Yes, We Do Have Bananas, For Now

America's most widely eaten banana type, the Cavendish, is threatened by a fungus that could wipe out U.S. banana supplies if it spreads to Latin America. Banana expert Dan Koeppel discusses the problem of banana monoculture, and why he says we should demand banana variety.

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IRA FLATOW, Host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Why is it when you go to the grocery store you can find a dozen kinds of apples? You got your McIntosh, your red delicious, your Granny Smiths. You got other varieties of fruit like the tangerines, your tangelos, your mandarin oranges, your red and green seedless grapes, big variety there. But there's only one kind of banana. There are thousands of varieties of bananas, but the big U.S. banana suppliers grow only one that we can get, the Cavendish.

So that's the one we eat, and we eat a lot of them, billions and billions of pounds each year. We slice them on our oatmeal, in our cornflakes. We whip them up in smoothies. We rely on them as a backbone of the banana split. But could our favorite fruit soon become history? Well, a lethal fungus is spreading through Cavendish banana plantations in Asia and Australia. What happens if it makes its way to Latin America, where the U.S. banana supply is grown?

KPCC: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World." He joins us from KPCC. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DAN KOEPPEL: Thank you so much.

FLATOW: Is it true that the song "Yes! We Have No Bananas" was written because of a shortage of bananas once?

KOEPPEL: Well, the original banana that Americans came to know was called the Gros Michel banana, and that one was wiped out by a blight between 1906 and 1960. That song appeared in the 1920s. And it's likely that there were banana shortages during that time. I can't say that the writers of the song were aware of this...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KOEPPEL: ...just like most people aren't aware of it now. But I would like to believe that it had something to do with it, and it's not a complete myth.

FLATOW: And you say that just like the Gros Michel bananas were wiped out by disease that we may be headed toward another wipeout.

KOEPPEL: Correct. That disease that killed Gros Michel, which was actually a better tasting better banana than what we eat now - the Cavendish - was called Panama disease. It's a fungal wilt. And in fact, what's killing Cavendish is another version of that very same disease. Cavendish was adopted because it was resistant to the original version of Panama disease, but it is not resistant to this newly discovered strain, and that's a big problem.

FLATOW: So why, as I mentioned in my introduction, we have all these varieties of other fruits and vegetables, why do we only have one banana to choose from?

KOEPPEL: Well, I like to answer that by asking why don't we have filet mignon, pad Thai and tofu scrambles at McDonald's?

FLATOW: OK.

KOEPPEL: The banana...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KOEPPEL: The banana is the cheapest fruit in the supermarket, and that's pretty weird because it's shipped from great distances, and it requires a lot of handling and refrigeration, much more than apples, for example. To do that, the banana industry has for 100 years had a business model that focuses on a single product. That's the McDonald's comparison. And I like to tell people, imagine a pipe from Ecuador to your supermarket that can only fit one variety of the world's 1,000 banana varieties, and that's basically the way it works.

That's why bananas are so cheap. In order to bring new bananas, you have to build entirely new infrastructure, ranging from plantation to shipping to packing methods and to ways to tell consumers about it.

FLATOW: But you would think that the banana people who control the banana flow would know that there is a fungus among us out there someplace and headed in our direction.

KOEPPEL: Well, they know. They didn't admit it for a long time. Just a couple of years ago, Chiquita started talking about it, and Chiquita also has been doing some work on developing alternate varieties. But for the most part, the history of the industry has been to look at chemical means of control for blight and to stick to this monocultural business model because that's all they know. And in some ways, you can think of them as maybe the old department stores in the 1970s or digital equipment corporations, some of these hidebound tech companies that couldn't change and disappeared. I'm not predicting Chiquita will disappear, but they're stuck in this century-old business model, and they have a really difficult time thinking about things any differently.

FLATOW: Is there any niche here for someone to get in with a different variety of banana then?

KOEPPEL: You know, I tell people every single day that if you want to get into a possibly lucrative business, because the banana is the most popular fruit in the supermarket and the world, look into importing new bananas. That said, it is a daunting task. Because each banana ripens differently, each banana ships differently, each banana has to be grown differently, you need sort of industrial-strength capital and knowhow to get the product. But that said, the kiwi fruit was unknown about 20 years ago and was introduced and is now pretty popular. So there's knowhow and there - if someone was willing to invest, I think it can happen.

FLATOW: You know, when you go to the store, you can. And if you go to other countries in the Caribbean, Latin America, well, in the stores, we see plantains or plantains - depending on how you want to produce it - say it - and then there's these little finger-shape bananas. Are they - you're saying that they're not different from the Cavendish bananas?

KOEPPEL: They are different and some of them are susceptible to these banana diseases. There's about a dozen pretty virulent diseases. There are a few alternate varieties. We have a pretty good selection in Los Angeles because of our large Filipino population. But those varieties account for a statistical zero in terms of the Cavendish market share.

And the banana companies have not had a lot of success with what they call the baby finger bananas. One of the reasons is that educational component in bringing the new variety. Baby bananas need to be served much more brown than a traditional Cavendish to taste right. But most people are used to that visual cue the Cavendish gives and so don't allow them to go brown, and that's been a real problem in getting people to actually like this variety.

FLATOW: How many of these varieties have you actually tasted and how different are they?

