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Banana’s bloody past, uncertain future

Marketplace Staff Feb 11, 2008

Banana’s bloody past, uncertain future

Marketplace Staff Feb 11, 2008


Doug Krizner: For years, the U.S. and the European Union have been warring over bananas. It’s the longest-running dispute in the history of the World Trade Organization.

In this banana split, the E.U. has been charging high tariffs on imports from Latin America. Now that’s to protect plantations in former British and French colonies in the Caribbean and Africa.

But those high tariffs have hurt three of the largest banana producers, all based in the U.S.:
Chiquita, Del Monte and Dole. Last Friday, the WTO ruled those tariffs were illegal.

Let’s bring in Dan Koeppel, author of the book Banana: the Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World. Dan, the banana seems a curious subject for a book… What got your interest?

Dan Koeppel: What fascinated me the most was that the banana we eat today, which is called the Cavendish banana, is not the same breed of banana that all of our grandparents ate, which was called the Gros Michel. And that banana became functionally extinct in the late 1950s because of this fungus that hit it and nearly wiped out the crop.

Krizner: Were there major companies involved in production?

Koeppel: Absolutely. The very first banana company — the company that invented the banana market — was called Boston Fruit. They were founded in the 1880s, and that company is now known as Chiquita.

Krizner: How has banana production — the commercialization of the banana — impacted politics in the regions where it’s grown?

Koeppel: In order to grow bananas as cheaply as they needed to, banana companies were forced to — or chose to — virtually take over nations, suppress labor movements and engage in some really brutal tactics. Which leads to the term “banana republics” throughout Central and South America, wherever bananas were grown. As recently as last year, Chiquita was found to still found to be making payoffs to terrorist organizations.

Krizner: What one thing struck you most curiously when you were doing research for your book?

Koeppel: That all this brutal stuff happened — that all this terrible history, at the same time the marketing geniuses at Chiquita were doing things like opening test kitchens to test whether bananas tasted good in corn flakes… There was this strange sort of duality, both of which were about making sure people ate more bananas.

Krizner: What kind of challenges are there in growing bananas?

Koeppel: One of the problems is bananas become resistant — the fungi that hit bananas become resistant to pesticides, so a fungi that needed to be sprayed for one a month 10 years ago is now being sprayed for three times a month. These substances are clearly toxic. There was a lawsuit just here in Los Angeles where Dole workers won an award for pesticide spraying that had made them sterile. And there’s a long history of damage from pesticides. There are more safeguards now, but they’re no the best safeguards.

Krizner: Dan Koeppel is author of Banana: the Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World. Dan, pleasure to speak with you, thanks so much.

Koeppel: Thank you for having me.

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