Bananas have become a staple fruit in the lives of every single human being around the world. Not only does it top the charts in sales compared to any other fruit available, but it is fourth in sales numbers of all agricultural products. The economies of many countries and millions of people depend on this iconic yellow fruit. But this banana craze was once thought to be impossible for industrial commerce, as the fruit starts to rot one week from the day it is picked from the plant. To understand how bananas became the most successful marketing feat in the fruit industry, we must look at the early beginnings when they were virtually unknown.
Through years of archeological and paleoenvironmental studies and evidence scientists believe to date bananas to 8000 BCE. The first evidence of this fruit can be traced back to Papua New Guinea, and later spread towards Southeast Asia. Evidence also exists of different kinds of bananas originating from Africa, ranging from Cameroon to Madagascar, with theories pointing to the Malagasy colonization period where bananas were most likely transported across the region. Reports about bananas reaching the west attribute Alexander The Great and his army invading India in which he discovers bananas and brought them back west back in 327 B.C.
As trade began to grow throughout history bananas exchanged from many different regions, becoming known among the major cities and settlements across Asia, Africa, and Europe.
Bananas reaching the Americas dates back to the 16th century when Portuguese sailors introduced the fruit from West Africa to the Americas, as well as explorers and missionaries brought bananas to the Caribbean.
Once in America bananas started to flourish as the climate conditions were similar to that of Southeast Asia, and ideal for banana production. Historians attribute the first formal banana cultivation in the Americas to the Portuguese colonists, specially in Brazil. In North America banana consumption began during the American Civil War in the 1880s, although at a much higher price than we know in modern times.
As for more serious and commercial plantations as we know then in modern times, they began in regions such as Jamaica, quickly spreading to Central America. As advancements in railroads and steamships began to get more efficient and accessible so did banana agriculture. This is when, around the end of the 20th century, Lorenzo Dow Baker, Andrew Preston, and Minor C. Keith united their forces and created the United Fruit Company. With strategic political positions, and a fear of communist propagations, United Fruit Company quickly grew all along Central America and a couple southern American countries. Gaining in some cases up to 20% of usable land in Guatemala. United Fruit Company quickly bought out their competition, and had a strong political grasp alongside the United States of the countries they had their banana productions in. Quickly United Fruit Company became a monopoly in the banana production and exporting business, even culminating in the overthrow of a communist leader in Guatemala.
After various attempts by the United States Government to place antitrust cases against United Fruit Company they succeeded by forcing the company to sell their shares of other banana producing companies. As the century passed, and technology became more widespread, so did the banana industries.
Between this period of growth in the banana industry, and threat much larger than any government or uprising came to the banana industry. A fungus. Fusarium, also known as Panama Disease quickly started spreading amongst the banana fields, infecting the corn and spreading through the plant, causing a yellow leaf which would then culminate in the banana plants death. For the first decade of this disease spreading pathologists used a pesticide which helps mitigate the effectiveness of the fungus, but efforts were futile. Gros Michel bananas where effectively wiped out from production, no longer making them a profitable fruit, let alone being able to grow them in large enough numbers for the international demand.
Starting the 1950’s researchers introduced a new banana variety which has kept its reining place through history, the Cavendish banana. Immune to the panama disease at that time, Cavendish banana had a near identical taste to the Gros Michel, tasting even sweeter. The appearance was more favorable as well, as it was a bright yellow, near perfect skin, perfect for mass market consumption. Marketing efforts quickly rose to popularize the new type of banana, and Chiquita, previously known as United Fruit Company, alongside companies such as Dole where successful in promoting the Cavendish banana.
In recent times, starting around the 1990’s, Panama fungus began to make an appearance yet again in the radar of banana producers, specifically across Asia and Africa, affecting this time the Cavendish banana. Due to the monoculture way of producing bananas, in which every single banana grown in identical in its genetics the all others, a fungus and disease that affects one banana affects all the others. Growing concern has spread amongst America about the fungus reaching the continent, which is protected mainly by the oceans that separate it from the rest of the world. Although international trade makes it easy for accidental spreading of the fungus, it has yet to occur. Scientists are working around the clock trying to produce hybrid bananas, new types of bananas, and even playing with the idea of existing bananas that taste similar to the ones the world is used to. The challenge they face is finding a suitable variety that grows easily, is resistant to the Panama Disease, can be shipped worldwide, and will be able to replace the current Cavendish banana for consumers. Mass market adoption is the biggest challenge, as consumers are used to a perfect yellow and large fruit, which a sweet and soft taste, that is extremely affordable. Only time will tell the future of bananas.[orbital_cluster pages=”1285,1270,1333,960,1342,1337,1327,1319″ order=”DESC”]