The bananas Americans are accustomed to eating are actually a rather new phenomenon. Gros Michel was the kind of banana eaten in the United States from the 1890s to about 1960. They were supposed to have been delicious, superlative in “flavor, aroma, and peel color,” according to historian John Soluri. The U.S. banana cartel cleared a lot of jungle to grow them. The banana kings also maintained “banana republics” in the Caribbean and Central American to keep those bananas, and profits, heading north.
The Gros Michel was very popular in its heyday. By 1913, per capita consumption of bananas in the U.S. exceeded twenty pounds, second only to apples. An effort to tax bananas as an exotic “luxury good” that year was defeated as importers, retailers, and consumers countered that it was the “poor man’s fruit.” It was around that time when advertisers first hit on the boxed breakfast cereal, milk, and sliced banana combination.
To meet the demand they helped stoke, the industry needed reliability and standardization. That meant nothing but Gros Michel plantations, which made the fruit especially susceptible to a Fusarium fungus that caused the plants to wilt away, called “Panama disease.”
The expansion of continuously cropped Gros Michel monocultures accelerated the pathogen’s advance by sharply increasing host density […] the movements of irrigation and drainage waters, trains, migrant workers, and roving animals all facilitated the farm-to-farm spread of the fungi.
To escape Panama disease, plantations would be abandoned and new jungle cleared away. But the disease soon followed. Soluri writes, “Although researchers identified disease-resistant varieties as early as 1910, the U.S. banana companies that dominated the export trade did not begin to replace the Gros Michel until the late 1950s.” By 1960, the Gros Michel was largely wiped out.
Eventually, the industry hit upon the Cavendish, specifically the Valery variety of the Cavendish (first collected in Saigon in 1927), as a replacement for the Gros Michel. But Cavendish bananas were grown in a whole new way, requiring much more fertilizer and irrigation. They also required a lot of chemicals, including pesticides, fungicides, insecticides, and nematicides. (One of the latter, DBCP, had a tendency to sterilize mammals, including chemical plant employees and farm workers, and would be banned by the EPA in 1979.)
To roll out this new banana, United Fruit came up with one of the century’s most successful branding strategies. Chiquita Bananas debuted in 1963. The brand “redefined what constituted a quality banana by placing a heightened emphasis on features such as bunch uniformity, the fullness of individual bananas, and blemish-free peels that ripened uniformly.” To bear the Chiquita label, “bananas had to be a minimum of eight inches long and free of a long list of ‘defects’ primarily related to the appearance of the fruit.”
In the decades since we accepted this as the standard banana, our consumption has risen. We currently devour 28.5 pounds of bananas per capita in the U.S., the highest of any fruit. But the Cavendish is now threatened by a similar fungal disease that felled the Gros Michel. The Tropical Race 4 (TR4) fungus has long bedeviled banana plantations in Asia. In August of 2019, its presence was detected in Latin America for the first time. This means the days of the Cavendish are probably numbered. Some time before the end of this century, if there still is an international banana market, people will likely be eating another cultivar altogether.