Sunday, March 15, 2009

Book Review: "Banana"

Read Dan Koeppel's Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World (Hudson Street Press, 2008), and I bet you'll never look at a banana quite the same way again. Expanding on a 2005 Popular Science article, Koeppel's book is a biological, political and commercial history of the banana. It is also a call to action, since the banana as we know it may be just years away from disappearing completely thanks to a fast-moving series of pathogens which have the potential to bring its reign atop the fruit bowl to a precipitous end.

Part travelogue, part exposé, part history lesson, Koeppel's book takes us from the banana plantations to Latin America to the village plots of Africa to the research labs of Belgium, where scientists are racing against time to combat the spreading plague and make the world safe for bananas. What remains to be seen is whether the ultimately successful fruit will be the variety we currently eat (the Cavendish), or if some other version will have to be (or even can be) modified to meet the consumer needs the Cavendish currently satisfies (easily transported, hard to bruise, on a regular ripening schedule). It's happened before; the variety of banana grown and marketed until the late 1950s was the Gros Michel, which succumbed to the same cocktail of diseases our current banana faces today.

The banana's checkered past is laid bare here as Koeppel peels away the decades of nefarious practices engaged in by the large banana companies in Central and South America and the Caribbean as they fought each other for the commercial edge (and in the process greatly abused their works, the environment, and the governments of the nations they practically controlled). And Koeppel's point about the inherent weaknesses of the banana as an export crop is a good one: if we followed the precepts of locavorism, the banana would be about the last thing most of us would be eating, and perhaps that's the way it should be. But, as he writes, that seems unlikely, so perhaps at least understanding what's behind what we're eating is the best we can do for now.

A worthy book; I learned a great deal.

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