375. The Most Interesting Fruit in the World

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Eighteen seventy six the city Philadelphia commemorated one hundred years of American independence with a centennial exposition those big trade fair. It was like a world fair, and there was a horticultural exhibit and they had a banana plant with finance growing. That's junior Scott Jenkins. She's a cultural historian and the author of bananas an American history, and they had to put a guard on it. Because people wanted to pick a leaf poke at it because people hadn't seen one of these things the banana plant, and yes, it's a plant technically not a tree and the banana is technically a berry anyway, this banana plant had stiff competition for attention at the centennial expo also on display were the right arm inflame of the statue of liberty which hadn't yet been erected in New York harbor. There were the first public demonstrations of the typewriter and of Alexander Graham, Bell telephone and an appearance by the president of the United States. You Liz grant still the humble banana plant caused a stir thanks to its novelty. They're not native to the Americas at all and in North America, bananas weren't even possible. Well, take about eighteen months from sprouting to fruit and climate and different ecological zones in the United States. You don't get frost free that long. The banana was one of the first fruits cultivated by humans the earliest written accounts. Go back to five hundred BC in India, the Americas didn't get the banana till much later, although exactly when and how are like much banana history disputed facts, but it's safe to say that in eighteen seventy six in Philadelphia. The banana was still exotic to most Americans in the first two thirds or three quarters of the nineteenth century bananas might come in to east coast port on a sailing ship, and then they'd be sold at the port. But they weren't generally commercially available anywhere they were luxury item. They were very expensive. I found some very interesting menus for very fancy occasions that might have been Hannah's on the menu. But they were something that most people had never seen. Most people had never tasted even though bananas. Were by then being grown in Latin America sailing ships couldn't travel fast enough to reliably keep the fruit from over ripening. But then came steamships and railroads they're just put huge pieces of ice at each end of freight car to try to keep the bananas. Cool. And by the nineteen twenties trains started getting mechanical refrigeration in the nineteen thirties came refrigerated trucks. This new technology at a huge impact on food distribution generally hip made possible the modern meat industry. For instance, it also allowed for the bulk importation of bananas to the United States the variety that Americans came to know and love was the grow. Michelle also known as big Mike, and it was a large banana and it had thick skin. So it didn't bruise easily. There are more than a thousand banana varieties in the world. But Jenkins says a lot of other banana varieties don't travel well, either there's small or they have been skins. Or for one reason or another didn't grow. Well in one thousand nine hundred Americans were eating fifteen million bunches of bananas ear just a decade later forty million. So it was very bad news. When a fungus emerged devastating the plantations in Latin America, this fungus came to be called, Panama disease. It was I noticed in the late eighteen hundreds by the nineteen fifties. It was wiping out the grow Michel. And so what the fruit companies did was they'd move onto another country by a lot more land and grow bananas until the disease caught up with them and they had to move on. But the disease couldn't be outrun the grow Michelle was doomed. So they changed to propriety called the cabinet banana, the Kevin dish was not susceptible to the disease that wiped out the grow, Michelle. So the Kevin dish is the banana. Most of eat today it accounts for ninety nine percent of the banana export market. The last grow Michelle's in the US were sold in nineteen sixty five. So our banana is not the same banana our elders eight I've never had a grow. Michelle not old enough. So I'm not really sure how much difference. There was some people who did eat the grow. Michelle say it was more delicious than the cabin dish. But the Kevin dish has done. Very well, thank you. It is the most popular fruit in both the US and Europe, even though the vast majority of them must be imported the EU imports around six million tons of Kevin dish bananas each year or one hundred ten bananas per person, the US about one hundred thirty bananas per person Candida pizzas, both with one hundred fifty bananas. So you can imagine. There would be a lot of unhappy people if the banana we all were once again under existential threat. Well, the doomsday scenario is that it wipes out the international banana trait. That's right, Panama disease is back and this time it's come for the cabin dish today on freakonomics radio. Sometimes a banana is just a. Anna. But in this case, it's also symbol of commerce of political discord of scientific dilemmas, and of course, personal taste martyr preferences on his as they are all curious enough bananas on types. From Stitcher and productions this is freakonomics radio. The podcast explores the hidden side of everything here's your host, Stephen Duffner. Why are bananas so popular Mattis count the ways and full disclosure? I say this is someone who personally does not love bananas. But I do recognize how appealing the are sorry about that. But seriously the peel it's got to be part of it. First of all, it's bright yellow. It's basically an advertisement for itself also Virginia Scott Jenkins notes that the banana I gained popularity around the time people were just starting to learn about germs and food hygiene one early banana importer called it a fruit and a germ proof rapper. You know, this is something that you could eat on the