"Yes, we have no bananas", goes the song, and even if you are not a devotee of tin pan alley ballads, you can probably make that catchy tune of 1923 sound in your head. It was written at a time when, yes, the world risked losing all its bananas, and yes, we ourselves might have no bananas in the future. If that means you won't have bananas to slice upon your cereal, OK, but for others in the world it means they simply won't have enough food. It isn't all a dire story, but in _Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World_ (Hudson Street Press), Dan Koeppel, a popular nature writer, has covered a huge amount of history and biology, both of which are full of dark intimations of the worst aspects of human nature. "The _____ That Changed the World" subtitle is overused, but Koeppel makes it clear that this time it accurately applies. The banana, or the way humans have cultivated and used it, has raised and toppled nations, and still affects current geopolitical forces.
Bananas have traveled around the world, starting from the wild varieties of South China, Southeast Asia, and India, giving hundreds of cultivated varieties. It is surprising that some have textures like apples, and some must be cooked, and many of them have tart or creamy flavors that American shoppers know nothing about. This is because we buy one banana, the Cavendish which has good properties to make it transportable and long-lasting, but that it forms almost all the world's commercially cultured bananas is its weakness, perhaps a dangerous one. We have been through this before; the Cavendish is not your grandparent's banana. The one they ate was the _Gros Michel_ (Big Mike) banana, which was the monoculture banana of its time until, as one-species crops tend to do, it caught a bad disease, Panama Disease, a fungus that was discovered in that country and then spread worldwide. Bananas by that time had become a worldwide trade, and especially in South America the big companies got the dictators to agree about the dangers of rights for the banana workers, and of labor unions, and the American government helped out. There is new bad news for bananas: Cavendish bananas are now succumbing to Panama disease, as did their predecessor, and the disease is rapidly being transported worldwide. Koeppel maintains that there is one prospect of a solution, and that is genetic modification. GM is regarded with horror as producing "frankenfood", but it is in the banana that it could be used with the least risk. Proprietary seeds won't be developed, both because seeds are hard to come by and because scientists working on the banana genome have agreed that any resultant fruit will be in the public domain. Bananas, which have no seeds or pollen, are at little risk for allowing their modifications to escape into the wild.
Something will have to be done if we want our bananas, and we do want them: we eat more of them than apples and oranges combined. No more bananas would mean a gustatory loss for Americans but a nutritional disaster for Africa and other parts of the world where locally-grown bananas are a staple rather than a snack. The Cavendish was in the wings ready to take the stage when the Gros Michel was slain, and now that the Cavendish may go the same way, there is no understudy waiting to take over. Koeppel's descriptions of history and biology are reasoned and thoughtful, and this is far from an incendiary book. It is full of details that are surprising and amusing, as well as troubling. Koeppel shows that we have taken the banana for granted, and that this is part of its current problem; his welcome book will ensure that the banana's complexities are far better understood.