Monoculture is a form of mass suicide practiced by groups of people who think they are smarter than Mother Nature. The Irish put their faith in the potato, and the potato famine that resulted nearly extinguished them. In vast reaches of the equatorial world, the potato equivalent — the staple food without which life is not sustainable — is the banana.
The banana famine is imminent. A country such as ours, whose economy and diet depends heavily on one plant — corn — should pay attention.
Industrial agriculture has done the same thing with bananas that it has done with every other profitable crop: it has reduced the number of varieties planted, expanded the area of the fields, and applied chemical- and petroleum-intensive practices to maximise profits. And the big money is not in the bananas (and their close cousins, plantains) that are used as staple foods by poor people, but in the sweet desert bananas craved by school children and banana-split eaters worldwide.
Over the years, the big growers — mainly the United Fruit Company (now known by the much cuter name, Chiquita Banana), and Dole — have done to the banana what Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland et al have done to corn — they have industrialized it. They settled on a single variety, Cavendish, to plant in the millions of acres. They like it for its ability to travel long distances and look good on arrival, not for any qualities such as taste or nutrition. They fertilize bananas more heavily than any other crop — something over 400 pounds per acre per year is standard practice — drench them with pesticides and fungicides, and then gas them with ethylene gas to ripen them quickly and uniformly.
The main reason they selected Cavendish, by the way, is that the previous favorite, the Gros Michel, was wiped out by a fungal blight called Panama Disease which also very nearly wiped out the banana industry in the 1950s. That’s the lesson industrial monoculturists have to learn over and over again: when you provide millions of acres of the same exact thing, something in nature with an appetite for that thing is going to find it, and flourish therin, and smite your industry. That’s what happened to the Gros Michel, and Cavendish was brought in because it was resistant to Panama Disease.
Note the past tense. It took about 40 years, a mere blink of an eye in geologic time, for Panama Disease to develop an appetite for Cavendish. That’s the second thing the industrialists refuse to learn: when you vanquish an enemy with chemicals or hybridization or plant selection, you never vanquish all of the enemy. There are always a few left who like the chemical that killed all the others, or the variety that none of the others could stand, and they multiply, and flourish, and smite you. (See H1N1 flu, toxic E. coli, methycillin-resistant staphylococcus, etc., etc.)
Panama Disease began its comeback two decades ago in Malaysia. In 1997 it invaded Australia, whose banana CEOs announced they had everything under control, with among other things a “rapid and accurate DNA-based diagnostic test.” Wow. In March 2006, Cyclone Larry (a cyclone is a hurricane in the metric system) destroyed 85% of Australia’s bananas and carried the spores of Panama Disease to most. Diagnose that.
Panama Disease is in the process of duplicating its previous march around the world that wiped out the Gros Michel. A single clod of dirt containing its spores can infect a country. One day soon, it will return in triumph to Panama. Goodbye, Chiquita.
In the meantime, two different diseases — bacterial wilt and bunchy top virus — are devastating the banana plantations of equatorial Africa. The staple food of 30 million people there and an important source of export income is rapidly being destroyed, with no effective response in sight other than burning huge expanses of bananas, or drenching them in pesticides, either method destructive of the surrounding ecosystem and of the livelihood of the workers. The only solution for the export trade would appear to be to switch to a variety other than Cavendish that would be resistant to the African diseases and identical in taste and appearance (market tests of bananas that look and taste even a little different have been total failures). It would take years without food or income to get this done, if such a variety existed. It doesn’t.
As the people of the equatorial world are people of the banana, we are (as Michael Pollan has brilliantly written) people of the corn. We are not conscious of its being our staple food, because we eat it in various forms: beef, chicken, pork, sodas, Twinkies and many other things we could not do without. As Pollan has said, “We are what we eat eats.”
As the banana goes, so goes the corn. We should be afraid.