There’s a pisang goreng seller near my house that I’ve been going to for more than half my life. His prices have been going up steadily for a while, with one piece selling for up to RM1.25 right now. But what I like about him is the variety of fried bananas that he sells: abu, tanduk and – my very favourite – pisang raja.
The one type that he doesn’t seem to use is pisang montel, or Cavendish as the cultivar is more widely known. In fact, the Cavendish is what most people in the West mean when they say “banana”, as it represents 99% of the world market.
The problem is, I don’t think they’re very nice. In fact, Cavendish bananas aren’t the most popular cultivar because they taste the best. Rather, they are popular because they are relatively durable with a thick skin and they ripen slowly, which makes them ideal for long, bumpy journeys to their overseas markets.
They also have a non-offensive taste, which is the best I can say about them. (The worst I can say is that they taste of wet clay doused in banana essence.)
One type of banana that travels better and tastes superior to the Cavendish is the Gros Michel. This single species was the one that made bananas popular as a snack. In the late 19th century, American entrepreneurs bought land and negotiated long-term rights with Central American governments, and used cheap local labour to create a low-cost, high-yield product.
These low prices turned what used to be an exotic fruit into one everybody could buy, so much so that by the early 20th century, bananas were more popular than apples or oranges in the United States.
The biggest producer was a company called United Fruit, a company so powerful and influential that they would use the promise of profits to persuade Central American governments to allow them in, and threats of violence to quell labour unions. Ever wonder where the phrase “banana republic” comes from?
But there was one foe that United Fruit could not bribe or intimidate: Fusarium oxysporum. This fungus is responsible for the Panama disease in bananas, and it began to decimate the Gros Michel banana.
The reason the Gros Michel variety was so susceptible to Panama 1 (the first strain of Panama disease) was because the banana was produced as a monoculture. Instead of cross-pollinating to create variation that may have produced disease-resistant offspring, Gros Michel was cultivated by taking cuttings from the stem of the banana plant.
This was good for the producers because every single tree was genetically exactly the same, producing exactly the same fruit that tasted exactly the same way.
And this was bad because they were all equally dead in the face of Panama 1.
Of course, United Fruit tried to control the fungi using pesticides; one particularly infamous effort was called the “Bordeaux Mixture” – long-term exposure to this pesticide resulted in copper poisoning, turning people’s skin blue, while inducing vomiting.
But in the end, nature, uh, found a way of overcoming the man-made pesticide and by the early 1960s, every single Gros Michel plant was dead. As a result, you cannot buy a Gros Michel banana anywhere in the world today (tinyurl.com/star2-banana2).
The banana producers needed an alternative. Although the Cavendish banana needed more packaging to transport and didn’t taste as nice, its plant was resistant to Panama 1 and so had the advantage of not dying before producing fruit.
Of course, given what had happened with the Gros Michel, the producers would now know not to rely on a monoculture. Because to make a mistake once may be careless; to make it twice is sheer idiocy.
Let me introduce you to Panama 4, a cousin to Panama 1. And proof that insofar as capitalism is concerned, idiocy is fine for short-term profits.
Panama 4 is as deadly to the Cavendish as Panama 1 was to the Gros Michel. The fungus is able to live in the soil for more than 30 years, even if it has been cleared of host plants. Even walking around in dirty boots is enough to infect a plant.
One reason why the Cavendish variety was introduced to Malaysia is because countries like Taiwan faced Panama 4 epidemics in the 1980s. Now, the Cavendish and Berangan cultivars represent half the bananas produced in Malaysia.
Obviously, the concern is that the Cavendish will go the way of the Gros Michel, and the catastrophe will be on a grander scale.
Somewhere in here is the opportunity to make a somewhat forced observation of how monculturalism is bad not just for bananas but also for societies.
But, unfortunately, the analogy fails because, apart from Panama 4, there is also a disease called Moko that attacks many of the other varieties of banana, including my favoured pisang raja. Incidences have been reported in Malaysia since 2012 and have continued up to last year (tinyurl.com/star2-banana1). This may go some way towards explaining why my pisang goreng has gone up in price.
So what is the answer to this problem? Pesticides slow the fungi down but don’t eradicate it, and you risk getting funny-coloured skin at the end of it all. It seems that we need to take a step back and try to grow a new type of banana. Scientists are now cross-fertilising many different species in research centres in South-East Asia and Australia. The hope is that the resultant cross-bred strain will be hardier and more palatable than focusing on just a single monoculture.
Meanwhile, what can we as consumers do?
I think we should encourage farmers to be diverse in the crops they grow by eating beyond the common Cavendish and venturing forth to other types – mostly those grown by small-scale farmers. In fact, it should apply to all fruits in general: consuming more of many different types is better than just looking at a susceptible few, it’s beneficial to all.
Perhaps there is an analogy in there after all.
Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.