Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles Americans love bananas. We eat more of them than any other fruit. We even bicker about the proper way to eat them. It's not brown. Yes, what is that color? Oh, that crunch right there. This banana did the same thing! No. Basically, we've gone bananas for bananas. Specifically, we like this banana: the Cavendish. There are hundreds of varieties of bananas, but the Cavendish is the only one widely available in the U.S. In 2018 alone, the U.S. imported about 2.2 billion dollars worth of the Cavendish, or about 10.5 billion pounds. But there's a problem. A deadly fungus that targets the Cavendish is spreading around the world. The fungus and the disease it causes go by a few names, most often Tropical Race 4 or TR4 and Panama disease. But whatever you call it, the result is the same. The fungus actually infects through the roots, gets into what's known as the corm, which is the big bulb at the bottom, and then gets into the vascular tissue. The first symptom is usually a very characteristic yellow leaf, just one leaf. Very quickly after that, the plant dies. Bang. Bang indeed. It hasn't yet arrived in Latin America, the region that supplies the U.S. with 97 percent of its bananas. But experts agree that it's only a matter of time. It has spread across oceans, two continents. And, if you look at them ap, it's coming to Latin America. There's no question about that. All it takes is one person to transfer this on their shoes, and then we've got an epidemic and it's going to sweep through the American production system like fire. This is troubling news for banana fans and for the three American companies that dominate global banana sales. As of each company's most recent public filing, bananas comprised significant portions of their sales. But the worst part? We can't stop it. We know this because Panama disease has already destroyed the banana industry once before. Bananas are, like, the most boring, mundane objects on Earth. Like, it's just a banana. This is Dan Koeppel, author of this book about bananas. Yet behind the banana is this amazing, fascinating history. It's like science, it's culture, it's it's bloodshed, it's murder, it's music, it's everything. We'll get to all that. But let's start here. U.S. imports the second largest number of bananas, behind the European Union. But banana agriculture barely exists in either place: a dwindling amount in Hawaii and a moderate amount in the Canary Islands. To understand bananas improbable domination, we have to go back to the beginning. Bananas were first cultivated here on this tiny island 3000 years ago. They migrated with humans across Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, becoming a staple everywhere they went. Arabic and European scholars even bickered over whether the famous fruit that tempted Eve was not an apple, but a banana. Bananas arrived in the Americas in 1516, when a Spanish priest brought them from the Canary Islands to the Dominican Republic. From there, they spread throughout the rest of the Caribbean. Bananas are fragile and rot within a week of being picked. In the early half of the 19th century, the small amount that managed to make it to the U.S. were sold as an expensive luxury food. But after the Civil War, bananas became a huge craze. Between 1871 and 1901, the value of the bananas imported to the U.S. increased from $250,000 to $6.5 million. And in the 10 years after that, U.S. consumption of bananas nearly tripled from 15 million to 40 million bunches. So many banana ships arrived at these docks on Manhattan's Lower East Side that they became known as the 'banana docks'. This shift is thanks to these three entrepreneurs. By 1899, they had formed a banana importing business called United Fruit Company. That might not sound familiar, but its modern name will: Chiquita. But back then, it was United Fruit and it was huge. So huge that it gained the nickname 'El Pulpo,' or 'the octopus,' for the stranglehold it developed on Central America. So huge that the U.S. government repeatedly brought antitrust action against it. So huge that understanding bananas in the first half of the 20th century means understanding United Fruit. United Fruit's business model relied on economies of scale. I mean the banana really is an impossible export fruit. I mean, it's fragile, it ripens quickly, it gets rotten fast. And the way to do it is to make it so cheap that your money is made on volume. Keeping the retail price low meant keeping the costs to produce those bananas very low. But transporting a delicate tropical fruit across thick jungles or hurricane-stricken oceans was not a recipe for rock-bottom production costs. United Fruit managed this by tightly controlling every aspect of the supply chain. First, United Fruit acquired huge swaths of land in Latin America. In exchange, they constructed railroads and telegraph lines — infrastructure that locals could use, but that remained under company control. During the heyday of its operations, it was generally the largest landowner in any of these countries. At one point, it controlled almost 20 percent of all arable land in Guatemala for example. Second, United Fruit squashed competition with price wars or buyouts, becoming a virtual monopoly by the early 20th century. The U.S. government brought antitrust lawsuits against United Fruit multiple times. In 1909, the government forced the company to sell the 50 percent of shares it owned of one of its last remaining competitors. The company's previous owners regained control and later renamed their