A tale of how cheap fruit made for a billion-dollar business: Tom Chivers on the voyage from exotic luxury to supermarket staple
Some 10,000 years ago, there lived in the forests of south-east Asia a kind of flowering plant with broad fibrous leaves and whitish flowers, and roughly cylindrical berry-like fruit. Now, the fruits of the descendants of that plant are sold, billions of them, in supermarkets and bazaars and corner shops and canteens around the world.
They are grown in every tropical region, from the Caribbean to India to Africa. The fruit is a dessert and a main course, a staple and a treat. It is – of course – the banana.
This week, Fyffes and Chiquita, two of the biggest names in bananas, alongside Dole and Del Monte, merged to form one super-giant firm, ChiquitaFyffes, worth a billion dollars. Bananas are big business.
There are a few species that are so basic to our lives that we forget, almost, that they must once have been wild creatures living in a specific part of the world. The domestic chicken, for instance, is descended, in a complicated way, from a south Asian bird called the red junglefowl; potatoes from poisonous tubers grown in a smallish area in Peru and Bolivia. And bananas, the first fruit ever domesticated by humanity, were found by a tribe of hunter-gatherers, probably in Malaysia.
The wild banana was an unpromising thing; about the size of your thumb, packed with hard seeds that could break your teeth, surrounded by a little starchy, tough flesh. But someone found a mutant version, one without seeds, around 10,000 years ago, and the banana’s march to world domination began.
“The thing about bananas is that they’re incredibly easy to grow,” says Dan Koeppel, author of Bananas: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World. “They can be reproduced basically by cutting off a shoot and sticking it in the ground.” And those shoots were long-lived and hardy, and of course portable.
Within a couple of thousand years, perhaps five thousand, the banana had spread across the tropics of the old world, to everywhere that bananas can naturally grow. But the modern ubiquity of bananas is the result of more than simple genetics. It is a history of serendipity, lewdness, of marketing genius and of brutal repression.
It was only a few decades ago that bananas were exotic treasures from a foreign land, rare and covetable. There is a famous story of the novelist Evelyn Waugh, whose wife, during the hard days of the Second World War, managed against the odds to find three bananas, one for each of their children.
Auberon Waugh, one of those children, remembered his father sitting down, peeling the bananas, pouring cream and sugar over them, and eating the lot. “It would be absurd to say that I never forgave him,” wrote Auberon in his autobiography, “but he was permanently marked down in my estimation from that moment.” People who remember the 1940s say that bananas were almost as keenly missed as chocolate in the rationing years.
But now, I can buy bananas in my local supermarket for about 15p each, and Sainsbury’s says that they are the most popular fruit on its shelves. The same is true in the United States. Which, when you think about it, doesn’t make sense. Bananas are perishable, and go off in a couple of weeks; they’re grown in tropical places and require shipping; they need refrigerating. Apples can be grown within a few miles of any major city in Britain and the US.
“In 1876, a merchant seaman called Lorenzo Dow Baker had been looking for gold in Venezuela,” Koeppel says. “He didn’t find any. On his way back, in a desperate attempt to salvage something from his voyage, he picked up a cargo of bananas, and with good luck and following wind, got them to Philadelphia before they went off.” Back home in the States, he joined forces with a man called Andrew Preston, and the pair of them founded a company called Boston Fruit.
Preston had a plan. His strategy was: bananas have to be half the price of apples. “To do that, the banana had to be turned from an agricultural product to an industrial one,” Koeppel says. “Don’t think of banana plantations as farms; think of them as factories, factories with just one product.” Boston Fruit, and its successors – the company joined forces with various others to become first United Fruit, and eventually Chiquita, the giant that has now merged with Fyffes – was the McDonald’s of its day.
“It’s not unfair to think of the banana as the first fast food, and this business model as the first mass production, way before the Model T Ford,” Koeppel says.
On this side of the Atlantic, the demand for bananas was met by Fyffes, an Irish company founded in the late 19th century. Its famous “banana boats” brought in vast loads of the fruit – and also carried passengers, including, on several occasions, the West Indies cricket team.
Preston and his colleagues were way ahead of the curve on marketing. At the time, the banana was considered rather risqué for ladies, for obvious reasons of shape. “So they issued hundreds of thousands of postcards, depicting society ladies holding them in somewhat suggestive ways, touching them to their lips and so on,” Koeppel laughs.
Their product, at the time, was the Gros Michel banana, stubbier and less curved than the bananas we see today. But it was struck by disease, and in the 1950s, the Gros Michel was overtaken by the Cavendish, the large bright yellow thing you see in British supermarkets, which accounts for almost half of the 100 million tons of bananas grown worldwide. “It’s a short plant, quite stout, so it resists wind and it’s easier to harvest,” says Silke Roch, of the Palm House at Kew Gardens. “But mainly, it’s large, and soft, and sweet.”
In the Victorian era, bananas were a hobbyists’ plant, with a roaring trade among rich British gentry. One such hobbyist was William Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who acquired a banana from Mauritius via a lengthy series of trades. His banana was, and remains, one of just 1,000 or so cultivated varieties, including the starchier plantains, which are used as savoury food in the Caribbean, and the smaller, sweeter kinds found in much of south-east Asia.
The Cavendish banana, curved and ridged to fit the human hand, is such an apparently perfectly designed thing that it has been claimed as evidence for the existence of God. “The maker of the banana, almighty God, provided it with a non-slip surface and an outward indicator of its quality – green too early, yellow just right, black too late,” says the creationist Ray Comfort, in a much-watched YouTube video. But its perfection for the human hand is the product of thousands of years of selective breeding, not divine design.
The banana’s success is a tragic one, though, in many ways. The Preston business model, one of ultra-efficient, ultra-low-cost delivery, is one of necessarily low margins. “That means you can’t afford workers’ rights, you can’t afford fair distribution of land,” Koeppel says. “If your business model involves getting the absolute cheapest product, and your product is something that shouldn’t be cheap, then something has to give.”
Until the 1960s, there were military interventions on behalf of the banana companies; in one, the “Banana Massacre” of 1928, the Colombian military moved in to break up a strike by United Fruit workers, killing hundreds. “There aren’t massacres any more, but there’s all sorts of environmental damage. And Fairtrade helps, a bit, but not really. There just aren’t the margins. It’s not like coffee, where you can charge twice as much for Fairtrade beans, and that in theory can get back to the farmer. Bananas have to be cheap.”
The Cavendish is a monoculture, which opens it up to risks of disease. “They’re clones,” Roch says, “so there’s no genetic variation. They’re all vulnerable to the same diseases, like blackspot fungus.” But it also means that there are no challenges to its dominance. A banana, in the West, is a banana: a big sweet bright yellow thing.
But that could change. “In the US 10 years ago there were just two or three kinds of apple. Now I can go to any supermarket and get 10 or 15 kinds, from a bag for a dollar to one apple for $3,” Koeppel says.
“Consumers are sophisticated. I’ve tasted more than 100 kinds of banana, and there are some amazing ones out there. Whenever I talk about this, chefs phone me up and ask me where I can get hold of them. One of these days some entrepreneur is going to figure it out.”