Chiquita merger reignites fears of a disappearing banana crop

Chiquita announces acquisition of competitor Fyffes, but experts worry the world’s banana supply is in danger

Bananas from Costa Rica for sale at Eastern Market in Washington, D.C., in February 2014.
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Chiquita Brands International, the U.S.-based global produce company that’s perhaps best known for bananas — as well as for its catchy logo featuring the First Lady of Fruit — announced Monday that it would acquire Fyffes, its Irish rival. The two companies will become one before the end of 2014, making the new firm, ChiquitaFyffes, into the biggest producer and distributor of bananas in the world, with a $4.6 billion in annual revenue.

But sustainability experts worry that the merger will bolster the banana industry’s business model of selling a single variety of banana, which allows producers to better predict ripening time and create economies of scale. And that, they say, increases the possibility that a lethal fungus, Tropical Race 4 — which has already struck bananas in Asia, Africa and the Middle East — will destroy the world’s banana supply.

The average American eats an average of 27 pounds of bananas each year, according to Chiquita, already the world’s largest banana producer in a global export market worth $7 billion, according to Reuters. In fact, Americans eat more bananas than they do apples and oranges combined.

But what most banana lovers don’t know is that the fruit they usually see, cheaply and commonly bought at grocery stores around the globe, comes from a single variety called the Cavendish.

“Think of the banana not as a fruit but as a McDonald’s hamburger,” said Dan Koeppel, the Los Angeles–based author of the book “Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.”

Banana distributors chose to market a single type of banana because the fruit is perishable, Koeppel, who is currently working on a new edition of his book, told Al Jazeera. Because bananas are often shipped from plantations to consumers thousands of miles away, it made the most sense to pick one variety that would ripen uniformly to keep costs low.

So unlike, say, the apple market, which has diversified beyond just red or green, with dozens of varieties and price points available to shoppers, the banana market is dominated by the Cavendish, virtually the only variety sold in the U.S., even though there are more than a thousand kinds of bananas in existence, he said.

But the Cavendish, which originated in Asia, is not the same banana that was eaten a century ago. That banana of yesteryear was a variety called the Gros Michel, which Koeppel said was tastier than the Cavendish. It was also tougher; it could simply be hacked off the banana plant with a machete and haphazardly tossed into a train car without getting bruised, and it took a few weeks to ripen.

A deadly fungus

But banana farmers were forced to switch to another variety after a deadly fungus known as Panama disease devastated Gros Michel crops in the 1950s. Farmers determined that the Cavendish could withstand Panama disease, but it was more easily bruised than the Gros Michel, so it had to be handled with care, distributed in boxes or bags, Koeppel said. And since the Cavendish ripen in about a week, they have to be refrigerated when shipped long distances.

The picture was rosy until Cavendish bananas grown in Malaysia were hit by Tropical Race 4 in the late 1980s. Since then, Race 4 has spread to bananas in Jordan, Mozambique and the Philippines. And it could reach Latin America, another region where a vast amount of the world’s banana supply is grown.

“What it takes is somebody with a dirty pair of shoes or a farm instrument or a container ship that brings dirt from an infected place to an uninfected place,” Koeppel said. “We don’t actually know when it will get to Latin America. Since we don’t know and since it is so random and since it’s incurable, preparations need to already be underway.”

Race 4 can be particularly devastating for small-scale banana farmers who can’t afford to relocate their farms if their crops become infected and have to switch to less profitable crops, according to Stephan Weise, deputy director general of research for Bioversity International, a global research and development organization.

Weise said one solution to the Race 4 problem has been trials of a type of Cavendish discovered in Taiwan, called GCTCV 219, which mutated to resist the disease. Bioversity International has been working with public and private partners in the Philippines to develop GCTCV 219 and test whether that Cavendish variety or others can fight off Race 4.

Just a few fruit companies, such as Dole, Del Monte, Chiquita, Fyffes and Noboa, control the majority of the international banana trade, according to Banana Link, a U.K.-based nonprofit that advocates for the sustainable trade of bananas and pineapples.

So the production of different varieties of bananas that can resist disease, research about the banana genome and promotion of proper disease management and soil health practices are vitally important, Wiese said.

“Today it’s Cavendish,” he said, “but tomorrow it may be some other variety."

Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

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