The world’s most popular fruit – bananas – might seem like a common, everyday item you’ve eaten time and time again. However, the banana back-story is far from boring. This tropical treat is a big business with far-reaching political, economic and environmental implications, both past and present. So the next time you peel back a ripe, yellow banana, consider some of these fascinating facts.
An Important Staple
Bananas represent the fourth most important staple crop in the world, following rice, wheat, and corn – enough are grown each year that each banana could be placed end to end and circle the earth more than two thousand times. In many tropical countries, various types of bananas, including plantains, play an important role in the typical diet as well as the local economy, through exports. Over the years, this lucrative business has been responsible for political conflicts and military interventions, particularly in Central America.
What Happened to the Seeds?
While they are commonly called “banana trees”, bananas actually are not trees at all, but the largest flowering herb in the world. The plant’s large green leaves wrap around each other, forming what looks like a trunk, that supports a stem and the banana fruits, which appear to grow upside down in bunches.
Bananas are native to Southeast Asia, where they were likely one of the oldest cultivated plants. There, over hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years, inedible wild bananas were selectively bred and crossed with different species to produce the sweet fruit we know today. As you may have noticed, bananas are essentially seedless. Hard and dry wild bananas – also called monkey bananas – are full of large seeds which were removed as part of the domestication process. The sterile mutant bananas we now enjoy no longer need their seeds for reproduction as they are grown from clippings, meaning banana plants all over the world are nearly perfect genetic copies of each other.
The Disease Threat
Most of us are really only familiar with one type of banana - the Cavendish dessert banana, which accounts for 99% of bananas sold in the US and Europe. Unfortunately, since domesticated bananas are essentially clones, lacking genetic diversity, they are vulnerable to disease. It’s possible the Cavendish will need to be replaced with another type of banana in the coming years, just as the Gros Michel type was phased out in favor of the Cavendish in 1960, following an outbreak of Panama disease.
Since bananas are highly susceptible to disease, a large number of herbicides, pesticides, and other agrochemicals are used in conventional production. After cotton, bananas are the second-most sprayed crop in the world and many banana plantations are reported to spend more on chemicals than on labor. Luckily, the banana peel protects us from this chemical cocktail, though plantation workers and others living nearby are less lucky since many are sprayed aerially.
Despite all these slippery issues, the world’s most popular fruit remains a highly-nutritious food, delicious on its own as a quick snack, or dried, grilled, baked, frozen, and combined in countless different ways.
Are you bananas for bananas?
Calorie Count co-founder Erik Fantasia and his girlfriend, Heather Curtis, are currently traveling through Central America as part of a trip around the world. You can follow their adventures online with Facebook and their blog.