Dan Koeppel

"Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte MAY 3, 2008)

Railroads being built through miles of dense forest, the invention of DDT, entire governments of countries engineered to collapse. All these seemingly random events are interlinked for the sake of one single, deceptively inexpensive commodity: the banana. These events came into being just to bring the fruit to the American table and if that fact seems totally improbable, it only confirms the saying: truth is stranger than fiction.

In his expert account, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, Dan Koeppel starts with placing the banana right at the very beginning of man's story. There is evidence, he shows, that the fruit that tempted Eve was not as most believe it to be, the apple—but the banana. In subsequent chapters, Koeppel shows how the fruit traveled around the world until one Cape Cod sea captain, Lorenzo Dow Baker, brought some bunches to American shores around the time of the country's centennial celebrations. At this early stage, the fruit was still an exotic commodity from the tropics. Bananas then were grown in Jamaica and transported over in relatively smaller batches than they are now.

The exotic fruit attracted the attention of a New England produce buyer, Andrew Preston, who found he just could not keep enough of the fruit in stock. Preston and Baker joined forces along with contributions of $2,000 each from a few other investors to bring more of the fruit to American shores. Together they formed the company Boston Fruit which is today the giant company, Chiquita.

To increase sales, Americans were fed a series of sharp marketing initiatives: coupons for a bunch of bananas were tucked into boxes of cornflakes; doctors who recommended mashed bananas to babies were encouraged.

Since bananas needed tropical climate, Latin America was the destination for the giant American fruit companies. After Aug. 12, 1898, the United States military intervened in Latin America twenty-eight times, Koeppel writes. “In Mexico; in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba in the Caribbean; and in Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and El Salvador in Central America. The biggest consequence for these incursions was to make the region safe for bananas.” American intervention in many of these countries was so severe and with such blatant disregard to essential labor rights, that the writer O. Henry “termed the nations that so readily acquiesced to the fruit companies and the U.S. Government as 'banana republics.'”

The original banana that Americans consumed, a variety called Gros Michel, was devastated by Panama disease. The fruit companies replaced the variety with the newer Cavendish but the problems that brought about Panama disease in the first place were still in place. Every Cavendish is a clone so the monoculture makes bananas still susceptible to the blight.

The story of bananas is very much a story of the sheer will and force of American capitalism. Wondering how to bring large quantities of the fruit to this country, refrigerated shipping was invented; when a brutal blight threatened to wipe out every last bit of the crop, new land was cleared and the fruit (with the disease) was simply moved; DDT and aerial spraying were invented to conquer the blight; labor uprisings in many South American countries were controlled by the fruit companies all with the companies' bottom line in mind. By the late 1920s, United Fruit had business interests in 32 countries. American consumers were encouraged never to put bananas in the refrigerator. A very famous Chiquita jingle from 1944 ended with: “Bananas like the climate of the very, very tropical equator; so you should never put bananas in the refrigerator.” This was an interesting irony especially considering the fruit companies  used refrigerated shipping techniques to bring bananas to American shores.

There are many varieties of bananas that are grown around the world. My own favorites are the really tiny bananas grown in India—each one is as long as a pinkie finger and is amazingly delicious. The taste, which is less sweet, is quite different from the American Cavendish. The Cavendish that is eaten here is being threatened by disease and Koeppel encourages Americans to look at all costs of the industrialization of food in general before making decisions about their survival. He also shows us the advances being made in the race to save different species of bananas.

While the banana has been researched and written about in earlier books, Koeppel's account of its history, discovery, travel routes and marketing strategies is unbiased and well-written. The facts come through loud and clear. Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World is an eye-opening revelation of the true cost of a seemingly innocuous American staple. It manages to shine a harsh light on capitalism without degenerating into a polemic. You'll never again look at a banana without pondering its steep costs and improbable journey—and that will be a good thing.
  • Amazon readers rating: from 52 reviews

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About the Author:

Daniel KoeppelDaniel Koeppel is a graduate of Hampshire College and has been a writer and journalist for over twenty years.

He is a well-known outdoors, nature, and adventure writer who has written for the New York Times Magazine, Outside, Audubon, Popular Science, and National Geographic Adventure, where he is a contributing editor. He was previously the editor of the magazine Mountain Bike leaving the magazine in 1996. In 2003, he was inducted to the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame.

Koeppel has also appeared on CNN and Good Morning America, and is a former commentator for Public Radio International's Marketplace.

He lives in Los Angeles, California.

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