3/12/09 - bananas

In today's encore excerpt - the banana. Originally from the fertile coastal soils of Asia and India, and named after the Arabic word for finger bananas are the world's largest fruit crop and the fourth-largest product grown overall after wheat, rice and corn. Though a food staple for poor people in many parts of the world, bananas face a disease epidemic with no known cure that could lead to their extinction:

"Americans eat more bananas per year than apples and oranges combined; and that in many other parts of the world, bananas -- more than rice, more than potatoes -- are what keep hundreds of millions of people alive. ... A banana tree isn't a tree at all; it's the world's largest herb. The fruit itself is actually a giant berry. Most of us eat just a single kind of banana a variety called the Cavendish, but over one thousand types are found worldwide, including dozens of wild varieties many no bigger than your pinky and filled with tooth-shattering seeds. ...

"There is no country on earth that loves bananas more [than India]. There are more varieties of the fruit there than anywhere else. If you visit, I recommend that you search for the lovely Thella Chakkarakeli, a candy-sweet fruit that is moist enough to almost be considered juicy. ... [India] grows 20 percent of the world's bananas -- about 17 million tons -- each year. That's three times more fruit than the world's number two banana-producing nation, Ecuador. ... More than 670 types of bananas, cultivated and wild, grow in the country. Thirty-two forest bananas are so rare that only a single plant or two have been discovered. ...

"The not the fruit your grandparents enjoyed. That banana was called the Gros Michel, which translates as "Big Mike." By all accounts, Big Mike was a more spectacular banana than our Cavendish. It was larger, with a thicker skin, a creamier texture, and a more intense fruity taste. ... But the Gros Michel disappeared. A disease began the ravage banana crops ... [and] by 1960, fifty years, after the malady was first discovered, the Gros Michel was effectively extinct. The banana industry was in crisis, itself threatened with disappearance. It was only at the last minute that a new banana was adopted ... the Cavendish [which] was immune to the disease. ...

"Today, [a new] blight is tearing through banana crops worldwide. It has spread to Pakistan, the Philippines and Indonesia. It is on the rise in Africa. While it has yet to arrive in our hemisphere, in dozens of interviews I have conducted since 2004, I couldn't find a single person studying the fruit who seriously believes it won't. For the past five years banana scientist have been trying -- in a race against time -- to modify the fruit to make it resistant to [this new] disease."


Dan Koeppel


Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World


Hudson Street Press


Copyright 2008 by Dan Koeppel


xii-xviii, 30-31
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