The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World

Dan Koeppel

Hudson Street 2008
A book review by Danny Yee © 2008
Banana is a lively history of the cultivation and politics of the banana. As the subtitle suggests, it is a popular account, but Koeppel avoids personal travel stories and keeps the biographical material focused. (There are occasional exceptions, as when we learn about the weather during Koeppel's visit to "the world capital of banana research" in Leuven, or about the later life of deposed Guatemalan leader Jacobo Arbenz.)

Koeppel begins with the origins and domestication of the banana — what we eat is actually the berry of a giant herb rather than the fruit of a tree — in an arc from New Guinea through Southeast Asia. And he describes its spread to Asia, the Pacific, Africa, and the Americas.

Most of Banana covers more recent events, with a chronological narrative that emphasizes two interlaced and connected strands. The first is the growth of North American banana companies such as the United Fruit Company and Dole, starting with the first large banana shipments in 1870. Koeppel describes their role in Central American politics, most notably in the Guatemalan coup of 1954, and their domestic politics and the colourful businessmen involved with them.

The second strand is the history of key banana varieties and attempts to breed new ones — difficult because a commercially successful banana needs to be seedless. Panama Disease, caused by a fungus, forced the replacement of the Gros Michel variety by the Cavendish, which is itself vulnerable because of low genetic diversity. (Koeppel perhaps overdoes the "impending doom" angle a little here, not by exaggerating the danger, but by bringing up the same dangers in different chapters.) This includes biographical snippets about scientists who have worked in banana breeding.

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World is a lively and informative history, recommended to anyone curious about the political and agricultural background to one of the world's most important food plants.

June 2008

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%T Banana
%S The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World
%A Koeppel, Dan
%I Hudson Street
%D 2008
%O hardcover, index
%G ISBN-13 9781594630385
%P 281pp