Bananas: The Uncertain Future Of A Favorite Fruit
This interview was originally broadcast on February 18, 2008.
Americans consume more bananas than apples and oranges combined. Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, gives us a primer on the expansive history — and the endangered future — of this seedless, sexless fruit.
Koeppel traces the ubiquitous yellow fruit back to the Garden of Eden, where, he argues, it, not the apple, was the "forbidden fruit" that Eve offered Adam.
In the 20th century, he examines the United Fruit Company's maneuvering in the "banana republics" of Central America, and warns that the banana's unique reproductive system — each new fruit is a genetic duplicate of the next — makes it especially susceptible to epidemics.
"What's happening [now] with bananas is that they are being struck by a fungus called Panama disease that is incurable and that pretty much wipes out banana plantations within a matter of years," Koeppel says. "And what's really interesting is that the banana that's being struck was one that was believed to be and selected to be resistant to this fungus after the earlier banana crop, the one our grandparents ate, was destroyed by the same fungus about 50 years ago."
That fungus 50 years ago was a different strain. Today's version has made its way from Asia to Australia and is predicted to afflict banana fields in Latin America and South America within the next 10 years.
"It has not hit there yet," says Koeppel. "But every single banana scientist I spoke to — and that was quite a few — says it's not an 'if,' it's a 'when,' and 10 to 30 years. It only takes a single clump of contaminated dirt, literally, to get this thing rampaging across entire continents."
Dan Koeppel has also been published in National Geographic, Wired and Popular Science, and has eaten bananas on five continents.
On why bananas are susceptible to diseases
"Bananas are, for all their ubiquity — and it's the world's most popular fruit by far — are very, very vulnerable to a lot of diseases. And the reason for this is that bananas, the bananas we eat, which are called Cavendish bananas, are fundamentally clones of each other. There are no seeds. Every banana is grown basically by taking a cutting from one and turning it into another tree. So every Cavendish banana that we eat, every banana you eat, that I eat, that people eat in China and Europe, wherever, is exactly the same genetically as every other one. And just like human identical twins, what afflicts one afflicts the others."
On organic bananas
"There's not enough land to grow enough organic bananas to make them a practical replacement for all of our supermarket bananas. That's because organic bananas, in order to fight disease, have to be grown at higher altitudes and cooler temperatures. That's the way it works. And there are just not enough high-altitude, cool-temperature places that are also hospitable to growing tropical bananas in order to make organic bananas a viable, you know, total replacement for those standard 69-cent-a-pound bananas you find in your local market."
On his favorite bananas
"There are some amazingly delicious bananas out there. My favorite is called the Lacatan. It's from the Philippines. And it's the — you know, banana enthusiasts, such as they are, many of them believe it's the best tasting banana in the world, and I would have to agree with that. It's got a very intense, creamy flavor. They're a red banana, and you do see some red bananas in gourmet stores here, which are related to the Lacatan. But they're quite inferior, although they're still better than Cavendish."
On the introduction of the banana in the United States
"The banana was introduced at the 1876, actually in Philadelphia, at the Centennial Exhibition. That's where it sort of had its coming out party to the masses. But this was a Victorian era, and the idea of eating a suggestively shaped banana was considered pretty uncouth. And there have been some other banana historians who've uncovered old recipes that show bananas must be cut and served in foil, anything to disguise their shape. And, as you know, you can't cut up a banana and, you know, let it sit for a few hours and serve it."
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's become a FRESH AIR tradition to do a theme week at the end of August leading into Labor Day weekend. This time we're devoting the week to interviews about food.
So we wanted to give the week a catchy title, and yesterday I asked for your help in naming the week. We got lots of responses. Here's some of the names our listeners came up with.
The most often-suggested title was Fresh Fare, but that was hardly the only title that tried some wordplay with Fresh Air. There was Fresh Airsparagus, Fresh Air Medium Rare, Cr�me Fresh Air, Chef Air and Bon-airatit. That is really stretching it.
There were plays on NPR, like NP-Are You Going to Finish That, All Things Consumed, and Non-Perishable Radio. Some people thought it would be fun to play with my name, with titles like Gross-eries and Grosstronamic.
All right, so the title we've decided to go with is All You Can Eat Week. It was suggested by three people: Mary Beth Alvarez(ph), Lisa Flynn(ph) and Jim Pastric(ph). We thank you for naming our week.
So let's begin day two of All You Can Eat Week with the author of the book "Banana." The first thing that caught my attention in this book was the description of the epidemic underway that could, in a matter of decades, essentially wipe out the type of banana Americans eat.
I would really miss a banana at breakfast or lunch, and I know I'm not alone. According to this book, Americans eat more bananas per years than apples and oranges combined. Bananas taste sweet, but much of their history is not.
Along with innovations in agriculture, technology, shipping and marketing, the fruit owes its popularity to banana barons who controlled and in some cases destroyed nations. That was the meaning of banana republic long before it meant chain clothing store.
Dan Koeppel is the author of "Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World." He's been published in National Geographic, Wired and Popular Science, and has eaten bananas in five continents. We spoke when the book was published.
Dan Koeppel, welcome to FRESH AIR. What is killing bananas?