business Standard Fruit. Remember that name. It later became Dole. But the most controversial aspect of United Foods early history was its treatment of local plantation workers. In order to produce bananas very profitably, you have to keep the wages extremely low. And so the plantations historically have resorted to extremely repressive labor conditions in order to suppress wages. Workers often protested these conditions, but United Fruit took drastic measures to squash rebellion. Measures that often involved military action, either from local governments or from the U.S. itself. In 1928, workers from United Fruit plantations in Colombia went on strike. United Fruit encouraged the government of Colombia to suppress the strike. That December, the workers were told they could meet with the regional governor in the town square to discuss their demands. Instead, the Colombian army mounted machine gun nests in all the surrounding buildings and gunned down, it's estimated, up to 3000 civilians in cold blood, including many women and children and elderly people. And so the national governments were the ones who were mainly involved in the suppression of strikes, but they were acting very much at the behest of United Fruit. And when local governments couldn't or wouldn't step in, the U.S. itself did. [Newscaster] Dateline Nicaragua, 1926. In a moment, the story The U.S. Marines landed repeatedly in Central America. The U.S. government was determined to prevent any sort of communism from taking hold in the Americas. When banana workers on United Fruit plantations protested for unions or rights, it raised fears of Communism. Fears that many historians argue were more of a convenient excuse than a legitimate threat. The accusation always flung at union organizers or human rights activists was that they were acting under communist auspices. It was a very convenient way of dismissing those movements and rationalizing extreme political and military measures against them. They sort of lost sight of the fact that they were a banana company and not sort of the political communications arm of the anti-Communist campaign. I mean, it sounds crazy but it's really true. Perhaps the most notorious example is that of Jacobo Árbenz. In 1950, Árbenz won the presidency in Guatemala on a promise to redistribute unused United Fruit land to poor Guatemalans. The company sounded the alarm, which quickly reached the White House thanks to a few well-placed company executives. Allen Dulles, who was a lawyer who worked for United Fruit and a board member of United Fruit, was the brother of John Foster Dulles, who was the secretary of state in the Eisenhower administration. And so when United Fruit perceived its interests to be threatened in Guatemala, there was a direct communication of that threat from United Fruit's managers on the ground in Guatemala to Allen Dulles, in turn to his brother, in turn to President Eisenhower, who then directed the CIA to lead a disinformation and destabilization campaign against Árbenz — one which resulted in his being overthrown and exiled and which ushered in literally two generations of military governments, extremely repressive governments in Guatemala. United Fruit called this a 'decidedly favorable development' in its 1954 annual report. Chiquita declined to comment on these allegations. However, in 2001, the company released a corporate social responsibility report that acknowledged allegations of the company's participation in the Árbenz coup and other events. They noted that 'this casts a shadow even today over the company,' but that 'times have changed and so has our company.' If this seems like a lot of work for bananas, that's because it was. But back in the U.S., they were becoming an extremely popular snack. The American public was largely unaware of United Fruit's tactics abroad. But at home, they fell in love with bananas thanks to the company's extensive advertising efforts. To name just a few: in 1924, the company added coupons for bananas to boxes of cornflakes to encourage consumers to eat the fruit with cereal. In 1939, the company distributed free textbooks to grade schools filled, of course, with information on bananas. In 1944, they unveiled their most iconic marketing success. Miss Chiquita. The big question is why. Like, Andrew Preston, the founder of United Fruit, what made him think this like easily rotten, expensive to ship, weird-looking fruit could be sold for almost nothing to people who didn't know what it was, how to eat it? That weird-looking fruit was gold for United Fruit. In 1920, the company had net profits of 33 million dollars, or about 419 million in 2019 dollars. I mean, it was just just a miracle. A miracle that was bought obviously in blood and horror. But it was absolute marketing genius, there's no question about it. In short, bananas kicked off lawsuits, advertising innovations, protests, coups, and violent suppression. But these bananas were not today's Cavendish. These are Gros Michel bananas, a related species that is bigger and tougher than the Cavendish and with a slightly different taste. They're also the first banana rendered commercially extinct by Panama disease. Before we get into that, some science. Gros Michel bananas were all genetically identical. The same is true of today's Cavendish, which is why bananas look the same no matter where you buy them. Business-wise, identical products are good. Companies can standardize transport systems and cultivate loyalty and trust among consumers. But biologically, they're bad. Monoculture is is always an issue in agriculture.