Thursday, December 29, 2016

Yes We Have No Bananas

Dr. Ben Brown (right) with Jim Tolbert (left) and Dave Webster (center)

["Conkey's Tavern" was my first blog. It dealt with local and organic food issues and the environmental destructiveness of industrial farming and monocultures. This past September my friend, Ben Brown, sent me "Yes We Have No Bananas". It is a privilege and honor to publish it. It's food for thought (yes, the pun is intended) that our eating habits contribute to monoculturism and, thus, to more environmental destruction. For more information, there are links to some articles below.]

Yes We Have No Bananas


Although the impact of the mid-XIX century potato famine is still a hot topic of discussion, few ask if it could happen again.  The answer is a dramatic yes!   Bananas, a major source of protein for a large segment of the world’s population, are under siege from the Panama fungus [Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense]  which attacks the root system.   For over 50 years, horticulturalists have been designing strategies to combat this plague.  But just as the strategies evolved, so has the fungus and today it has done an end run. Not only does it destroy the plant, but it impregnates the soil with chlamydospores or spores which can remain dormant for many years. Consequently, the chlamydospores destroy any potential to replant.  So, you may ask, how did we come to this? 

In the beginning, there were bananas:

In spite of popular wisdom, not all plants were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent or Central Mexico.  The archaeological evidence suggests that bananas were first grown in special terraces in or around the Kuk Valley of central New Guinea some ten thousand years ago and spread throughout the island archipelagos that lie between Asia and New Guinea.   From these humble beginnings a wide range of varieties developed, each with its particular ecological requirements and each with its own taste and texture.  By 5,500 BP, bananas were firmly established as a major food source. 

In conjunction with pre-Islamic and pre-European colonialism and trade, the more hardy varieties spread around the world and settled in most tropical climates producing a dependable abundance of fruit.  Containing any where from 90 to 110 calories per banana, bananas became an important food source. On average they contain more than 10% of the daily value of a number of beneficial elements and vitamins such as potassium and manganese, and vitamins B6 and C.  Although they contain very little fat, what fat they do contain in high in Omega 3 and Omega 6. High in fiber with a low Glycemic Index, who’s gon’a complain?

But there was a catch.  Or maybe two.   They no longer produced pollen and so required the help of the human hand to produce fruit. In other words bananas were, and still are, clones.  Their inability to cross pollinate meant that most plants were clones with a reduced resistance to the external threats found in their new environments.  Slowly but surely these threats reduced their vigor. The natural impact of these weaknesses was multiplied by the introduction of mono-cropping: extensive plantations of just bananas.  Diseases could gallop across a property, and all too often, jump from one plantation to another, even before the disease could be identified and the appropriate action taken.  

In the case of Fusarium oxsporum the plant dies from dehydration.  The fungus enters the plants’ roots from whence it is transported into the xylem vessels and disrupts the vascular system by cutting off the circulation of foods and liquids. 

Minor problem you might say:  Banana splits haven’t been popular for years! But that is just first world view.  While Americans yearly import and consume just short of 12 kilograms per capita, Ugandans are at the other extreme.  They eat more than 20 times as much.
Although Uganda is the world’s second largest producer of bananas, relatively few are exported.  Most bananas are needed for the home market.  At 0.7 kg. per day, it has the highest per capita consumption. Burundi and Rwanda follow suit also consuming anywhere three to eleven bananas a day per capita.  This comes out to about 250 to 400 kg per annum.  Bananas are so important to the diet that in some places the words for food and bananas are synonymous.  The hyper dependence on bananas could lead to a crisis similar to mid-nineteenth century Ireland. 

While this crisis will be most poignant in central Africa, there are many other countries, such as Ecuador, Guatemala and Honduras, where bananas are the food of the poor and any short fall will be catastrophic. 

Can anything be done?

Science in it’s full glory is striving to find the appropriate solution but money and means are far away.  At the moment the biologically the best solution would seem to be bananas with seeds, but it is not clear if seeded bananas would win Mark Twain’s approval.  But in the meanwhile biologists are continuing their research and attempting to create new hybrids and GM varieties that are marketable and resistant to both the known and unknown challenges. So far, material borrowed from onions and dahlias have increased resistance but have not produced plantains or bananas acceptable to the market – sweet, seedless and bright yellow when ripe.

So, is there a moral to this story?

Beware of introduced crops.  Beware of mono-cropping and in the meanwhile, don’t be bashful, eat all the bananas you can.  They’re gon’a change or disappear!

R. B. Brown
MUREF / Centro INAH Chihuahua
Av. 16 de Septiembre y Av. Juárez
Centro Histórico, Ciudad Juárez
32000 Chihuahua, México


Since graduating from the University of Arizona, Dr. Brown has worked largely in northern Mexico. His projects have included archaeological investigation and conservation as well as paleontology.  For the last few years he's been focusing on the history of northern Mexico and is presently working on a biography of Cástulo Herrera, a little know revolutionary who died in Ciudad Juarez in 1957. He is, or has been, a  member of a wide range of international, national and local professional organizations such as INQUA, ARARA, the Society of American Archeology and the El Paso County Historical Society as well as a founding member and founding board member of CARTA, the Camino Real Trail Association.  He has organized a number of international symposia in the US, Mexico, Spain, Russia, and the UK. Dr. Brown maintains an active interest in paleoecology.  His thesis was entitled: The Paleoecology of the Northern Frontier of Mesoamerica.  One of his first historical studies focused on using changes in the wholesale prices of maize in Chihuahua as proxy data for the identification of droughts and drought cycles.  At the same time he maintained an interest in the archaeology of Australasia, the development of terrace agriculture in Australasia and the early domestication of bananas.  Needless to say, bananas are his favorite fruit!

He is presently based at the Museo de la Revolucion en la Frontera in Ciudad Juárez.

For further reading:

Banana market faces great change as monoculture threatens extinction of West’s most popular variety

We have no bananas today

Industrial Agriculture: The outdated, unsustainable system that dominates U.S. food production

Monoculture Farming


How the Growth of Monoculture Crops Is Destroying our Planet and Still Leaving us Hungry


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