On a plate, a single banana seems whimsical—yellow and sweet

Author : eureka2020live
Publish Date : 2021-03-04 09:11:27


On a plate, a single banana seems whimsical—yellow and sweet

On a plate, a single banana seems whimsical—yellow and sweet, contained in its own easy-to-open peel. It is a charming breakfast luxury as silly as it is delicious and ever-present. Yet when you eat a banana the flavor on your tongue has complex roots, equal parts sweetness and tragedy.

In 1950, most bananas were exported from Central America. Guatemala in particular was a key piece of a vast empire of banana plantations run by the American-owned United Fruit Company. United Fruit Company paid Guatemala’s government modest sums in exchange for land. With the land, United Fruit planted bananas and then did as it pleased. It exercised absolute control not only over what workers did but also over how and where they lived. In addition, it controlled transportation, constructing, for example, the first railway in the country, one that was designed to be as useless as possible for the people of Guatemala and as useful as possible for transporting bananas. The company’s profits were immense. In 1950, its revenues were twice the gross domestic product of the entire country of Guatemala. Yet while the United Fruit Company invested greatly in its ability to move bananas, little was invested in understanding the biology of bananas themselves.

United Fruit and the rest of the banana industry did what industries do. They figured out how to do one thing well—in this case, grow one variety of banana, the Gros Michel. Moreover, because it is difficult to get domesticated bananas to have sex (they are puritan in their proclivities, blessed with virtually no seeds), the Gros Michel was reproduced via suckers, clonally. Cuttings from the best specimens were replanted. As a result, virtually all bananas grown in Guatemala, in Latin America in general, and around the world for export were genetically identical. Identical in the way that identical human twins are identical and even a tiny bit more so. For industry, this was great. Bananas were predictable. Each was like each other. No banana was ever the wrong size, the wrong flavor, the wrong anything.

It is hard to overestimate how unusual the situation of bananas in the middle of the last century was—unusual not just in the history of humanity but also in the history of life. There is a patch of aspen trees in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah that many argue is the largest living organism on earth. It comprises some thirty-seven thousand trees, each of which is genetically the same as the other, and the argument goes that the trees, collectively, represent a single organism because they are identical and connected by their roots. But requiring pieces of an organism to be connected in order to be considered part of a collective is arbitrary.

The ants in an ant colony, for example, are clearly part of the colony, even when they’re not physically in the nest. All this is to say that an argument can be made that large groups of genetically identical plants, even if not connected, may reasonably be considered a single organism. If one makes such an argument, the banana plantations of Central America in the 1950s were not only the largest collective organism alive at that point, they also may well have been the largest collective organism ever to live.Economically, growing just a single clone of bananas was genius. Biologically, it posed problems.

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These problems had already been noted, for example, in the British production and export of coffee in the 1800s. At that time, the British drank coffee, not tea. They drank coffee exported from their colony Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Early on in Ceylon, coffee plantations were planted among wild forests. When the British took Ceylon from the Dutch in 1797, they began to expand coffee production on the island. Investment in the coffee plantations by the English, both at home and abroad, “was unlimited; and in its profusion was equaled...only by the ignorance and inexperience of those to whom it was entrusted.” As the demand for coffee increased, it was planted in large monocultures—that is, vast areas of only a single variety of tree. Coffee on one hill, coffee on the next. Not a taller, wilder tree to be seen. There were 160,000 hectares of the central uplands planted in coffee. The coffee brought real affluence—banks, roads, hotels, and luxury. It was an unbridled success, or seemed to be.

 



Category : general

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