street and not worry about getting sick from it. There was also a new awareness around food and nutrition people were interested in calories. And this was a good way to get more nutrition and vitamins at the same time still if you know even a little bit about economic. Mic's you'd have to think that price must also have something to do with the banana being the most popular fruit in America. And this is where it gets interesting. Put yourself in a grocery store you see piles and piles of apples all different Friday's about ninety five percent of the apples eaten in the US are grown in the US the imports usually just plug a hole at the end of the growing season. Now, check out the pile of bananas. First thing you notice just the one variety. The Kevin dish in every one of them has been grown picked washed and box in another country. Then they're shipped still green in a temperature controlled environment at their destination. They're put in special ripening rooms that provide among other amenities the release of gases that trick the banana into thinking it's still back home in the tropics at a temperature of sixty four degrees banana can be ripened in his little four days at fifty eight degrees. It'll take seven days considering all this after care, and the fact that they're all imported you might expect a banana to be much more expensive than the. Very American apples. And yet they're not an answer. Typically, listen half, the price of apples, in fact, there among the cheapest fruits around how can this be how did an imported luxury item become cheap American staple? Well, let's start here. This in part a story of economies of scale. That's the economist Douglas Southgate an America's professor at Ohio State University. He started studying bananas because well, the short answer is that my wife is from Ecuador which happens to be the leading expert bananas and has been for the last sixty five years, even though the country's no larger than the state of Colorado bananas are grown in many warm countries around the world in the eastern and western hemispheres bananas are far and away the most widely traded fruit of fruit or vegetable basically one hundred and thirty five countries the grove anonymous. One hundred forty five million tons of been on this produced every year that's about eight hundred billion bananas. And that's Andrew byles who until recently worked at Chiquita one of the world's largest banana companies his title at Chiquita was CEO of bananas pineapples seriously. That's the title as for the bananas in the world. It's the fourth most important crop of two rice. We'd and Cohen the economic value generated by the banana industry, some fifty two billion. And there is some four hundred million people that rely on bananas for a staple food staple source of income. There are many countries that did not have bananas. They would go showed a food the Kevin dish banana accounts for just under fifty percent of global banana production. But again almost one hundred percent of exported. Bananas and Ecuador alone accounts for more than a quarter of all Kevin dish exports. If you produce something and very very large numbers than you bring down the per unit or average cost for the early American banana companies the transition from luxury fruit to mass import was a strategic move. I think the key to the strategy or understanding the strategy was to realize that they made more money from having a smaller margin on a much larger volume than they would have had continuing to treat bananas electoral system. And how did they accomplish this consider the history of Chiquita to started way back in the eighteen hundreds and was a company that I went public believe it or not in nineteen oh three back, then it was known as the United fruit company, and you happen to have the largest fleet of ships in the western hemisphere. Only. The US navy had a larger fleet of ships. In fact, the navy would requisition some United ships during World War Two. But in peacetime, well, they use those fleets to move bananas to the United States very very efficiently. And as always the case or practically always the case, the major beneficiaries of this officiency were in fact, consumers prices were slashed and within a few years bananas were no longer a luxury item. They were instead of of fruit of of poor people the first food that a lot of poor babies aid after weaning where mashed bananas in the days before canned baby food. It would be hard to overstate here. The role of the United fruit company. What we have here is a company, but that she created of an honor industry. It was called the octopus because it had a near monopoly on production United food deaf. Had its tentacles wrapped around this industry. Most of United's bananas were grown in the Spanish, speaking countries to our south Costa Rica, Honduras and other Central American nations happened to be an ideal setting for raising bananas for the US market ideal because of the climate yes, but also because land and labour were both very very cheap. So American consumers were winning United fruit was really winning. And what about those Central American countries? Keep in mind, they were largely undeveloped at the time. Foreign companies led by United fruit were willing to make the investment to clear land put in infrastructure and so forth to start producing bananas in a massive scale for the US market. But only if they were awarded vast tracts of land and largely exempted from taxation. So that gave them the dominant position. That's what led to banana republics. Yes, before it was a clothing store banana Republic meant something very different essentially, a fragile country whose economy and often political leadership were propped up by an export crop. And when a banana Republic acted against the interests of their banana overlords things could get ugly. Consider the case of Guatemala in the early nineteen fifties, president Heiko Arbenz. Former army Colonel was pursuing a land reform program that would have reclaimed property