Peel­ing Back the Mys­ter­ies

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE MINI PAGE -

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.

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