Going Bananas

So now the latest addition to the current planetary and human meltdown of climate change, mass extinctions, microplastic pollution and increasingly dangerous political decay has arrived – Panama Disease (or more specifically, TR4 or Tropical Race 4), a fungal infection of the banana plant. Infected plants will eventually stop producing bananas, though ‘eventually’ may well be sooner than we would like.

It has taken only some three decades to move from Taiwan, where it was first discovered in the early 1990s, via Southeast Asia and Australia and then the Middle East and Africa to finally land in Latin America, the major base of the modern Cavendish banana. Worryingly, it only took six years to make the jump from Africa to Latin America. As the economist Rudiger Dornbusch commented: crises take a much longer time coming than you think, and then happen much faster than you would have thought.

What Henry Fyffe and his great grandson Edward would have thought would probably not be comforting. Henry, the Scot who moved from Perth to London in 1789 to set up shop and his great grandson Edward, who sent the original first two bunches of bananas from the Canary Islands back to the family firm a hundred years later, helped start one of the world’s great banana companies. One guesses they would not be amused.

Dornbusch was talking economics rather than horticulture but only the myopic would take comfort from that. As Leonardo da Vinci advised, ‘Realise that everything connects to everything else.’ Everything moves in cycles – especially in the Netherlands, as we shall see – and TR4 is only the latest mutation of the fungus (then called TR1) which almost wiped out the Gros Michel banana in the 1950s. It was the only banana variety exported to the US and Europe at that time. Fortunately for the industry the Cavendish banana proved to be resistant to TR1, thus becoming the default fruit filling supermarket shelves and stomachs today.

But possibly not tomorrow because it is not resistant to TR4 – and there is no current alternative capable of coping with the demands of scale required by commercial production, transportation and marketing. Londoners with a distinctive Cockney take on the English language already have the best comment – ‘Goodbye, old fruit.’

But it’s not just a question of superficial wordplay – not that wordplay is ever quite as superficial as it seems. The looming banana crisis carries wider resonances.

Latin America is generally described in the literature as the epicentre of the global export industry in bananas. ‘Epicentre’ is a geological rather than financial or horticultural term and describes the point on the earth’s surface directly above the focus of an earthquake. As a metaphor it takes on new meaning as a depressing but accurate description of the potential catastrophic effects on the populations and economies of the major banana producing countries – not to be confused with ‘banana republics’, much as Westminster seems determined to join that unhappy club.

A second resonance emerges in the very name of the Cavendish banana. Named after William Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who reportedly ordered a shipment of bananas from Mauritius in 1834. Joseph Paxton, the head gardener at Chatsworth House, then cultivated said bananas in the greenhouses there. He was so successful that in 1835 he was a awarded a medal for his work by the Royal Horticultural Society. But he clearly knew his place (and we’re not just talking about Derbyshire) as well as his stuff. He dedicated the botanical name of the bananas he developed to his employer. And thus was born the variety known as Musa cavendishii, another example of the great British tradition of accepting credit for work done by someone else.

The first Duke (also William Cavendish) was very well-rooted socially – alternative titles before his promotion to the Dukedom in 1694 included the Marquess of Hartington, Earl of Devonshire, and Baron Cavendish of Hardwick. Not so much a question of multiple personality disorder as a reflection of the fact that the aristocratic pool is intentionally shallow – just like its gene-pool. This has other ironic consequences.

In the National Geographic magazine of 12 August 2019 Professor Gert Kema, of the Tropical Phytopathology Laboratory at Wageningen University in – guess where? – the Netherlands, explained that banana agricultural practice is partly to blame for the spread of the TR4 fungus. Commercial plantations grow almost exclusively the one clonal variety: the Cavendish. These plants’ identical genetics mean they are also identically susceptible to disease.

Such monoculture – the practice of growing crops with limited genetic diversity, so reminiscent of the aristocracy – aids cheap and efficient commercial agriculture and marketing. However, it leaves food systems extremely vulnerable to disease epidemics. ‘We need to deploy the rich biodiversity by generating a suite of new banana varieties, not just one,’ says Kema. ‘Monoculture is by definition unsustainable.’

Bananas, sadly, aren’t as flexible as the aristocracy, with no strategy equivalent to the wheeze of acquiring new capital for maintaining estates by joining in the not-so-tropical race to marry American heiresses.

As the Minneapolis punk rock band The Punchlines called their 2013 album, ‘It Ain’t Funny’. The banana crisis has more serious and possibly dangerous aspects. So following the technique beloved of religious sermons (‘And in this way managing a football team reminds me of Jesus and his disciples …’) I want to remind us all that the question of bananas was one of the planks – a word covering both the message and the messengers – of the argument in favour of Brexit.