from the banana companies and this angered United fruit United fruit. Definitely wanted to see Arbenz go United fruit lobbied, the US congress to act against Guatemala and Arbenz was ultimately ousted in a coup. Led by the CIA, I think drying simple line of causation United fruit. US government overthrow of of Guatemala doesn't capture all of what was going on the US government had other reasons why it was alarmed at some of what are Vince was doing apart from the land reform, specifically the American government was worried that Guatemala was sliding toward communism and an alliance with the Soviet Union. This was a common theme of the Cold War era. We're not talking only Guatemala here in any case. The US overthrow of Guatemala lead to destabilization and decades of bloody civil war United fruit. Meanwhile, continued to tangle with governments in other banana republics, and ultimately the US government as well which accused United fruit of monopolistic behavior, we controlled production and also have an extensive deep network for distributing bananas from U S ports inland. So the United fruit was very much the the banana business in nineteen sixty seven United fruit agreed to reorganize and sell off some of its strategic assets. The octopus was shrinking the next blow came from Ecuador that was the most important development that ended the octopuses time Ecuador does not fit at all into the standard banana Republic narrative land in Ecuador was owned by independent farmers. So it was-. Susceptible to the political and economic exploitation that had worked elsewhere by the time, the major companies were taking a serious look in Ecuador. Most of the good farmland the prime farmland was already owned by Ecuadorians that meant that. There were never going to be any extensive concessions and grants tax exemptions all those sorts of things in the late nineteen forties. Ecuador's president Galo plaza invested heavily in infrastructure and pest control that benefited the local banana growers here was this important source of supply that came online and very big way very quickly after World War Two. And it was a source of supply that was impossible for United fruit to control we learned from Ecuador, something that's more typical about the role of local entrepreneurs in agricultural trade and development the contributions that they can make. Today. No, one company comes close to dominating the international banana, treat like United fruit. Once did the three biggest banana companies dole Del Monte and Chiquita United successor. They share around forty percent of the global export market. So there's more competition than they used to be which will tell you helps keep prices down. But there's an even more powerful explanation for why bananas are so cheap. Standardization? So the advantage of having the communis is that it is really a monoculture that you can actually grow it consistently Andrew byles, again, formerly of Chiquita, you know, that it's going to take eight to nine months to come to fruition. And you know, how that banana is going to function when it's transported refrigerated cargo. You know, how it's going to be form in the ripening rooms and the country vista nation, and you know, how it's going to be form and hold up on the retail shelf. And it's not just that nearly every banana grown for export is cabbage. It's every Kevin dish banana is genetically the same as the next cabin dish from a business perspective. That's ideal the ultimate in quality control from an agricultural perspective. However, there's no diversity. So this you each plant is the same each. Has the same resistance to disease spreads as you'll recall the grow Michel banana was wiped out years ago by Panama disease, or technically FU cerium wilt, it's caused by a fungus that infects the plants roots and eventually kills the whole plant and leaves the soil unfit for future banana growth, the strain of Panama disease that killed off the grow Michel was known as TR one or tropical race one. Now, there's a strain called R four that's tacking the cabin dish. So indeed it's fallen victim to almost the same disease as the groom show. So what we see is to start apparently in Indonesia spread for the vans. It's devastated crops there as pharma's moved the mecum bell to all to me in the banana industry is very worried the TR four will make it. To Latin America, you looked at the map. It's a disease that seems to be spreading west. Coming up after the break the banana industries race to save itself. Then really isn't anything else arise and that could now go and replace Kevin. But what about science? So acceptable societally. That's coming up right after this. It may sound like a made up name, but Humpty doo is a real place a small town in the northern territory of Australia. It's wet. Fairly rugged when we fish. We don't do the plantation. They the plantation manager say you gotta be careful working around here. A girl was taken by crocodile a couple of months ago. We also have a real problem with while buffalo, but manage to work they were that losing any of staff, James, Dale, he's a plant scientist. I'm we're at university of technology in Brisbane in a strident. I work on bananas DALE'S first job out of grad school was working on a banana disease a disease co punchy top had a long history in trying to punchy top with caused by a virus that scientists couldn't find a way to control. And so when the concept of genetic modification, kind alone, and that was so to the late eighty s we said, well, this is going to be absolutely perfect for bananas. And the reason for that is that the bananas that we ate primarily sterile. Wild banana seeds are very hard. And so the cabin dish like other banana varieties that people eat has essentially been bred into a seedless sterile condition shy crops. It don't have any sage extremely difficult to breed conventionally, so the idea of being able to genetically modify them that is to add additional James to Kevin dish, for instance, which way are interested in