BananasBananas ripening (and over-ripening) in bunches on the tree — which is actually a giant herbAs a life-long and still die-hard banana eater — locavoreanism be damned, they don’t grow well in the North Carolina mountains — I’ve been meaning to read the recent bunch of well-regarded books on the travails of Americans’ favorite breakfast fruit. (Emily Biuso’s 2008 Nation review piqued my appetite on this front.) The trouble with bananas is this: the export market is dominated by a single variety that’s being stalked by a ruinous blight.

Well, lucky me: bananas have gotten the New Yorker treatment. Rather than plow through books, you can now read Mike Peed’s recent, quite good and not-very-long piece ($ub req’d) on the looming banana crisis. The article has generated plenty of buzz in sustainable-food circles. Before I had a chance to read it, I saw a couple of list-serv postings arguing that it presents a compelling case for subjecting bananas to genetic modification.

The argument seems to go like this. Bananas are a massive source of nutrients and income in the global south. The one variety that has been deemed fit for the export market — the Cavendish, selected for bland flavor, portability, and monster yields — risks being wiped out by a fungus bearing the oddly frightful name of Tropical Race Four. If only geneticists could find a gene that resists Tropical Race Four and splice it into banana plants, the catastrophe could be averted. Moreover, unlike with, say, corn or alfalfa, there’s no chance of a GMO Cavendish spreading genetic material to wild or non-GMO bananas, because the Cavendish is sterile.

But I came away from Peed’s article with the opposite conclusion: I see no compelling case for GMO-izing bananas. First of all, such a project would probably have little effect on how people eat where bananas are actually grown. Peed reports that despite the yellow fruit’s ubiquity in U.S. and European supermarkets, 87 percent of bananas produced in the world are consumed right where they’re grown: in the hot parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And guess what? Tropical Race Four doesn’t threaten this bounty.

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Peed writes:

In Africa and Asia, villagers grow such heterogeneous mixes in their back yards that no one disease can imperil them. Tropical Race Four, scientists has existed in the soil for thousands of years. Banana companies needed only to enter Asia, as they did 20 years ago, and plant uniform fields of Cavendish in order to unleash the blight. A disease-resistant Cavendish would still mean a commercial monoculture, and who’s to say that one day Tropical Race Five won’t show up?

Different kinds of bananasThere’s a whole world of non-Cavendish bananas out there.Photo: RuzuzuIndeed, while we fixate on a single banana variety, people in the global south are growing and consuming no fewer than 1,000 varieties, Peed reports. The problem, it seems, isn’t some menacing super-fungus; rather, it’s an export market — dominated essentially by three companies — geared to monoculture. According to Peed, 99 percent of exported bananas are Cavendish.

Gros, point blank

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Now, it’s true that the great bulk of those thousands of varieties aren’t well suited to long-haul travel followed by multi-day stays on supermarket shelves and kitchen counters. Another variety with similar export-friendly characteristics, the Gros Michael, once enjoyed the position now held by the Cavendish. By all accounts, it offered a more interesting, complex taste than the Cavendish; indeed, the banana rose to prominence as a U.S. breakfast staple based on the Gros Michael’s flavor. Why has it disappeared? Another fungus, Tropical Race One, feasted on vast monocultures of it, virtually wiping it out.

OK. What if we don’t genetically engineer Cavendishes to avoid the same fate — won’t we be inflicting great economic harm on Latin America?

In 2008, Peed reports, “Americans ate 7.6 billion pounds of Cavendish bananas, virtually all of them imported from Latin America.” But even here, the argument quickly crumbles. According to the fruit trade magazine The Packer, three companies — Dole (formerly Standard Fruit), Chiquita (formerly United Fruit), and Del Monte own 85 percent of the U.S. banana market. So profits generated from the trade revert to these companies’ shareholders, not to people in the banana belt.

What about jobs? The record of U.S. fruit companies operating in Latin America is mostly atrocious. Here’s how Peed describes the rise to dominance of United Fruit, precursor to today’s Chiquita:

In converting a tropical fruit into a global commodity, United Fruit amassed land across Latin America, from Guatemala to Colombia, replacing virgin jungle with vast tracts of Gros Michaels. Poorly compensated workers battling malaria, dengue fever, tarantulas, pythons, and jaguars, constructed miles of railroad tracks, telecommunications lines, and irrigation canals. By the 1960s, United Fruit controlled nearly 700 million acres of land.

To see what kind of corporate citizen United Fruit was, read New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinser’s classic book Bitter Fruit, or that famous brutally realistic (not so magical realist) section of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Banana republic still rules

And now? From what I can tell, the time-honored tradition of abusing workers on banana plantation thrives. Just this past December, the International Labor Rights Forum highlighted the five global companies (PDF) that most suppressed worker’s rights to organize in 2010. All three U.S. banana giants — Dole, Chiquita, and Del Monte — made the list.

Here’s the IRLF on Chiquita:

Chiquita’s subsidiary in Guatemala, Cobigua, has been using a combination of threats and intimidation to repress its banana farm workers for years. In fact, the Guatemalan banana unions have records of Cobigua’s use of blackmail dating back to 2003. The unions have stated that in the past12  years only two fair and valid collective bargaining agreements have been reached between the workers and Cobigua manage- ment.  Since 2007, 43 union members and leaders have been killed in Guatemala for their affiliation.

And Dole:

In Colombia, the country considered the most dangerous for union organizing, Dole stands accused of making regular payments for at least a decade to the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forced of Colombia (AUC) to intimidate and attack banana workers and small farmers organizing for their rights. Several AUC commanders have come forward stating that they re-ceived payments from Dole, as well as other multinational corporations. A lawsuit was filed in Califo
rnia on behalf of 51 men who were allegedly murdered by the AUC for union organizing or attempting to prevent Dole from taking their land.

This is the industry I’m supposed to want to save through genetic modification? The banana-export industry doesn’t feed the people in the areas in which it operates, and treats its workers like dirt. I’ll continue to eat Fair Trade and organic bananas as long as supplies last, and I hope that an export-friendly variety that grows in polycultures can be found to replace the Cavendish being grown by Fair Trade, locally owned producers.

But when the big foot of the banana industry hits the peel of its self-generated fungus problem, I hope the beast topples — and doesn’t get propped up by a genetic engineering crutch.