So, LSW came home from book club with the suspiciously pat story that my name had been drawn “randomly” to choose a book for book club in the category… micro-history. My desire to avoid responsibility warred valiantly with my much more formidable desire not to cross LSW, who can be very fierce if provoked, I tell you from hard experience. I decided that choosing a micro-history was unavoidable.

    LSW reported that members of the book club had never heard of micro-histories. (What cave do readers like this live in?) She sold the book club on the novel idea of micro-histories by emphasizing the sub-genre of micro-histories called “commodity micro-histories”. Mark Kurlansky is a well-known and persistent practitioner of this genre with books on cod, oysters, salt, and most recently paper. There are also popular micro-histories from other authors of alcohol, milk, chocolate, coffee (at least two), tea, vanilla, eels, opium, diamonds, uranium, oranges, tomatoes, cotton, caviar, olives, olive oil, sugar, and pencils.

    A cousin to this genre is the micro-history on man-made constructs and other non-commodities including, but not limited to, home, cleanliness, color, reading, marriage, wives (but, interestingly, not husbands), cancer, rabies, sex, zero, infinity, rats, swearing, corpses, and many more.

    But my favorite genre is the history micro-history, where a single event spiders out in all directions, often with interesting unintended consequences. The most famous and best-selling of this genre is probably the history of the decades-long race to correctly determine longitude, but there are many historical events that have received a fine treatment, including the sinking of the Lusitania, the assassination of President James Garfield, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 17th-century Tulip mania, the eruption of Krakatoa, the mad bomber of 1950's Manhattan, murders too numerous to mention individually, and (my sentimental favorite) the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919.

    But LSW warned that, however endearingly enthusiastic I am about the topic, other book group members were unlikely to find the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 as compelling a topic, since we are sadly a long, long way from Boston, in the company of people who, in a few inexplicable cases, have not even visited Boston. Also, (she reminded me) she sold the idea to the book group mostly through examples of commodity micro-histories, see above.

    Having narrowed down the options that far, I was faced with the vexing question I ask myself several times a day: “What would a normal person do?” I mean, I'd happily read 400+ pages about pencils, but I've noticed that other people might think that was a waste of time. (Many of these same people might have no compunction about spending hours on the details of the lives of the latest no-talent celebrity or selfish aristocrat, but that's off topic). So: short is good. The shortest microhistory I've found is John McPhee's 1967 book on oranges, which is really a long New Yorker article somehow padded out to 160 pages for publication. Still, it's 50 years old, and felt that the book club might want something of more recent vintage.

    Life is somewhat vexed and full of anguish at this moment in our history, so I felt the book club would look more favorably on a book that might generate cheerful conversation while everybody was pounding back the Merlot. This ruled out, for example, the microhistory about uranium. I really enjoyed the audiobook version, but a lot of it, I remember, was about people suffering terribly in mines. Then, of course, once the stuff gets above ground, things get really grim, what with nuclear weapons and all. Seeing as how nuclear weapons, once thought a fading threat, are now making an unwelcome re-appearance in people's nightmares, I thought the members of the book group would welcome the opportunity to get away from all that.

    Bananas are cheerful! This is noted even in the book itself (finally, getting to the actual book in question), which includes a remarkably informative chapter on the 1922 Tin Pan Alley novelty hit “Yes, We Have No Bananas” and yet another one devoted to slipping on a banana peel as classic movie sight gag. Since the book's publication in 2008, the banana has continued to provide comic fodder as the favorite food/conversation topic/go-to any-occasion utterance of the yellow pill-shaped Minions, of lucrative movie and associated licensing fame.

    Still, the book group cannot be exclusively unicorns and rainbows. Some grit and adversity is required to generate conversation. Bananas – and this book – have that as well. As the precious few readers who have persisted this far (and I thank you) might well be aware, bananas (here I quote LSW) “have not had sex for a long time”, meaning, they haven't reproduced in the traditional way, yielding a world-wide monoculture of delicious and easy-to-transport fruit. Sadly, things bite back, as in this case, when it was only a matter of time before a banana blight bred itself into existence and roared through the near-identical genetic population, leaving a swath of useless and distinctly unfunny brown rotting plants in its wake.

    As a result, there is controversy to discuss, since a savior for the banana may come in the form of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Normally, I refrain from discussing this topic because, well, I am a liberal in the American political sense, and like all of us now tend to socialize with the like-minded. While we are all quick to condemn American conservatives as science deniers and crackpot conspiracy theories on global warming, discussing GMOs seems to be our side's opportunity to engage in similar behavior. We can condemn all who think that genetic manipulation could actually improve our food supply and security to perdition as lackeys of the world-wide mostache-twirling Monsanto-led patented-seed-hawking agro-industrial conspiracy, evidence be damned. Since I hold people who generally agree with me to a higher level of intellectual rigor that people who don't generally agree with me (who must be idiots, right?), I tend to want to abuse to people like this. This tendency is stronger when the tongue is loosened by Merlot, as I fear it will be at the book club. But I think if I just put some Post-It(TM) Notes on my Kindle I bring to the club, saying something like “Don't be rude to ill-informed”, I'll probably be able to control myself.