On 11 May 2016 The Guardian and other newspapers reported that Boris Johnson launched the Vote Leave campaign in Cornwall with his usual rigorous concern for language and facts by saying that it was ‘absolutely crazy that the EU is telling us … what shape our bananas have got to be, and all that kind of thing.’ Once TR4 wreaks its havoc perhaps he will argue that the national anthem should be replaced by ‘Yes, we have no bananas’ – or all that kind of thing.

(In Scotland, of course, the choice would have to be Ewan McVicar’s ‘Bananas are the best’, enjoyed by so many schoolchildren across the land.)

Coincidentally, the fungus at the root of the problem of TR4 (in case of confusion, we’re back to bananas rather than personalities here) is a member of the hyphomycetes group, genus Fusarium. This genus derives its name not from a social inferior but from the Latin ‘fusus’ meaning ‘spindle’; and refers to the long spindly legs of the fungus. Strangely similar, then, to the arguments propounded in Cornwall. Alongside the rhetorical brilliance already quoted other strands included words masquerading as ideas, like ‘taking back Parliamentary Sovereignty’ (apparently, by proroguing Parliament if it doesn’t do as it is told by – yes, those who prize its sovereignty) and jingoistic yearning for the apparently wonderful days of the British Empire and (to borrow from and adapt a current American phrase) ‘Making Britain Great Again’. Which surely demonstrates that the ability to quote Greek and Latin doesn’t necessarily guarantee an understanding of what ‘Great Britain’ actually means. Perhaps geography wasn’t on the curriculum at Eton.

Nor history, apparently, given that the nostalgia for such golden days and the unfettered dominance of a self-styled elite requires the country to forego all the social, economic and political developments of the last seventy-five years. The latest proposal from a Tory ‘think-tank’ – that the state pension should be delayed until potential recipients reach the giddy age of seventy-five – seems almost ironic, a precursor of things to come. The curse being that the real intention behind such cruelty is to ensure that by the time they reach the suggested age any such recipients would not only be giddy but very few in number.

‘TR4’ might well describe the fourth iteration of ‘Tory Reactionism’ against the post-war attempts to make life a little easier for the majority of citizens. From Thatcher through Cameron and May to the current incumbent (or encumbrance) in Downing Street they inexorably grind on – and down. We should remember that, officially, we are not citizens but ‘subjects’.

Everything connects to everything else. As Gert Kema also remarks on the spread of TR4: ‘Once you see it, it is too late, and it has likely already spread outside that zone without recognition.’ The parallels with the assiduous and insidious growth of political policies encrusted with xenophobia and deliberate untruths pursuing narrow nationalist (and plutocratic) goals are all too self-evident. We are all suffering from a different kind of fungal attack – Steve Bannonitis, perhaps

The attacks by politicians and others denigrating attempts in schools and universities to develop such relevant and indeed democratically important subjects as Media Studies are also not accidental. Much better to fill newspapers and television screens with items on ‘celebrity’ marriages, divorces, exorbitant and flaunted wealth and so on; or incessant speculation on sporting activities of all kinds and praising the kindness of multi-millionaires who help the homeless by giving them a football shirt. Who needs bread and circuses when we have a politicised and ideological media aligned with unrestricted ungoverned and irresponsible internet outlets manipulating mass opinion and (spread without recognition from another infected zone) decrying facts as ‘false news’?

And slowly (but more quickly than we think) we slide towards inhabiting a ‘banana republic’ of our own. A term generally held to refer to failing states commonly held in contempt as corrupt, even a cursory read of the main European papers shows that if being held in contempt is the main criterion of being a banana republic we are already there. Not so much Great Britain as Grate Britain. ‘Banana republics’ are deemed to be those states denied the benefits of our more sophisticated and long-established democracies. You know, those where Presidents get elected by losing the popular vote by several millions, or Prime Ministers are chosen by 0.2% or less of the electorate.

The American writer O. Henry in a series of stories in his book Cabbages and Kings about the fictional country Anchuria coined the term ‘banana republics’ . As described in the book it explains what happens when large foreign corporations control the government, social structures and economy of smaller states of limited but attractive resources. Think of the relationship between England and Scotland. The corporations in Henry’s sights were (unsurprisingly) the American United Fruit Company and Cuyamel Fruit Company in Honduras and Guatemala – where, of course, the main crop was bananas.

The question we should ask today is what do the corporations have in their sights amid all this talk of rapid trade agreements? It is not difficult to see the Fyffes spinning in astonishment at such blatant political spin, nor to doubt that they have a companion in one who knew all about trade, Adam Smith, dizzy with despair at the reckless posturing of so-called leaders both abroad and at home. Debasing language to sound-bite propaganda and twisting logic into fantastical shapes is not responsible government – though that seems only a vague memory. When the dismantling of food hygiene standards, the NHS and the Scottish and Welsh farming industries among so many others is matched by warnings of food, fuel and medical shortages and the only response is to dismiss such observations as ‘Project Fear’ what is one to do?

Except to recall Robert Burns’ heartfelt judgement, a man for whom language and the truth mattered: ‘Truly, what a parcel of rogues in a nation.’