Ahh – the banana. Cherished by most. But especially loved by children, apes, and clowns. They are colorful, nutritious and tasty. What’s not to love?! The banana is vitally important in many regions of the tropics, where different parts of the plant are used for clothing, paper and tableware, and where the fruit itself is an essential dietary staple. People across the globe appreciate the soft, nourishing flesh, the snack-sized portions, and the easy peel-off covering that conveniently changes color to indicate ripeness. The banana, however, is actually a genetic freak of nature and might not be the healthiest choice for you. Despite its phallic appearance, the banana hasn’t had sex for thousands of years! And did you know, you’re not even eating the same banana that your grandparents ate?
The banana is a fragile genetic mutant that has sustained itself due to years and years of selective breeding. Some tens of thousands of years ago, early humans put together two South Asian wild plant species: Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana. The hybridized fruit was tasty and seedless and so much better than either of the originals. However, this hybridized version is now impotent. The only way the banana can reproduce is with human help.
A crop duster plane sprays fungicide to protect a 7,000 hectare banana plantation leaf virus. The world’s population is massively dependent on a dozen or so crops that are intensively cultivated in a tiny number of strains.
The banana that you are used to eating is called the Cavendish. Every Cavendish is genetically identical so that every one tastes the same. But it also means that every Cavendish is susceptible to the same disease. If the entire population of something is genetically identical, something that can attack and kill one member of that population can kill all of it; this is the same theory behind antibiotic resistance; in a population of bacteria, there will usually be some mutants that are resistant to antibiotics.
In the middle of the last century, the common banana was NOT the Cavendish, but was the Gros Michel. “Big Mike” was a banana that was apparently bigger and much tastier than the Cavendish, but unfortunately it was susceptible to Panama Disease. Panama disease was first reported in Australia in 1876, but it took until the 1950s for it to spread around most of the world. Between 1940 and 1960, 75,000 acres of banana plantations were destroyed in the Ulua Valley of Honduras, 10,000 acres were put out of use in Suriname in 8 years, and 15,000 acres in Costa Rica in 12 years. The effect was devastating. But by the end of the 1960s, luckily a solution was found to replace Big Mike. The Cavendish.
This exact same thing can happen with the Cavendish. A severe outbreak of banana disease could easily spread through the genetically uniform plantations, devastating economies and depriving our fruit bowls and banana splits. Varieties grown for local consumption would also suffer, potentially causing mass starvation in tropical regions.
The day of reckoning may be coming for the Cavendish. It is already being stalked by another fungal disease. Black Sigatoka has become a global epidemic since its first appearance in Fiji in 1963. It’s tearing through Asia at the moment and hasn’t yet reached South America. Commercial growers keep it at bay by a constant chemical assault. Forty sprayings of fungicide a year is typical, making the Cavendish the most heavily sprayed food crop in the world. (Remember this next time someone tells you that you don’t need to buy organic bananas because of their thick skin.) Think about the amount of chemicals we are putting on this planet and exposing the workers to. In Costa Rica, the second-largest banana exporter after Ecuador, women in banana-packing plants suffer double the average rates of leukemia and birth defects. Meanwhile, a fifth of male banana workers are sterile, allegedly as a result of exposure to dibromochloropropane, which is now banned, and other fungicides that are not. Organic farmers, who use natural pesticides, are much healthier, but they face the same problems of infestation.
It may seem silly, but actually a lot of research is currently being done around the world to prevent another banana-apocalypse. A genetically modified route of research and a non genetically modified route. So far, banana science has not provided many approaches for improving disease resistance. One method involves the traditional techniques of selective breeding: although banana plants are clones, very occasionally they can be persuaded to produce seeds through a painstaking process of hand pollination. Only one fruit in three hundred will produce a seed, and of these seeds only one in three will have the correct chromosomal configuration to allow germination. Those are not very good odds for success.
And as far as GM bananas go, well its a mixed bag. There is a public outcry against GMO (genetically modified organisms) at the moment, and at the same time, there aren’t many other options being presented.
The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) reported that “Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food,” including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system.
And What About The Fact That The Banana is Hybridized?
There are plenty of individuals that think not-so-highly of seedless varieties of fruits. Hybrid fruit, in general, is biologically weak: it has not picked up the minerals from the soil properly. David Wolfe, world-renowned raw foodist, won’t eat any fruit that does not contain seeds. Why? It doesn’t contain the same nourishment as fruit with seeds. Wolfe warns us to avoid refined sugar, which should not come as a surprise, but he also points out that hybrid fruits (seedless) should be avoided. Seedless bananas, watermelon, grapes, oranges, etc. contain sugar that can act like processed sugar. A diet high in these fruits can lead to constipation, dehydration, and a slightly diabetic situation. According to Wolfe, eating too much hybridized fruit (and vegetables) causes the body to “bring heavy minerals from the bones into the blood to buffer the hybrid sugar. This hybrid sugar is not completely recognized by the liver and pancreas. The minerals and sugar are spilled off into the urine. Hybrid sweet fruit and sweet starchy vegetables can over stimulate you and cause you to lose minerals.” Furthermore, hybrid foods are attacked by different forms of fungi and are much more susceptible to early decay. Hybrid foods can feed fungal conditions like candida whereas non-hybrid or wild fruit will not lead to such a condition.
A majority of the population today consumes only 13 varieties of plants, 9 of which are so hybridized that they either do not have seeds at all or completely non-viable seeds in the wild: bananas, beans, beets and the refined sugar that comes from beets, corn, oranges, potatoes, rice, wheat, and soy beans. These are so low in nutritional value that they significantly contribute to malnourishment and starvation across the planet. A plant that cannot grow by itself in Nature is not likely to have enough life-force to turn us into healthy vibrant beings.
So – What Do We Do?
Bananas cannot survive without human intervention and at the moment we are swimming against the current of a banana-plague. This time, unfortunately, there is no obvious back-up variety waiting in the wings. The demise of the banana means the serious fall of Ecuadorian, Costa Rican and plenty of other South American country’s economies.
Do we go along with genetically modified bananas just so we can continue with our banana splits? And after all, how would we make the Bananas Foster without the Banana?
Erin Schumacher is a Certified Natural Health and Holistic Nutrition Practitioner (CNHP; CHNP) She specializes in detoxification programs, internal cleanses, and helping clients build strong immune systems. She also travels internationally to do raw food workshops, yoga retreats, and personal coaching. In addition, Erin is a Certified Power Yoga Instructor and a Certified Raw Food Chef from the SunKitchen. She currently lives in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. For more information, visit ErinSchumacher.net.