Mr. DAN KOEPPEL (Author): Thank you for having me. What's happening with bananas is that they are being struck by a fungus called Panama disease that is incurable and that pretty much wipes out banana plantations within a matter of years.
And what's really interesting is that the banana that's being struck was one that was believed to be and selected to be resistant to this fungus after the earlier banana crop, the one our grandparents ate, was destroyed by the same fungus about 50 years ago.
GROSS: So is this a different strain of that fungus?
Mr. KOEPPEL: It is a different strain of that fungus. What happened was they brought some of our resistant bananas to Asia, where they hit a mutated version of that fungus, and from there it just began galloping through that hemisphere and has made it all the way to Australia and is almost certain to come towards our own banana fields in Latin and South America sometime in the next 10 years.
GROSS: But it hasn't hit there yet?
Mr. KOEPPEL: It has not hit there yet. But every single banana scientist I spoke to, and that was quite a few, says it's not an if, it's a when, and 10 to 30 years. It only takes a single clump of contaminated dirt, literally, to get this thing rampaging across entire continents.
GROSS: Are bananas particularly vulnerable to epidemics?
Mr. KOEPPEL: Yeah, bananas are, for all their ubiquity, and they're - it's the world's most popular fruit, by far - are very, very vulnerable to a lot of diseases. And the reason for this is that bananas, the bananas we eat, which are called Cavendish bananas, are fundamentally clones of each other.
There are no seeds. Every banana is grown basically by taking a cutting from one and turning it into another tree. So every Cavendish banana that we eat, every banana you eat, that I eat, that people eat in China and Europe, wherever, is exactly the same genetically as every other one. And just like human identical twins, what afflicts one afflicts the others.
And these very weak bananas have a number of diseases, and Panama disease is the worst, but there's a whole bunch of others that are almost as bad that require incredible amounts of control and chemicals and all sorts of practices just to keep that fruit coming to our breakfast tables every day.
GROSS: So you say they require a lot of chemicals and stuff. What about the organic bananas that you see at health food stores, natural food stores?
Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, yeah, organic bananas do not require a lot of chemicals, obviously, and that's a great thing. And far be it for me to, you know, be negative about organics, but they don't really help the problem.
It's not possible - there's not enough land to grow enough organic bananas to make them a practical replacement for all of our supermarket bananas. That's because organic bananas, in order to fight disease, have to be grown at higher altitudes and cooler temperatures. That's the way it works. And there are just not enough high-altitude, cool-temperature places that are also hospitable to growing tropical bananas in order to make organic bananas a viable, you know, total replacement for those standard 69-cent-a-pound bananas you find in your local market.
GROSS: You mentioned that the Cavendish bananas that we all eat today in the United States are different from the type of banana that was eaten a couple of generations ago. What was that called, and what are the differences between the two?
Mr. KOEPPEL: Yeah, it's really interesting. Most people don't know this: The original banana that was introduced to the U.S. around 1880, 1890, and took off, almost immediately surpassed apples as the number one favorite fruit, was called the Gros Michel banana. And it was, by almost every account, a tastier, bigger banana that had a tougher skin, and it was generally a superior food.
But the problem with the Gros Michel was that it was susceptible to this fungus called Panama diseases, which was first seen in Panama. And it was incurable, and over the first 50 years of the last century, this disease just rampaged and destroyed the Gros Michel.
This Cavendish banana we eat is considered an inferior banana because it tastes more bland, it's tougher to ship, it needs to be boxed, as opposed to the Gros Michel, which could be just thrown into a boat, and it was so - our banana was so despised by the banana companies, they were so sure it would - they thought it would be the New Coke of the banana world, that the entire consumer market would reject this, what they basically considered a lousy banana.
Of course the Gros Michel went away, and we didn't have a choice, and they didn't have a choice, and luckily for banana lovers, the transition was fairly invisible, at least on the breakfast table.
GROSS: So when did the Cavendish replace the Gros Michel?
Mr. KOEPPEL: The first real Cavendish plantations came in the '50s by - they were introduced by Standard Fruit, which is now known as Dole. They were Chiquita's small competitor. Chiquita refused to do this. They were terrified, and they were literally on the verge of bankruptcy in 1960 when they finally, at the last minute, adopted the Cavendish.
GROSS: If the Cavendish is killed off by this fungus that's rampaging around much of the world, is there a replacement in the works?
Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, it's interesting because the only banana that's exported for any - in any significant amount is the Cavendish. Yet there are over 1,000 different kinds of bananas. The problem is that only the Cavendish is suitable for export.
In order to be exported, a banana has to have a tough enough skin that it can stand the long trip. It has to ripen at exactly the same rate so that it - when it gets to your supermarket, it's going to be just green, and it's going to be nice and yellow with a couple of brown flecks in seven days.
Of all these bananas - and it has to taste right for consumer taste - and of all these bananas that people eat all around the world, there is no non-local banana other than the Cavendish, to a great extent. And so there isn't necessarily or really a Cavendish replacement. It would require a change in the way we enjoy and think of bananas in order to get this banana replaced, and then it would also require a lot of technology, both in terms of science and in terms of just building structures that could bring these more fragile, different bananas to market.
