Peeling Back the Mysteries
In the early 1900s, the top banana was the Gros Michel (or Big Mike), which people say was tastier than the Cavendish. But disease spread through banana plantations, almost wiping it out.
It still grows in people’s gardens, but the disease organisms are still in the soil of the plantations. In the 1950s, this disease almost wiped out the banana industry as well.
Companies switched to a resistant Chinese variety, the Cavendish. Now the Cavendish is facing the same plight. It too could be nearly wiped out.
Planning for the future
Because edible bananas have not changed much since that first mutant plant, the same types of diseases threaten all varieties. Bananas have very few built-in genes that can fight all these diseases.
Scientists are trying to create disease-resistant plants. They are mixing banana genes with resistant genes from other plants, such as radishes.
Scientists are also working to save banana varieties for the future. World leaders are saving seeds of important food crops in case of disaster. But they can’t save seeds when there are no seeds to save. Instead, they must freeze the DNA, or genetic material, from bananas, just in case.
Any way you want them
A little more than 100 years ago, most people didn’t even know what a banana was. It grew only in tropical areas, so it had to be shipped thousands of miles to reach the U.S. Boats were slow, so bananas rotted before they got here.
In the late 1800s, United Fruit (now called Chiquita) figured out how to ship bananas in ice-filled ships.
But the company still needed to explain this strange fruit to people. So in 1944, it composed a jingle. The first words told people ways to eat a banana. Today, the song is the same, but the words are about nutrition.
Oh, that old joke
Have you seen cartoons about people slipping on banana peels? Those cartoons are based on a real problem a little over 100 years ago.
As soon as bananas were available, people loved them. But they didn’t know what to do with the peels, so they threw them on the ground. The peels turned slippery and mushy, and people slipped on them and got hurt.
St. Louis created a law making it illegal to throw a banana peel on the ground.
New York City let pigs loose in the streets to eat the garbage. But the banana peels on top of all the other trash were too much for the pigs. New York had to hire a retired military colonel to start its first garbage pickup service!
Workers harvest bananas in Guatemala. Because bananas are at so much risk from disease, many growers spray large amounts of harsh pesticides over the plantations. Workers often get sick, and the pesticides contaminate the groundwater. The thick banana peel does keep the pesticides from reaching the fruit. Bananas are safe to eat.