Banana, by Dan Koeppel

by on January 22, 2008 at 7:07 am in Books, Food and Drink | Permalink

You will never, ever find a seed in a supermarket banana.  That is because the fruit is grown, basically, by cloning…Every banana we eat is a genetic twin of every other.

It turns out, by the way, that the world’s supply of Cavendish bananas — the ones we eat — is endangered by disease (more here) and many experts believe the entire strain will vanish.  Most other banana strains are much harder to cultivate and transport on a large scale, so enjoy your bananas while you can.  The previous and supposedly tastier major strain of banana — Gros Michel — is already gone and had disappeared by the 1950s, again due to disease.  Today, European opposition to GMO is one factor discouraging progress in developing a substitute and more robust banana crop.

I liked this bit:

"Uganda doesn’t endure famine, and to a great extent that is because of bananas," said Joseph Mukibi…

And finally:

Most horrifying of all to Americans, the Indian banana is used as a substitute for tomatoes in ketchup.

I’ve grown tired of single topic foodstuff books, as they are now an overmined and overrated genre.  But Dan Koeppel’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World is one of the best of its kind.  It is a seamless integration of politics, economics, history, biology, and foodie wisdom.  Here is one review of the book.  Here is Dan’s one-post banana blog.

1 yoyo January 22, 2008 at 7:28 am

Well “European opposition to GMO” is in line with the thinking that would have prevented this problem in the first place. But i suppose only governments are ever capable of short-term thinking and unintended consequences…

2 Cliff January 22, 2008 at 8:26 am

How would European opposition to GMO have prevented seedless bananas? Surely they are totally unrelated? Maybe the aliens taught the Egyptians genetic engineering and they used it to create seedless bananas? Or are Europeans opposed to cultivation as well?

3 shawn January 22, 2008 at 9:39 am

…yeah, let’s be clear here…every cultivar is a ‘clone’, because they all exist via cuttings. It’s how you get trees that tend more towards structurally sound/fruit producing/specific color/etc.

virtually every tree you see planted in a commercial landscape (not growing naturally) is a cultivar: it’s not just an oak, it’s a live oak…it’s not just a live oak, it’s a quercus virginiana ‘millenium’ or ‘hightower’ or some other sort of variety.

Intriguing, however, that apparently the only commercial cultivar is the ‘cavendish’…given my understanding of economics, however, as the supply dwindles due to disease or other factors, there will be more incentive to propogate a different plant via a wild source. (all you do to ‘clone’ a plant is clip off a piece of it, stick it in rooting source material, make sure it’s kept nice and wet, and it will grow roots. VOILA! Clone!)

4 Klug January 22, 2008 at 11:08 am

This book title is hilarious. Do all book titles these days have to be “(Blank): the trivial little (blank) that changed the World” ?

5 JRip January 22, 2008 at 11:40 am

A simplistic view of two types of GMO research:
1. Old style (Euro style). Perform many breedings. Grow out the results. Observe and test the results. Select and propagate the “winners”. This can be said to be “natural”. Goals may take many cycles (years) to achieve.

2. Later Old-Style. Do the breedings in the presence of agents (chemicals or conditions) that encourage the appearance of variations (variants).

3. New style – directly manipulate the DNA. Splicing in stuff from other species and/or creating little bits in the lab and splicing them in. Trying to achieve a goal in a single step.

6 Michael January 22, 2008 at 2:00 pm

Depends what you mean by “ripe.” Probably no supermarkets sell vine-ripened bananas, but bananas ripen pretty darn well off the vine. I am incredulous that you have not seen yellow bananas sold in a supermarket. In fact, in some supermarkets, bananas that are completely ripe (with a few brown spots here and there) are sold at a discount to the green variety. The advantage to buying the green ones and allowing them to ripen at home is to avoid bruising, and as long as you time you banana purchases, you are no doing any extra labor (the most recent purchase will ripen as you are finishing the last of the previous lot).

7 Dan Koeppel January 22, 2008 at 8:03 pm

Hi there – I’m the author of “Banana.” Thanks for the mention. I would like to point out that I have more than a one-post blog: I provide information about bananas and my book to wretched excess at

8 Dan Koeppel January 22, 2008 at 8:08 pm

Gabriel is right – there are lots of other banana cultivars, in Brazil and elsewhere. But – in addition to being susceptible to the same diseases, even across cultivars (since there’s so much genetic sameness between these varieties -Brazilian bananas are not suitable for overseas export. That’s because they don’t possess the proper ripening characteristics and resistance to damage that Cavendish – and pretty much only Cavendish – bananas do. I have been to Brazil, and I have tasted Brazil’s wonderful bananas. If you want to do the same, you have to go to Brazil, as well.

9 Bob Knaus January 22, 2008 at 8:59 pm

Alarmism… we has it.

No need for banana panic. Bananas are a thoroughly modern phenomenon, for those living in temperate climates. When they first appeared on the streets of New York City in the 1890s they sold for 25 cents apiece. Plug that into any inflation calculator and see how that compares to prices today.

Growing up in Homestead FL (south of Miami) the bananas growing over our septic tank drainfield were Dwarf Cavendish. Shorter than the commercial variety, with thinner peels, but much tastier. Incredibly productive in an 8-foot tree.

Questions about “vine-ripe” bananas display a lamentable ignorance of banana culture. Dude, backpack Guatemala, and this time pay attention, OK?

There are hundreds of varieties of bananas. If one should come up short, others will fill in. No need to worry about losing your favorite healthy tropical snack!


10 Tyler Cowen January 23, 2008 at 7:17 am

Brazilian bananas are some of the world’s best, Gabriel is correct to point that out. But they are not easy enough to grow and transport to take over world markets, and most of you have never ever eaten one and never will. That’s sad. The bananas you get in the U.S. are strictly second-rate. Yana for instance was shocked when she had her first banana in Brazil.

11 Rex Rhino January 23, 2008 at 1:58 pm

Most produce in the US is (now) strictly second-rate. Travel *anywhere* else in the world and you will very quickly realize this.

Are you buying your produce at 7-11 or something? Or are you buying your produce at an overpriced co-op and need to justify the expense? I have traveled to many different *anywhere*s, and have found no significant differences between the produce that wasn’t explainable by climate or region.

If you went to the supermarket, and purchased a bunch of identical tomatos, and then seperated then and then told people that one pile is “organic European-grown” tomatos, and the other pile “factory-farming” tomatos, people would naturally say the organic European ones are better, because of course “organic” is better and Europeans are wise and sophisticated.

But that doesn’t really mean anything except that normal produce has no marketing machine and doesn’t have built in barriers to mass-consumption (thus, making it an item of conspicuous consumption).

12 doctorpat January 23, 2008 at 10:19 pm

I’ve also had bananas with seeds in them. But they were picked wild in the bush during a hike.

(Very dry and not recommended actually, probably taste like American bananas 😉

13 Asif Dowla January 24, 2008 at 2:46 pm

I have not read the book mentioned in the post. However, I have read “Jungle capitalists : a story of globalisation, greed and revolution” by Peter Chapman. Chapman was the reporter for the Financial Times in Latin America.The book is an wonderful read. It covers the role United Fruit played in making banana a household fruit in the rich countries. The narrative is tied with globalization, gun-boat diplomacy and the idea of banana republic. The book is an amazing expose of a powerful multinational corporation.

14 baom February 9, 2008 at 1:27 am


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