Fast food will likely be on the list of favourite food for many of us. Though fast foods are not beneficial to health and are known to be harmful, the reason why fast food is so popular is that it is convenient to eat, tasty and readily available.
What if there is fast food that is healthy, tasty, and convenient, one that can be consumed easily? Something that is not limited to the brands like McDonald’s, Subway, or those sold by Walmart in large volumes?
The answer is banana!!! Banana whose scientific name is musa, is one of two or three genera in the family Musaceae. Horticulturists believe that bananas were the first fruit on earth. According to John Soluri, Professor in the Department of History, Carnegie Mellon University, though bananas were first harvested in South-east Asia, India, Indonesia, and Philippines, there has been mentions of banana in Greek, Latin, and Arabic literature.
However, its past appearances did not resemble its contemporary forms. Known as wild bananas, they were full of seeds. They were not the small seeds found in today’s banana, but large seeds. The seeded bananas do not exist these days. The tiny pods we see today are not fertile, meaning they will not grow even if they are sown.
Currently, there are over 1,000 varieties of bananas classified into 50 varieties worldwide, but Cavendish is the most widely grown and exported banana variety in the world today. There is a not-so-small story behind the shrinking of the international banana market to Cavendish, a ‘killer’ story that led to many acquisitions, coups, and revolutions.
Though banana cultivation began in South-east Asia thousands of years ago, the banana did not reach America until the early 1500s. Using slaves of African descent, the Americans then began to cultivate sugarcane and banana.
In the 1800s, ship captains from New England and New Orleans set out for the Caribbean in search of coconut and other food items. There they were welcomed with a kind of fresh fruit that looked like fingers – the banana. They started studying each variety of banana. They started by buying Gros Michel bananas from Afro-Caribbean farmers in Honduras, Cuba, and Jamaica. The Gros Michel banana, with its thick skin, found in large bunches, was ideal for the sea cargo trade.
By the late 1800s, bananas were becoming more and more popular in the United States. The banana had many advantages – they were low-priced, easily available throughout the year, and approved by doctors. Thus, when the demand for bananas increased in the market, the American fruit companies wanted to grow their own bananas.
In 1910, Manuel Bonilla, the exiled leader of Honduras, a liberal turned conservative, sailed from New Orleans, to regain the power he had lost. He did not sail to Honduras on a whim; he had a clear and definite plan. He had the backing of a very powerful person, the future leader of the infamous American corporation known as The United Fruit Company.
The United Fruit Company, which once owned over 40 per cent of Guatemala’s farmland, began clearing the rainforests of Costa Rica, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama to build railroads, ports, and cities, along with banana plantations.
Leaders in the region bribed and influenced Central American government officials in order to grab land for banana cultivation. Moreover, they financially and politically aided a coup to overthrow the existing government and to ensure links with the new regime. In Honduras, Manuel Bonilla thus returned to power and rewarded the monopoly traders who had helped him with land rights. Thus, by the 1930s, the United Fruit Company emerged as the leading player in the area.
The United Fruit Company, which once owned over 40 per cent of Guatemala’s farmland, began clearing the rainforests of Costa Rica, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama to build railroads, ports, and cities, along with banana plantations. Banana republics, countries with unstable economies depended on exportation of limited resource product like bananas. People began to migrate to the banana sector, tempted by comparatively higher-paying jobs.
By the time their farmland spread from Guatemala to Colombia, the United Fruit Company had begun to grow only Gros Michel bananas. Biodiversity in such densely populated farmland areas was very low, making the crops vulnerable to infectious diseases. Rail transport itself, the means of connecting farms, became the cause of the rapid spread of infectious diseases. The germs were easily transmitted from one farm to another by workers, railways, and steamboats. In 1910, Gros Michel farms were infected with fungus, which then spread rapidly, beginning in Panama and later throughout Central America. The very scheme that led to huge profits, growth, and availability of low-cost bananas caused the disease to spread rapidly.
Banana companies in Costa Rica, Honduras, and Guatemala abandoned affected plantations after the crops were taken over by an infection known as Panama disease. As a result, thousands of farmers and workers lost their jobs. Later, the company destroyed much of the rainforest to make way for new farms.
After World War II, the dictatorial governments of Guatemala and Honduras, in alliance with the United Fruit Company, surrendered to democratically elected governments. The new governments called for land reforms. Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz had sought to reclaim farmland from United Fruit Company and hand it over to landless farmers. Outraged, the company launched a campaign against Arbenz and used its influence with the US government for help in the matter. Fearing the spread of Communism, the CIA in 1954, planned to overthrow the democratically elected Arbenz government.
The persistent usage of chemical fertilisers for the cultivation of the Cavendish variety of bananas posed high risks to the environmental habitat and farm workers’ health.
That same year, thousands of United Fruit workers went on strike in Honduras. The strike continued until the company was ready to approve a new trade union.
Frustrated with the economic and political costs, United Fruits eventually moved from Gros Michel to the Cavendish breed – which resisted Panama disease – in the early 1960s.
In Central America, bananas do not have the economic dominance they had in the past. The United Fruit Company was renamed Chiquita and lost its control over Latin American politics.
The persistent usage of chemical fertilisers for the cultivation of the Cavendish variety of bananas posed high risks to the environmental habitat and farm workers’ health. Though they were able to resist that particular pathogen that affected the Gros Michel variety by using chemical fertilisers, the biodiversity in the Cavendish farms became extinct and only one type of banana remains in the world market currently. Even though it is possible that bananas might be wiped off from the face of the Earth in the event of another fungal outbreak, the scientific community is continuing its efforts to develop newer varieties.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
What is the role played by The United Fruit Company in destabilizing democracies in South and Central America?
Can you think of why the scientific community is continuing its efforts to develop newer varieties?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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