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  • 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

  • linesinfrastructure 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

  • Árbenzone 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.