same really really attractive attractive and for the global banana trade important because the cabin dish like the grow Michelle before it has rare attributes the robots that travel long distances on there really isn't anything else on the horizon that could now go and replace Kevin dash there's nothing that you could pull out and say this is going to do what Kevin did after the last outbreak. The new strain of Panama disease emerged in the nineteen ninety s. And around about two thousand we decided that this disease tropical rights full was kind to be a a huge problem. And so we set out to look for Jane's provide resistance to the disease as part of this research Dale had a former PHD student out collecting wild bananas. And the scientists was in Malaysia and happened to see this patch of bananas which were growing with everything else had died from tropical rice full. So she and her colleagues collected seeds of those bananas, and they sent them back to it, James Dale and his team began studying these bananas. And so he said like, let's go look in the deny of is resistant ones and see if we can find the Jane that would provide resistance, and we came up with a number of candidates James that seem to be working in the resistant sailings, but not in the susceptible sailings. One of those look really promising to us. So we took that Jane. And by by prices known as Agrobacterium mediated transformation. We put it into another terminology Embry, Jin, excels or ember Denic sale suspensions, and these we might these sales from Kevin they have the ability to regenerate an entire plant from a single cell. And this leads us back to Humpty doo Australia which had been a fertile site for banana production, but because of the tropical ice for what's being wiped out which made Humpty doo the perfect place to hold the world's first experiment to see whether genetically modified Kevin dish bananas could survive Panama disease. Remember once Panama disease, the struck the soil remains contaminated with the fungus. So we put this chain into these single cells and grew bananas back in two thousand. Twelve they began field trials that would last a few years planting both genetically modified and non GM bananas in the Humpty doo soil would they find? So what we found these undefended number of things we found that the non GM bananas with between one hundred percent and two-thirds of them. Why the data are infected after three years. So that as as was having pretty big impact. Okay. That's important to know that Panama disease was still in the soil, which men if a genetically modified plant survived. It was survived ING, Panama disease. So how did the genetically modified plants do Dale and his team planted? Six different lines of GM, Kevin dish plants one of those lawns rates, Jamie. Putting John g I two. So gee, I to line three appeared to be completely immunity into threes. None of the plants infected a tool so sensually. But we've done is. We've taken a, gene. From the wall banana that he's resistant to trouble rates full. We've taken that one banana, Jane and we've gone to put it into Kevin. And by doing that, we we've generated resistance to the disease. This was amazing banana news RJ to line three was a clear winner. Some the other genetic modifications did well to three of the other lines had really high levels of resistance where there was twenty percent less plants author infected Dade which was to us in critical outcome rarely do you get that sort of percentage success in the sorts of things to tell me a pretty excited about that. And there was something else to be excited about the other really important thing we found was that the gene will be put in this GT. Jane, not only occurs in these wall bananas. But it also causing Kevin dish, it just doesn't work. Very well and senate's actually really really important because there's a new technology known as gene editing. It's different attain modifications, gene editing. These we can go. Into the deny and just tweaked genes that are already there sides, very very close to some natural processes. And that's why we're now starting to to figure out how we can tweak the Jane in Kevin to make them resistant without actually adding any new Jane's toll, this type of gene editing is made possible by something known as crisper, which I'm sure you know, stands for clustered regularly. Inter spaced short pal Andro repeats. We spoke with one of Christopher's inventors the biochemist Jennifer Dowden back in two thousand seventeen for an episode called evolution accelerated its episode number two ninety one if you want to hear it, and it's cores the crisper, gene editing technology is is now giving human beings the opportunity to change the course of volition, and you know, human beings have been affecting evolution for a long time. Right. But now. Now, there's a technology that allows very specific changes to be made to DNA that gives us a new level of control Christopher's terrific. And so yes, we are using crisper at the moment. So this would seem to be super amazing banana news there are potentially two ways to save the cabin dish from Panama disease by using crisper to tweak its genetic code or by introducing new resistant genes from other bananas either way, the banana industry must be thrilled by the solutions that James Dale is proposing right? We asked Andrew byles, former CEO of bananas and pineapples at Chiquita dream style. He is working on more of a GM approach. Okay. That of course is not so acceptable societally. So some people will say, yes, I don't mind genetic modification others will say they do indeed a sizable fraction of consumers in the US. And especially in Europe, considered genetically modified crops to be risky despite assurances to the contrary from scientists like James, Dale, and I think that's way we filed. We really haven't got the message across this is one of the most incredibly highly regulated technologies in the world said the sorts of things that we got through to demonstrate safeties ising the