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Banana - The fate of the fruit that changed the world

By Dan Koeppel
Publsihed by Hudson Street Press
Website: www.penguin.com and www.bananabook.org
2008, 283pp, ISBN 978 1 59463 038 5, US$23.95

Banana is the world's first cultivated fruit - originally farmed some 7000 years ago. Even certain translations of the Old Testament suggest the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden was actually a banana, not an apple. While we hear no end of discussions on the main world staples, banana rarely gets a look-in. But the fruit, in all its many shapes and sizes, keeps millions of people alive - and has done for millennia.

Koeppel's scientific anthology is full of fun facts that challenge traditional stereotypes surrounding this much-loved crop: banana is not a tree, but a herb; its fruits are actually giant berries; there are over 1000 varieties worldwide.

But Koeppel is also very concerned: the universally-adored banana has a terrifying enemy: Panama disease. The virulent root fungus that wiped out the first widely-traded banana - the Gros Michel - now affects its supposedly-immune successor, the seedless, sexless Cavendish. This impotent cultivar, now the most commonly traded variety around the world, could well prove the industry's undoing: as a genetic replica of its parents, the Cavendish is inherently weak because it is unable to respond to disease threats on its own. "Banana has changed the world, but for all practical purposes, it can't change itself," writes Koeppel.

According to Koeppel, the solution most likely lies in some form of genetic engineering, which in turn will face legal and popular resistance in many countries. But what alternatives are there when a new strain of Panama disease, tropical race four, is now destroying banana crops in Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines and spreading into Africa too? How long before it reaches the Caribbean, then Central and South America, taking the whole industry down with it? "Right now nobody knows if the banana can - or will - be saved," laments Koeppel, who has clearly bitten his fingernails down to the quick. But all is not entirely lost: he sets out the agenda for rescuing our beloved banana, before it's too late.

Date published: September 2008


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