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Why Are Bananas So Cheap?

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
March 8, 2023 3:02 am

Why Are Bananas So Cheap?

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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March 8, 2023 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, if you think of the quintessential American fruit, it would probably have to be the apple. But apples are not our cheapest fruit—bananas are! But why? Here’s the History Guy with the story of the banana.

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Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb
Our Daily Bread Ministries
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Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb

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Exclusions apply. And we continue with Our American Stories. And our next story comes to us from a man who's simply known as the History Guy. His videos are watched by hundreds of thousands of people of all ages over on YouTube.

And the History Guy is also heard as a regular contributor here at Our American Stories. If you think of the quintessential American fruit, it would probably be the apple. But apples are not our cheapest fruit, bananas are.

But why? Here's the History Guy with the story of the banana. Here's an interesting trivia question, do you happen to know what item is most sold at Walmart? I'll give you a hint, it's a berry that grows from an herb, or if you come from the United Kingdom, a herb. Here's another hint, the herb is in the family Musake, and the most popular version of this berry is called the Cavendish. And if you still don't know, does it help to know that it was among the first fruits to be domesticated by humans?

That it is so historically important that empires have been built on it and governments overthrown because of it, and that comedians have made entire careers slipping on its peel. Some scientists estimate that the banana was domesticated as early as 8000 BC, and there's written evidence that the cultivation of bananas had reached India by 6000 BC. Thus bananas were possibly domesticated at approximately the same time as rice and potatoes, predating the domestication of apples by millennia. The banana fruit is produced from the ovary of a single flower, in which the outer layer of the ovary wall develops into an edible fleshy portion. Thus bananas are, by the botanical definition, a berry. There are more than a thousand species of wild banana in Southeast Asia, China and the Indian subcontinent, producing a staggering array of fruits.

The Musa Valentina, for example, produces a bright pink fuzzy banana, and the Go Seung Hang species is so aromatic that its Chinese name literally translates as, you can smell it from the next mountain. While bananas were likely first domesticated in Southeast Asia or Papua New Guinea, Arab traders carried bananas back home and introduced the fruit to the Middle East in the first or second millennium BC, and then took the fruit to the east coast of Africa. The fruit was then traded across the continent, eventually being cultivated in Western Africa. In fact there are two competing stories for the etymology of the word banana. One posits that it comes from the Arabic word Bana for finger, because early bananas would have been about the size of your finger.

The other posits that the word was derived from a West African language. In 327 BC, Alexander and his armies discovered the banana during one of their campaigns in India, and introduced the delicious fruit to the Western world, particularly to Mediterranean countries. In the 6th century the Portuguese discovered bananas on the Atlantic coast of Africa, and then they then cultivated the fruit on the Canary Islands, and from there it was introduced to the Americas by Spanish missionaries. Early cultivated bananas would not have been like what we buy at the supermarket today, rather wild bananas are full of seeds, hard enough to break your tooth, and would have been smashed and sieved to eat the soft fruit. Over time farmers would have selected those bananas that had fewer seeds, but such bananas eventually would become so seedless that they could not be grown from seeds, and the plants had to be reproduced asexually. The banana rich culture we have today, the average American eats 28 and a half pounds of bananas each year, was the product of the 19th century. While bananas were being cultivated in plantations in the 15th and 16th centuries, those were red or green bananas that included a lot of starch and today would be called plantains. For the most part they had to be cooked to be softened and eaten. In 1936 a farmer in Jamaica named Jean Francois Peugeot discovered a banana plant on his plantation that, the result of random genetic mutation, was producing yellow bananas.

The fruit was naturally sweet and soft enough to be eaten without cooking. This banana grew in tightly packed bunches and had a thick peel that resisted bruising, facilitating transport. Hundreds of cultivars of this banana mutation have evolved to give the world one of the greatest food breakthroughs in history, supplying the world with the number one fruit grown to feed Earth's population, the modern yellow banana. The banana, originally called the Martinique banana, was so popular that the variety was cultivated all along the Caribbean coast in Central America.

That type became known as the Grosse Michel or the Big Mike, and it was a game changer. Americans had seen bananas imported from Cuba early in the 19th century, but those were seen as merely a novelty. Likewise bananas had been displayed in London in the 1600s, but again the fruit was little more than an oddity. Economic and dietary changes, combined with the characteristics of the Grosse Michel, created a massive trade. Imports into the US gradually increased, especially at the end of the Civil War, but interest in imports really took off in the 1870s. In 1871 banana exports to the United States were valued at around $250,000. By the first year of the 20th century the banana trade had exponentially ballooned to $6,400,000.

