Monday 27 March 2017

Yes we have no bananas

Uniformity is a grand thing altogether in manufacturing if all the screws, chips, widgets and switches in a gizmo are identical THEN you can have economies of scale, Henry Ford [prevorecent] famously said of his Model T " you can have any car, of any colour you like, so long as it's black". He brought the production line to a peak of perfection by insisting that the parts were generic. Perfect for the share-holders, less so for the poor folks who installed the same two bolts in the same position on every car that passed the soul-deadened eyes.  The quality control in the automotive industry is such that you can go to a breakers yard for a second-hand door if you happened to have dinged your motor: it will fit perfectly. Tree-huggers like me are rather skeptical when this drive for identity is carried into the realm of biology, especially in food. There is something wrong in presenting for sale 6 identical carrots or apples in a neat plastic tray.

My aged father-in-law Pat the Salt likes a banana Musa acuminata x balbisiana in the morning.  Can't fault him on that - slow release, low [51] glycaemic index, loadsa potassium, conveniently packaged. A few months ago, one if his other carers suggested that presenting The Banana with his morning coffee would help everyone get ahead with the day - breakfast could come later (the banana doesn't count). I've  taken this advice on board. But two Mondays ago because of a cock-up with the commisseriat there were no bananas. While he was getting dressed I nipped up to the supermarket to replenish supplies and I was delighted to see 10 singleton bananas bagged up and reduced to €1 . . . WIN! The next week, I went up at the same time and secured the same bargain and last week again. Clearly one of the morning tasks for the fruit and veg department is to gather up all the loose bananas from the weekend feeding-frenzy and sell them off quickly. If Pat is eating 7 bananas a week and I'm buying in 10, then there will soon be an embarras de richesse in the larder, so last time I brought the surplus away to make banana bread: yum!

Unless you live in Honduras you will have been struck by how boring bananas can be. There is no place for pretentious gits posturing about the hint of strawberry or the mouth-feel. All the bananas you have ever eaten are genetically identical of a cultivar called Cavendish. Up until WWII, a different variety Gros Michel was king. But ' Panama disease' a novel fungal pathogen Fusarium oxysporum ripped through the banana plantations about that time and shook Dole, Geest, Fyffes and Chiquita's shareholders to the core. The great banana moguls responded by replacing Gros Michel with another seedless, but crucially F. oxysporum-resistant, strain. Cavendish didn't taste so good but that sort of consumer resistance was reduced to nothing by an aggressive advertising campaign: "These are not the droid you are looking for; these are bananas, they taste delicious." There is an interesting article in Wired setting out this stall: good on the epidemiology, more arm-waving on human [=consumer] psychology.

One of the points made about the vulnerability of bananas is that the cultivars are seedless and propagated by cloning. But this is the same with potatoes - they make flowers and set seed (like tomato seeds) but are propagated by distributing genetically identical tubers in sacks for planting out - in Ireland by tradition on St Patrick's Day when there is a holiday. When I worked in Wageningen on potato blight in the Summer of 1976, my boss had just returned from a field trip to Peru and Bolivia where he'd been haunting the local markets buying up purple, knobbly, diminutive tubers with the intention of incorporating them in a breeding programme for blight-resistant spuds. The banana people could do that too but it would have to be accompanied by a marketing campaign convincing me-the-consumer that variety is the spice of life. Sometime about 1971, when I was still in high-school we went on a field-trip to the local plant-breeding station which specialised in developing new varieties of apple. One of my pals asked the chief breeder what the latest apple tasted like. It was as if they hadn't even considered the issue! Even back then it was all about packability, transport and disease-resistance. So long as it was reasonably wet inside, consumers would buy.

Another reason given for why bananas are particularly at risk is that they are planted in vast monocultures too close together so that a fungal pathogen can spread like wild-fire once it has drifted into the locality from some gap-year student's back-pack. This is why the Irish potato was so quickly annihilated by the late blight Phytophthora infestans in 1845 and many many subsequent years. But a monoculture is not required for Armageddon. As we have seen with black ash Fraxinus nigra and English elm Ulmus minor, the next susceptible individual doesn't have to be next door it merely needs to be within the dispersal range of the fungus or its insect vector.

The Wired article does proceed inductively from the case for bananas to look askance at the depauperate nature of our food variety. Far too much wheat and potatoes, far too few local seeds, nuts and greens and that's ignoring entirely the worryingly narrow diet of beef- and dairy-cattle feeding on tonnes of corn Zea mays and soya Glycine max and us eating the result as hamburger. Our food security depends on us eating much more rocket Eruca sativa, rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus and radish Raphanus sativus. Quite apart from that making life more interesting.

1 comment:

  1. Its been a very busy week so I was reading backwards, as i got the time, was perplexed with the bananna glut in Carlow re the cake until i found this. Well done that supermarket