The banana plant, or Musa acuminata, is one of the most important fruiting plants on Earth. This plant belongs to the Musaceae family, also known as the “banana family”. The genus Musa refers to “large herbaceous flowering plants” with fruit that is usually elongated and curved, with a yellow, purple, or red rind covering soft starchy fruit (Merriam-Webster). Banana plants are often mistaken for trees, because their “false stem” or pseudostem resembles a tree trunk. However, trees are dicots with organized vascular bundles while banana plants are monocots, which have scattered vascular bundles.
The average cultivated banana plant stands at 16 feet tall, although they may range from 10 to 23 feet (Nelson 26). A mature banana plant forms an inflorescence at the top of the pseudostem, a structure known as the “banana heart”. Each banana heart usually develops bunches of banana fruits made up of tiers (called “hands”) with as many as 20 fruit to a tier. “Cultivated bananas are sterile and develop the typical seedless fruits without the need for pollination” (Van Wyk).
Bananas are one of the most important fruits because of the role they play in the global economy, food security, and the everyday lives of people around the world.
Bananas originated in Southeast Asia, which is still the center of banana diversity in flavor, scent, texture, color, shape, and size. However, bananas were most likely domesticated first in Papua New Guinea, where cultivation can be traced back to times between 5000 and 8000BC. Around 1000AD, the banana crop spread to Africa through Indo-Malaysian immigrants who colonized Madagascar, and also to the Pacific region (Van Wyk). In the 15th and 16th centuries, banana plantations began to sprout up in the Atlantic Islands, Brazil, and western Africa under the care of Portuguese colonists.
Shortly following the Civil War, North Americans started eating bananas on a small and expensive scale. In the 1880s, banana consumption in the United States became a lot more widespread due to advancements in transportation and refrigeration (Koeppel). Today, Americans eat more bananas than apples and oranges combined (Koeppel). This development of modern transportation networks and storage materials allowed for the introduction of the earliest modern banana plantations located in Jamaica and other regions in the Western Caribbean Zone and Central America (New Zealand Herald).
This yellow fruit has played a big role in economies all over the world. Banana plants are currently being produced in over 107 different countries, primarily for their and less frequently for producing fiber, banana wine, and as ornamental plants. The 2011 study of production and exportation of bananas and plantains by the Food and Agricultural Organization found that worldwide, we produced a total crop of 145 million metric tonnes. India led the world by producing 20% of this, followed by Uganda, China, the Philippines, and Ecuador. However, the leading exporters of bananas and plantains were Ecuador (which exported 5.2 million metric tonnes, making up 29% of worldwide banana and plantain exportation) followed by Costa Rica, Colombia, the Philippines, and Guatemala. Although plantains were included in this study, Ecuador did specify that 93% of its exportation statistic was made up of solely bananas (FAOSTAT).
The delicious fruit is used frequently in the daily lives of people around the world. Bananas can be eaten raw or baked in both savory and sweet dishes. Some popular examples are fruit salads, milkshakes, yogurts, pancakes, breads, and the famous banana split. Plantains are not distinguished from bananas in some parts of the world because they are very similar, but can be differentiated by their lower sugar and higher starch content. Plantains are usually used as a vegetable in African and West Indian cuisine. Bananas are cultivated on an extremely large scale in tropical regions, so they remain a big staple in the diets of millions of people in Asian and African populations, and in other developing countries (Van Wyk).
Since banana plants produce fruit all year, they present an invaluable food source during the time of year between harvests known as the “hunger season”. This, combined with their exceptional nutritional value—an individual banana has an energy yield of about 95-125 kcal and the ripe fruit comes equipped with a large variety of essential vitamins and minerals—makes them essential to food security worldwide (Anania, van Wyk). Price competition among supermarkets has reduced margins, leading to lower prices for growers.
Chiquita, Del Monte, Dole, and Fyffes have somewhat of a monopoly over the banana plantation business, and their plantations are centralized in Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Honduras. Many producers in these countries are wealthy land owners that have tried to raise their prices by marketing their bananas as “fair trade” or Rainforest Alliance-certified (Wikipedia). The term “banana republic” has been used to describe countries like Costa Rica, Honduras, and Panama because the banana trade has become the dominant part of their economy. Banana producers have also played a large political role, including “working with local elites and their rivalries to influence politics or play to the international interests of the United States, especially during the Cold War, to keep the political climate favorable to their interests” (New Zealand Herald).
Although banana production is a huge industry, the entire banana species is facing an increasingly serious problem. The most popular cultivar of bananas was Gros Michel for quite some time, but after an attack by a soil fungus called the Panama disease, this cultivar was almost completely wiped out. After a large amount of agricultural research, scientists were able to produce the Cavendish cultivar, which has made up the majority of banana crops for the past 40 years. However, the Cavendish banana is also in danger. T
he Black Sigatoka fungus has begun to attack Cavendish banana plants all over the world. This once high-yielding crop has decreased in yield by 50-70% and the lifespan of banana plants has dropped from about 30 years to an average of only two (Alison). Researchers blame the vulnerability of the banana plants on the monogenetic cultivation, resulting from commercial motives. Plantation owners and farmers have been selectively breeding bananas since the beginning of their cultivation 10,000 years ago, which is why the modern cultivar is seedless and sterile (Alison). This has resulted in banana crops with no genetic diversity, which leaves them helpless against environmental stresses, including disease and crop pests.
Some experts predict that cultivation of the Cavendish banana will become unviable within the next 10-20 years, so agricultural researchers are searching for an equivalent banana cultivar, but it has proven difficult because most of the cultivars used in other countries produce bananas that are more starchy and thus used in cooking instead of eaten raw as a sweet snack. Over time, genetic modification and selective breeding of bananas has transformed what we know as a banana from a small, seed-filled, starchy, wild banana to the huge-in-comparison Cavendish dessert banana (Figure 1). Because of this, various hybridization and genetic engineering programs are exploring the wild banana genomes in an attempt to produce a “disease-resistant, mass-market banana” (Wikipedia). Bananas represent a delicious and essential part of the world’s economy and food security, so hopefully the extensive agricultural research will pay off to create a new banana that is ready to ward off environmental pressures.
Cavendish bananas are the most important cultivar in the world, representing all of the exports in the statistical figures discussed earlier… The Cavendish “dessert banana” that is eaten raw and is most common in the US is the one that is under attack by the Black Sigatoka fungus. “why bananas” instead of going through prompt.
Figure 1: The common Cavendish dessert banana, left, is shown with the seed-filled wild variety (Mestel)
Alison, Robert. World: Bananas are a Dying Breed. Globe and Mail. 19 July 2003. www.corpwatch.org Anania, Giovanni. How would a WTO agreement on bananas affect exporting and importing countries? July 2009, Issue Paper No.21, ICTSD “Banana”. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved 2013-01-04 “Banana”. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/banana Big-business greed killing the banana – Independent, via The New Zealand Herald, Saturday May 24, 2008, Page A19 “FAOSTAT”. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Van Wyk, Ben-Erik. Food Plants of the World, an Illustrated Guide. October 2005. Timber Press. Koeppel, Dan. Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World (New York: Hudson Street Press, 2008), pp. 51–53 ISBN 0-452-29008-2 Koeppel, Dan. Yes We Will Have No Bananas. New York Times. 18 June 2008. Nelson, Ploetz & Kepler 2006, p.26
Mestel, Rosie. Banana genome sequencing gives a boost to pest-plagued fruit. Los Angeles Times. 11 July 2012. http://articles.latimes.com