The banana that you see in every grocery store is a subspecies called the Cavendish. Very occasionally someone will stock red bananas or apple bananas, and in places with substantial Latin, African, and Asian populations you’ll see the firm-fleshed cooking bananas we call “plantains”—plantain is an anglicization of plátano, the Spanish word for banana. But mostly what you’ll see are piles and piles of Cavendish bananas. That’s the banana that Americans think of when they think of bananas.
The problem is that Cavendish bananas aren’t very good, at least as far as bananas go, and there’s no way to know this unless you live where bananas grow. Living in Miami, we got to know a large number of different varieties. Tiny round bananas, giant foot-long bananas, red bananas of all sorts, pink bananas, ice cream bananas, praying hands bananas, goldfinger bananas, lady’s finger bananas, Thai bananas, kandarian bananas, wild Saba bananas, and on and on. And never in all my time here did I see a locally-grown Cavendish banana for sale at a farmers’ market. None of the farmers I know would grow a common Cavendish banana for their own consumption.
Don’t Americans deserve a better banana? I spoke to Jessica Jones-Hughes at the fair-trade cooperative Equal Exchange, who explained that the problem has its origins in the history of the banana business itself. Since bananas are a perishable tropical commodity, getting them onto an American shelf is and has been an undertaking that requires a significant investment in transportation, labor, and facilities of various kinds. You need to sell a huge volume in order to justify the investment, so you need a system that will produce a huge volume in the first place. United Fruit Company and Standard Fruit—which became Chiquita and Dole, respectively—created vast systems tailored first to the Gros Michel banana and then, when disease destroyed the Gros Michel plantations, the Cavendish. Both are, or were, bananas that do well in monoculture and hold up well in transit. Taste matters less, or not at all. The Gros Michel is supposed to have been delicious, but no one makes any claims for the Cavendish. It’s an industrial banana. Its flavor is good enough.
This is why we can’t look to the multinationals for a better banana. They have an enormous incentive to continue doing what they’ve been doing. Their systems are designed to handle Cavendish bananas, and their loyalty is to their shareholders, not to customers or to the people who do the labor. This is particularly upsetting because the same thin margins and huge investments are what combined to make United Fruit and Standard Fruit some of the most vicious capitalist entities of the last century. Their crimes include most of the bad things you can think of, including out-and-out murder and political sabotage.
Equal Exchange was founded as an alternative to this ruthless way of doing business. The organization sells fruit from small, organic farms and ensures that producers receive a fair price for their product. (Watch the interactive documentary at beyondtheseal.com for more about these issues). A commitment to organic farming has as much to do with social justice as it does with ecology, since pesticides represent such a terrible threat to banana workers. Small, biodiverse farms are also critical in an industry dominated by monoculture plantations. As the eclipse of the Gros Michel banana proves, giant plantations, like human cities, serve as the breeding grounds of epidemic disease.
So Equal Exchange has no great incentive to continue shipping Cavendish bananas, and Jones-Hughes told me that they are both ready and willing to ship other varieties. There are a few problems to be solved first, however. Distribution is the most important. A shipping container holds forty thousand pounds of bananas. It makes no sense to fill the thing halfway, and if you’re going to fill it at all, you need to know that the market is there at the other end. To ship a better banana, Equal Exchange needs to be sure that there are people who will know what they’re looking at and will be excited to buy it. In addition, they need producers who will grow it, and it’s still a Cavendish world.
But those distribution problems are soluble. As Jones-Hughes explains: “Equal Exchange is probably the most nimble and well-poised organization importing bananas to feasibly make a switch to a new variety since we work directly with small-scale farmer co-ops who are democratically organized together and already alternative farmers in their regions.” It would be much more realistic for them to try shipping a new variety than it would for the multinationals to convert their whole system. All they need, she says, is a market and a supply chain that works. That means people or stores grouped relatively close together who agree to buy those forty thousand pounds of bananas each week. It’s exciting to think of consumers connecting directly with the farmers growing their food; it’s what we are doing, more and more, with farmers in this country, so why can’t we do it with farmers abroad?
These kinds of changes are not unprecedented. Americans who care about how their coffee tastes have shown themselves willing to pay higher prices for a better product, and in fact Equal Exchange began with coffee. It’s a delight to think that an organization committed to social justice has also been so important in combating the crime of bad taste, but it makes sense: producers who are treated fairly will have an incentive to grow and ship the best produce they can.
Bananas are much more perishable than green coffee beans, but that only means that a different business model is required to get them onto our shelves. What Jones-Hughes proposes is entirely feasible in large, sophisticated urban markets like San Francisco or New York, and it’s worth it too. Anyone who likes bananas deserves to have good bananas, and the best bananas are so far superior to the Cavendish that a higher price, even a much higher price, would probably be acceptable to a lot of consumers. We just have to do a little work to make it happen. Bananas are like politics, I guess, or social justice. You don’t get change without demanding it.
Aaron Thier is the author of Mr. Eternity: A Novel, which was published on August 9