Friday, December 16, 2005

Going Bananas

The Economist throws down some fat banana knowledge.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that bananas are the fourth most important crop in the world, after wheat, rice and maize. For around 400m people in the tropics, bananas are their most significant staple food. Some 90% of the world's harvest of bananas are grown on small farms in developing countries and much of this crop is eaten by people who live locally. The export trade, meanwhile, is worth some $5 billion a year.

Bananas are vulnerable to pestilence and disease because they reproduce asexually. Before they became domesticated crops, wild bananas were inedible fruit stuffed with stony seeds. Edible varieties probably first arose as random, sterile mutants. Farmers propagated these varieties by taking cuttings from suckers that grow from the base of the parent plant. Furthermore, because bananas are clones, whole plantations could be devastated by such an attack.

In the 1950s, commercial plantations all grew one variety of banana, called Gros Michel. It was, by all accounts, a superior-tasting fruit to today's supermarket stocks of the Cavendish variety. The Gros Michel banana still grows in the more remote parts of Uganda and Jamaica. Elsewhere, it was wiped out by Panama disease, a wilt caused by a fungus called fusarium. This devastated the large commercial plantations that fed the export trade.
I had no idea that all bananas are clones of each other. Or that humans propagated the edible sterile mutants of an inedible fruit with stony seeds to make what we now call bananas. Or that bananas are such an important food for humans. All this time I have been making fun of bananas as monkey food, when in fact the primate that eats the most (and supports 400 million of us) are humans.


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