objection to GMO crops is also curious in light of the fact that traditional plant breeding without which many many fewer of us would be alive. Is it self a form of genetic modification Jennifer Dowden again? I think it's important for for people to appreciate that for. Out of all humans have been modifying plants for on time, you know, genetically and you know, this literally thousands of years. Exactly thank goodness. And you realize, wow, I'm glad there's plant breeding. But you know, the way that that's been done traditionally is to use chemicals or even radiation to introduce genetic changes into seeds, and then plant breeders will select for for plants that have traits that they want the opportunity here with gene editing in plants is to be able to make changes precisely not to drag along traits that you don't want really the difference between what we're doing and conventional breeding you should move thousands of Jane's tone from one banana to another. We just moving tape. It's worth noting that nearly every technological advance is greeted with skepticism by at least a small segment of any population, and such skepticism may be magnified when it comes to something you're gonna put in your mouth, a great example for me is pasteurized milk. The economists Douglas Southgate again in the United States and other countries lots of kids used to die from drinking raw milk, raw milk that had been exposed to flies or whatever pasteurization came along that entire source of Marty went away. And yet there were people who swore up and down that they were never going to consume pasteurize Melk the claimed it it didn't have the same attritional properties didn't taste the same. It was in one way or another undesirable. There are still some raw milk advocates. But most people Southgate says most people ended up drinking pasteurize milk. And I just have a hunch that if we produce. Substitute for the cabinet or if we improve the cabbage by moving in a gene from some other banana, people will have a tough time telling the difference in and the product will win acceptance, but big companies like Chiquita or to be fair most big companies in any industry, period. They're pretty risk averse, honestly, the can't afford to not be. But there's another reason James Dale is not surprised that Chiquita's resistance to his banana proposals. The big banana companies, unfortunately have had a history of not being terribly innovative. They much reactive. They don't run big research and development divisions. Yeah, we talked to them. They take more of a let's just say what's going to happen reaction. So how does too key to see a path forward for the endangered? Kevin dish banana, we believe the puff towards this is that through improving breeding, techniques we. Feel the the logical first place for us as a leading branded premium quality banana to go is to try and go down in a very sophisticated and the very organized and very thorough way the plant breeding route and James stales response to that. There's an exceptionally good breeding programs going on in the world. But you don't end up with Kevin dish you end up with something different to Kevin dash. And so if we want to replace Kevin dish with something probably very very different. We'll probably get that from the conventional breeding programs. So if you wanna have the Kevin dish in the future high. If you wanna have Kevin dish in twenty ton that probably going to be genetically modified that probably going to be Jane aided that makes it sound as if the cabin dish as we know it may well be headed for extinction, depending on the banana companies decisions and the public's response to. Connectik modification so four the billions of people who eat trillions of bananas. A great many of them. Kevin dish, how panic should they be where the industry would say this though, Penick the will run on this. But what about the Kevin dish banana what I think we're going to have to probably confront is actually having more varieties have been on us of I level in the future. As we protect the farming of bananas. We're gonna have to get used to how we can actually grow and commercialize and do the disticts for different bananas. The prospect of exporting several different kinds of bananas would be an adjustment for the industry, of course, for consumers less standardization might mean higher prices, but the prospect of finding several varieties of banana in a grocery store would hardly be unsettling considering how many varieties of apples and grapes and citrus fruits are available, but in a world with so many options in most realms there has been something. Nice something unifying about all of us eating the same banana, no matter how you eat it straight out of the Piel cut up on cereal. If you're feeling a little bit more ambitious as you'll recall, the banana historian Virginia. Scott Jenkins told us about researching earlier interest peas, I found some very interesting menus for very fancy occasions. It might have been. On the menu. Jenkins has a rather interesting banana recipe of her own passed on from her mother, take a peeled banana, you put mustard on it. You wrap it in a slice of ham. And then you bake it in a cream sauce. I've tried it to husbands and Neil room could eat it that was just nasty. Freakonomics radio is produced by Stitcher, and w productions this episode was produced by Greg Rozelle sqi, and Matt Hickey our staff also includes Alison Craig low, Greg Rippin, Harry Huggins, Zach Lipinski and Korean Wallace. Our theme song is Mr. fortune by the Hitchhiker's all the other music was composed by Louis garra. You can subscribe to freakonomics radio on apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcast. The entire archive is available on the Stitcher app or at freakonomics dot com. Where we also published transcripts show notes and more. We also publish every week on medium a trimmed up text version of our new episode Goto, medium dot com slash freakonomics radio. 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