Chiquita Brands International, the U.S.-based, global produce company that’s perhaps best known for bananas announced Monday that it would acquire Fyffes, its Irish rival. The two companies will become one before the end of 2014, making the new firm, ChiquitaFyffes, into the biggest producer and distributor of bananas in the world, with a collective $4.6 billion in annual revenue.
But sustainability experts worry that the new merger will bolster the banana industry’s business model of selling a single variety of banana, which allows producers to better predict ripening time and create economies of scale. And that, they say, increases the possibility that a lethal fungus called Tropical Race 4 — which has already struck bananas in Asia, Africa and the Middle East — will destroy the world’s banana supply.
What most banana lovers don’t know is that this fruit, cheaply and commonly bought at grocery stores across the globe, comes from just a single variety called the Cavendish.
“Think of the banana not as a fruit but as a McDonald’s hamburger,” said Dan Koeppel, the Los Angeles-based author of the book “Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.”
Banana distributors chose to market a single type of banana because the fruit is perishable, Koeppel, who is currently working on a new edition of his book, told Al Jazeera. Because bananas are often shipped to consumers thousands of miles away from where they’re grown, it made the most sense to pick one variety that would ripen uniformly to keep costs low.
So unlike, say, the apple market, which has diversified beyond just “red” or “green,” with dozens of varieties and price points available to shoppers, the Cavendish is virtually the only variety of banana sold in the U.S., even though there are more than a thousand kinds of bananas in existence, he said.
But the Cavendish, which originated in Asia, is not the same banana that was eaten a century ago, according to Koeppel. That banana of yester-year was a variety called the Gros Michel, which Koeppel said was tastier than the Cavendish. It was also tougher, he said — it could simply be hacked off the banana plant with a machete and haphazardly tossed into a train car without getting bruised, and took a few weeks to ripen.
But banana farmers were forced to switch to another variety after a deadly fungus known as Panama disease decimated Gros Michel crops in the 1950s. Farmers determined that the Cavendish could withstand Panama disease, but was more easily bruised than the Gros Michel, so it had to be handled with care, distributed in boxes or bags, Koeppel said. And since the Cavendish ripen in about a week, they also have to be refrigerated when shipped thousands of miles from where they’re grown.
The picture was rosy until Cavendish bananas grown in Malaysia were hit by Race 4, a different fungus, in the late 1980s. Since then, Race 4 has spread to bananas in Jordan, Mozambique and the Philippines. And it could reach Latin America, another region where a vast amount of the world’s banana supply is grown.
We don’t actually know when it will get to Latin America. Since we don’t know, and since it is so random, and since it’s incurable, preparations need to already be underway.
Race 4 can be particularly devastating for small-scale banana farmers who can’t afford to relocate their farms if their crops become infested, and have to switch to less profitable crops, according to Stephan Wiese, the deputy director general of research for Bioversity International, a global advocacy group.
Wiese said one solution to the Race 4 problem has been trials of a type of Cavendish discovered in Taiwan, called GCTCV 219, which mutated to resist the disease. Bioversity International has been working with public and private partners in the Philippines to develop GCTCV 219 and test whether this Cavendish variety or others can continue to fight off Race 4.
Still, a handful of fruit companies such as Dole, Del Monte, Chiquita, Fyffes and Noboa control the majority of the international banana trade, according to Banana Link, a UK-based nonprofit that advocates for the sustainable trade of bananas and pineapples.
So the production of different varieties of bananas that can resist disease, in addition to research about the banana genome and promoting of the proper disease management and soil health practices, are vitally important, Wiese said.