    To be fair, I also want to point out that anti-GMO zealots can be useful in their incorrectness, since it seems reasonable that private enterprises engaged in genetic manipulation can be expected to engage in safety-be-damned corner-cutting in pursuit of the largest return for their shareholders, so should be watched over by as many people as possible with a heartfelt adversarial relationship to the process.

    Anyway, I think I can hold it together at the book club in the face of opinions I disagree with, because I am, after all, an adult, at least physically. I just shut my eyes and envision myself lying down in cool grass on a summer afternoon, or alternately maybe buying and preparing chicken from Ottomanelli's in Greenwich Village, both of which visions have historically produced a calm happy feeling in moments of stress.

    So, in summary, I think this book – did I mention that, at this writing, the Kindle e-book is only $4.99, and used copies can be obtained for a mere 25 cents? – will hit the sweet spot for the book club in terms of length, entertainment value, and discussion potential, after which I can go back to my usual practice, which is, studiously refusing to meet the gaze of anyone, ever, who asks for volunteers.

  7. says:

    If you liked the book Salt you will probably find this book just as engrossing. There's more in here about corporate and pan-American politics than I expected on first hearing about the book, and I really enjoyed reading it. The reasons why bananas are threatened with global extinction despite being one of the most successful agricultural crops are fascinating, and chilling.

    Koeppel does a great job of simplifying the science and getting right to the heart of the matter.

  8. says:

    [Random Read. 23, History.]

    A fascinating look at the history of the banana, from its spread as a wild fruit across the globe to its cultivation and sale. If you've never thought about bananas before, this book will be a real eye-opener. Did you know that all bananas cultivated and sold by companies are sterile clones of each other? This is why they're so easily devastated by crop fungus such as Panama disease and Black Sigatoka, and also why it's so difficult to breed resistant bananas (they don't reproduce!). Did you know there are many varieties of banana, such as the Gros Michel, across the globe? Gros Michels taste pretty good, but they aren't planted and sold on a massive scale any more because they're so susceptible to disease. (Fun fact: the song Yes, We Have No Bananas is based on the fact that banana shortages were a common thing due to intermittent fungal destruction of banana crops.) The history of American banana cultivation is a cruel one: exploitation of workers, government intervention, assassination, clear-cutting, and land-grabbing. And since a century of doing things this way hasn't taught banana companies any lessons, they continue to work this way: plant crops until Panama disease or another rot infects that soil, and then move to yet another razed section of land. Writing in 2008, Koeppel believes that the banana most familiar to us, the Cavendish, is doomed in the near future, just as the Gros Michel was dropped when disease nearly wiped it out. He might be right. But whether or not banana companies can continue with their exploitation model, their history is enthralling. The men who founded what would become Dole and Chiquita literally changed the world, innovating refrigerated cargo ships and making an exotic tropical fruit as common and beloved as the American apple. Yet as inventive and prescient as they were, their colonial mindset blinded them to the dangers of short-term dominance.

  9. says:

    This is one of the most fascinating books I've read recently.

    This book covers the history -- and future! -- of the humble banana. It starts with its beginnings in Asia, its geographic and evolutionary progressing, and the arrival of the banana to America.

    Bananas are incredible: the popular ones have no seed, and reproduce asexually. Since they're all genetically identical, they are very susceptible to disease. In fact, today's banana (the Cavendish) wasn't the first popular banana in the US. That was the Gros Michel, the Big Mike, which arrived around the 1870's. By the turn of the century, Panama disease was wiping out huge areas of banana farms. The companies decided that the best way to fight the disease (actually a fungus) was to stay ahead of it, by consuming huge amounts of new land -- and to do that, they used their money and political influence to get the US military to help them (thus explaining the term Banana Republic). The song Yes, We Have No Bananas is said to be a reference to the banana shortages caused by the disease.

    Eventually -- around the 1950's -- banana producers switched over to the Cavendish. The taste was good enough (most say it wasn't quite as good, although a few disagree), it was shippable (but not quite as sturdy as the Big Mike), and most importantly, it was resistant to Panama disease. Something similar could happen today, and so the author talks about attempts to develop new types of bananas that could replace the Cavendish.

    The book doesn't just talk about the banana in the US, it talks about its influence across the globe. In some parts of the world, people get 70% of the calories from the banana.

    In short, this book exceeded my expectations spectacularly. I don't think it will have much re-read value, but it entertained me wonderfully this time.

  10. says:

    This is a really disappointing book. It got lots of glowing reviews, but I was consistently frustrated by it. It is poorly written, sloppily researched, randomly organized, simplistically argued. The book's most egregious fault is that it hints at interesting and important ideas on the biological, political, economic, and social impact of the rise of the banana industry, but the author never bothers to develop these. There are lots of interesting tidbits and suggestive ideas, but they never amount to anything of substance. I think bananas are a really intriguing and important product that could tell us a bunch (intended) about the interlinked character of twentieth century American imperialism and capitalism, but this lazy book doesn't ever rise to the challenge.

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