Ten years later it had effectively doubled again. So many bananas were imported onto the docks at the tip of Lower Manhattan that the old slip piers became known as the Banana Docks. Fast, sometimes refrigerated boats built especially to carry bananas without spoiling were called Banana Boats. At one point the United Fruit Company, now known as Chiquita Brands International, had the world's largest private fleet. The Big Mike facilitated the worldwide banana market and created the American and European love for the fruit. In 1904 a 23 year old apprentice pharmacist at Tassel Pharmacy in Latrobe, Pennsylvania named David Evans Strickler, invented the banana base Triple Ice Cream Sundae, better known as the Banana Split, one of America's most popular desserts. The banana in that split was a Big Mike, and then a Banana Crisis. The Gros Michel had become a classic example of a monocrop.

Big Mike's were grown from thousands of genetically identical plants. That allowed a specialization that facilitated mass production and distribution, but it revealed a vulnerability. If one tree was susceptible to a pest or blight, they all would be. That blight came in the form of Fusarium Oxysporum, a fungus that caused the banana plant to rot with what is commonly called Panama Disease. The blight was first identified in the 1870s and the Gros Michel was particularly vulnerable to the blight. By the 1950s it had spread all over the banana producing world. As suddenly it had risen, the banana market crashed. Some claim that the decline of the Big Mike inspired the popular song, Yes We Have No Bananas.

First recorded in 1923, the song was the single best-selling piece of sheet music for many decades. The solution to the problem came from an unexpected source, Derbyshire, England. In 1834, the Duke of Devonshire received a shipment of bananas from the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. The Duke's friend and chief gardener, Sir Joseph Paxton, cultivated the bananas in the greenhouse at Chatworth House, the Duke's home in Derbyshire. Paxton named the variety Musa Cavendishi, named after the Duke, William Cavendish. The variety was then cultivated in the Canary Islands and commercially cultivated by 1904, but the Cavendish could not compete with the Big Mike which had a better flavor and a thicker peel that made it easier to ship. But the Cavendish turned out to have one great advantage, it was resistant to Fusarium Oxysporum. Because it was not as hardy, the Cavendish cannot be as easily shipped in the natural cluster like the Gros Michel.

The clusters had to be broken into bunches and then boxed, making the Cavendish more costly to ship. Still, Cavendish bananas represent nearly half of the bananas produced in the world today and nearly all of the export market. If you buy a banana outside the tropics, it is almost certainly a Cavendish. The banana trade is so lucrative that has driven more than a century of politics, especially in Central America and the Caribbean. American based companies corrupted local governments in order to obtain exclusive production rights and ran huge swaths of Central American countries as virtual corporate nations.

Economic exploitation gave rise to violent labor movements which drew the United States government into a series of conflicts throughout the region. Although the wars were not exclusively driven by the economic demands of the fruit companies, the series of conflicts became known as the Banana Wars. In 1911 a private army financed by the Cayamel Fruit Company orchestrated a coup d'etat in Honduras over a conflict with rival United Fruit Company for an exclusive contract for Honduran bananas.

The unstable economies and governments caused by these interventions led American writer O. Henry to coin the term Banana Republic. Today the banana is the world's fourth major food behind rice, wheat and milk. Americans alone eat more than 3 million tons of bananas each year, more than apples and oranges combined. But we all might again soon be singing, yes we have no bananas, as the Cavendish is proving vulnerable to mutated strains of Panama disease. Once again the world's export bananas are tied to a single species and that supply is under threat.

The answer might come in the form of genetically modified Cavendish's, or even the return of the Big Mike, as scientists have been trying to breed a fungus resistant version of the Big Mike ever since the first bike took hold in the 1900s. Or perhaps a new banana will rise to become king of the export market, and once again we'll have to get used to a new banana. And a great job as always by Greg Hengler on the production, a special thanks to this great storytelling about of all things, the banana. And by the way you can hear the history guy on his own YouTube channel, the history guy.

History deserves to be remembered. It's Walmart's biggest selling item. Who knew 28 and a half pounds each year is what each American consumes. Who knew that? And my goodness I know I play my part.

I'm way higher than 28 and a half pounds each year. The story of the banana, the story of America's and the world's most popular fruit, here on our American stories. Excuse me, did you know that when you use the Roto app to buy a car, Roto actually finds all the secret available rebates and discounts specific to you. So the price I see is my unique price? That's right, the lowest and best. Does Roto do this for every customer or just customers named Catherine? Well that depends.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-03-08 04:33:02 / 2023-03-08 04:38:48 / 6

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