KOEPPEL: I've tasted about, I'd say, 100 different banana varieties all over the world.

FLATOW: Wow. You got a favorite?

KOEPPEL: Absolutely.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KOEPPEL: My favorite is called Ibota Ibota. It's a variety found - I discovered it or tasted it first in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ibota Ibota - the word Ibota means fertile in Swahili. And this banana yields huge bunches, and so it's called fertile fertile. It's so fertile. And it is absolutely delicious. It has - you know, you can only describe it the way you describe a really interesting wine. It's got complex taste. It's got notes and colors to it. But, unfortunately, it doesn't have the properly characteristics for import and it's too bad because it's a revelation. Our Cavendish banana is a lousy banana. In India, the world's largest growing - banana-growing country, they call the Cavendish the hotel banana.

FLATOW: Wow. And there's no way to get us closer to that banana that - did you say was in the Congo? It was growing over there?

KOEPPEL: In the Congo. There are similar varieties in Thailand. I wouldn't say there's no way. I would say that it will take creativity and guts and...

FLATOW: Well, why not grow it locally? Tell - what prevents it from, you know, importing it? Does the banana have a range of temperature and humidity and things like that it needs to grow in?

KOEPPEL: There are about 30 categories of the banana - or 30 checkmarks that the banana industry has come up with to make a suitable import banana. One of which is that it can be grown in the regions where they operate. It definitely can't be grown up here in the U.S. But other ones include height of the tree, because banana-growing countries are susceptible to hurricanes so you want a lower tree. One includes how it indicates ripeness. Some bananas don't actually turn yellow when they ripen.

And for Ibota Ibota, the problem is something called finger drop. Each banana fruit that we eat is actually known a finger. And the problem is when you touch these wonderfully huge bunches of 20 or 30 of these bananas all of the bananas fall off and their skin is torn and exposed. And you can't ship a banana that's already been opened, and that's the problem with Ibota Ibota.

FLATOW: But if you live there, it's easy to get it off of the plant then.

KOEPPEL: Oh, yeah. Yeah. And, in fact, that could be a good thing if this is a village banana in the Congo and you've got a bunch of people relying on this one tree, then, yeah, it's like a flip top can.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KOEPPEL: So, yeah, it works pretty well.

FLATOW: How certain is it that the fungus that's not in Caribbean yet is going to get to Latin America?

KOEPPEL: Well, I'll say first of all that this my opinion, and I will also say this that this backed up by most people in science who know, but it is not backed up by Chiquita and Dole who say, we don't know when. The truth is we don't know when. The problem is that this disease is so virulent that it could come to tomorrow. It's transmitted via no more than a speck of dirt on a shoe or a tool.

Now, if I was in a place like the Philippines where the diseases exist and I had some dirt on my shoe and I landed in Costa Rica and stepped on a banana plantation, that's the beginning. So it could come in 20 years, but it could come tomorrow. It's like one person who's sick wandering around the Earth and you don't know when he's going to open your door. But as soon as he does, you're finished. That's the way it'll work.

FLATOW: Yeah. So it's that simple. And so...

KOEPPEL: Right. And...

FLATOW: ...it lives in the soil. It lives in the soil?

KOEPPEL: Correct, it lives in the soil. And that randomness, you know, the banana industry likes to say, well, we - you know, it's a long way away because it's not here yet and it takes awhile. In fact, they need to prepare right now because it could come tomorrow. It's not a long way away or a short way away. But if you know a disaster is coming - you know, like out here in L.A., we prepare for earthquakes because we don't know if the big one is going to happen today or tomorrow or in 10 years, but we want to be ready.

FLATOW: Could you genetically engineer a better banana so it's not susceptible to this fungus.

KOEPPEL: Yes. And there's been quite a bit of good work involved in that, mostly done in Australia through a Gates Foundation grant. And there has been some success but we don't know for sure how well these bananas will perform in the field in large scale.

In addition, Chiquita and Dole and the other banana companies have promised never to sell a GMO banana. And in Europe, for example, you can't even sell a product like that. So whether you're going to solve that problem through genetic modification, which I'm in favor of, you may never have a commercial variety that can actually hit store shelves.

FLATOW: One quick question from Judith in Chico, California. Hi, Judith. Quickly.

JUDITH: Yes. I buy short, fat, red bananas in my local food coop. Are these something that are also going to be threatened by this fungus?

KOEPPEL: Not this fungus. Those bananas - those red bananas which is what we call them, are a relative of a really great banana called a Philippine Lacatan, and those are wonderful, wonderful bananas. They're available at places like food coops or Whole Foods, not generally in regular supermarkets. One of the problems with those bananas is that they're quite fragile. It's hard to ship to them in the quantities needed to satisfy the American banana appetite, which is about 25 pounds of bananas a year without damage in an extraordinary handling measures. So they tend to be a gourmet item, and they are really good.

FLATOW: Well, thank you, Dan. You've set out the alarm bells here for everybody to watch out for this.

KOEPPEL: Right. You're most welcome.

FLATOW: Dan Koeppel is a science writer and the author of "Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World." A great read. He joined us from KPCC in California. Thanks again.

KOEPPEL: Thank you so much for having me.

FLATOW: And if you want to follow Dan, you can read his latest story about bananas in today's issue of The Scientist. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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