Nautilus

What’s Wrong with Bananas

Of the important global crops, the banana is the most genetically uniform. A single cluster of nearly identical genotypes, the Cavendish subgroup, nearly monopolizes the world’s banana groves and banana trade. In contrast to the riotous rainbow of genetic diversity that lends sustainability to natural plant and animal populations, the world’s banana industry has the stability of an upside-down Egyptian pyramid balanced on its tip.

That fact leads to another superlative: The commercial banana is the world’s most endangered major crop. The future of the intercontinentally traded banana was once, and is again, precarious. Given that their wild progenitors are as variable as most species, how has it come to pass that most of the banana plants growing in the world have become so uniform? And what does that uniformity mean for their future as the “world’s most perfect food”?

Gros Michel bananas.Zwifree / Wikimedia

Reproductively, domesticated banana plants are self-copying machines. Proto-farmers who found an individual whose fruit they liked (maybe tasty and not so seedy) could dig up its suckers and replant them in a nearby clearing or even along the trail. In a few years, an industrious proto-farmer might have had reproduced dozens of plants of that genet.

Skip ahead a few thousand years. During the Age of Discovery and Conquest, that model took on global proportions as plant explorers transported a relatively small number of favorite clones out of Southeast Asia and introduced them to the plantation agriculture of tropical colonies. With the emergence of the 20th century, the confluence of the Industrial Revolution with plantation agriculture led to the propagation of a single globally favored banana genet (descended from a single instance of sperm-egg fusion) for export from the tropics to waiting markets in the industrial north. Foreshadowing the uniform and reliable vehicle of Henry Ford, the banana industry had found the uniform and reliable banana clone. Everyone was eating the Gros Michel banana (aka Big Mike).

If you ask any long-term restaurateur, you will find that the secret to getting customers to come back again and again depends on making their favorite meal exactly the same again and again. Constant change—for example, a port-cherry sauce on the duck this week and a lime-dill sauce the next—will send patrons scurrying. If the newspaper food critic’s blog tells you to try the tempeh, you won’t be pleased to hear that it was replaced by tofu. Part of fast food’s global success is that

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