Last night I stuck around to hear Dan Koeppel read from his new book Bananas: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World. Food writing like this — deeply focused and researched writing on a single subject, moving from the micro to the macro — has really taken over the publishing world in the past few years. Mark Kurlanksy (Salt, Cod) has made a cottage industry of it, and Michael Pollan’s fabulous The Omnivore’s Dilemma (a book with a slightly broader scope) continues to appear on Vroman’s bestseller list on a weekly basis.
While the reading (the first for the Banana book) opened my eyes to bananas in a whole new way (Did you know the banana is in danger of going extinct? You see, every banana is an exact genetic replica of every other banana, so they’re all susceptible to the same diseases, and …well, read the book), what most interested me about Koeppel’s talk was how the banana fit (or didn’t fit) into contemporary food politics. As a guy who tries to eat as much organic, locally grown food as possible, what should I do with the banana? Can I justify eating a fruit that, by necessity, travels thousands of miles to get to my fruit bowl? My concerns were shared by some in the crowd.
Koeppel was good enough to address these issues in his post-reading Q&A. According to him, the banana was the first fruit to be shipped across seas in refrigerated shipping containers. This practice is common now, as anyone who’s ever eaten a spear of asparagus in February in Buffalo, NY can attest. Much of our produce now travels the high seas (or the skies, occasionally), making just about everything available year round, but also contributing to global oil consumption and climate change. Unlike asparagus, however, it’s pretty much impossible to grow a banana in Buffalo, even in summer. On the issue of food miles, the banana doesn’t seem like a very “eco-friendly” fruit, at least not for Americans to eat.
Food miles is really only part of the issue, though. In America, the push to grow more and more organic food grows stronger by the day. But the banana, again, stands as an exception to the rule. Due to its unique genetic identity (every banana is a genetic twin of every other banana), the banana is incredibly vulnerable to diseases, most notably the dreaded Panama Disease. The only defense against many of these diseases is chemical spraying. An organic banana, left to its own devices, stands no chance of survival. Even worse, once a field of banana trees has been infected, no bananas can grow there again, meaning that even more land –usually rain forest– must be cleared for banana farming. So no organic bananas.
Where does this leave the eco-conscious, health-conscious American banana eater? Koeppel’s answer was pretty simple — decide for yourself. If you feel comfortable eating a banana, know where it comes from, how it’s grown, etc., then go to town. If not, don’t. Koeppel pointed out that, as much as we’d like to eat organic fruit, keeping the banana alive is vitally important in certain parts of the world, particularly eastern Africa, where the crop sustains millions of people on its own. Koeppel’s talk was a good reminder that we produce food globally now, and that, when it comes to food politics, not every part of the world has the same concerns as Americans.