GROSS: You've tasted bananas around the world as part of your research. How do other bananas compare in taste to what we're used to in the United States?
Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, the big disadvantage of spending three years writing a banana book is that you actually become a banana snob, and you learn to despise or at least have contempt for the lowly, poor, you know, work-a-day Cavendish, which is a bland banana. There are some amazingly delicious bananas out there. My favorite is called the Lacatan.
It's from the Philippines. And it's the - you know, banana enthusiasts, such as they are, many of them believe it's the best-tasting banana in the world, and I would have to agree with that. It's got a very intense, creamy flavor.
They're a red banana, and you do see some red bananas in gourmet stores here which are related to the Lacatan, but they're quite inferior, although they're still better than Cavendish.
GROSS: Well, one thing you looked into was genetically modified bananas that could withstand the fungus that is killing bananas in much of the world. So what are some of the things you learned about what's possible through genetic modification?
Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, I think the first thing to say is, to get to, is how important bananas are. We love bananas. We eat more of them than anybody. You know, our corn flakes would suffer without them. But to some extent, they're a replaceable fruit for us.
In other parts of the world, especially in Africa, bananas are incredibly important. People rely on them for 80 percent of their calories. People eat 500 pounds of bananas a year, compared to 25 pounds for us, in Uganda.
So I'm saying that because genetic modification is probably the best and fastest way to strengthen the banana, all different kinds of bananas, not just Cavendish but these local bananas, to strengthen them against these diseases that are running so wild right now, and to provide, you know, the fastest way forward to protecting these food supplies for people who really need them.
And so right now they're doing a lot of work with DNA manipulation, attempting to cross one banana with another, sometimes trying to add attributes from other foods. Radishes are quite resistant to the - a similar fungus. So there have been attempts to add some radish genes to bananas. Nothing has so far made it into the fields very much for testing though.
GROSS: Genetically modified foods are very controversial. We don't know what the long-term effects are on human bodies or on crops. But you think bananas are in a different position than most fruits and vegetables? Why?
Mr. KOEPPEL: I do, I do, and as I say in the book, I was the, you know, the poster boy for thinking I want my foods pure, I don't want genetic modification, I don't want pesticides. I still don't want pesticides, but I've come full-circle on genetic modification, especially when it comes to bananas.
I really believe that the potential dangers are minimal, if any. We talk about crop contamination. Well, bananas don't have seeds. They don't have pollen. They're sterile. So the idea that something could happen, as has happened with corn in a lot of the world, where corn pollen has - from genetically modified corn has spread in some fields so much that you can't tell which corn is which. That's not going to happen with bananas.
In addition, I think the need is very urgent with bananas, and I really just don't think that genetic engineering is the evil people say it is. I think that it's one of those things that if misused, it definitely can be a nasty thing, but the way it's being done to bananas is to me no different than an advancement on the conventional hybridization techniques that farmers have been using for 10,000 years.
GROSS: And - I eat a lot of bananas, and some bananas, they're just like duds. Like, you get them home and they never turn yellow, or if they do turn yellow, it's this kind of, like, sickly color. And when you peel the - like they're more brownish than yellow. When you peel the - when you take off the peel, it's kind of stringy and almost wood-like and like a pulpy wood. And the banana tastes more earthy than sweet.
Mr. KOEPPEL: Yeah, on behalf of all banana lovers, I have to apologize. You know, the problem is that in theory, all bananas - bananas are the sort of Big Mac of natural foods. They should all be exactly the same, as they are genetically.
The problem is that bananas come from so far away, and a lot of our fruits do these days, but still, bananas have to be handled very carefully. They're quite delicate. They're very susceptible to temperature variations. They bruise so easily.
So you're going to get a lot of different kinds of variation in your banana, and you'll see that. You know, people have asked me, since I've written this book: Why do my organic bananas ripen poorly? And, you know, theoretically my answer has to be they don't, but clearly people over and over again say that there's something off about this banana or that one, and it really has to do with sort of the amount of distance it travels, the amount of work that has to be done to get this fruit here and all the little variables that could throw up roadblocks on that long trip.
GROSS: How does the distance traveled affect the taste and the ripening?
Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, in order to - a banana on a tree is always green. It will not ripen until it comes off the tree. The ripening process begins the moment the banana is removed from the tree. That is generally about two weeks before that banana is looking nice and yellow in your supermarket.
In order to delay and control that ripening, the bananas have to be shipped in gas-controlled rooms, where the atmosphere is controlled to limit the amount of a gas called ethylene that fruits give off when they're ripening. It's sort of a - it's a gas that basically says to other fruits around: Hey, everybody, let's start ripening.
So if the ethylene is not controlled properly, you're going to get some issues with the quality of the banana, and this refrigeration gassing process has to continue. Supermarket chains have huge banana-ripening rooms in their warehouses that are specifically designed to keep bananas at these controlled temperature and gas levels.
So if any of these little things goes wrong, if the mix is wrong, if there's too many bananas, if they ripen too quickly, then you're going to get some shoddy bananas. If they're handled roughly, if that carton gets dropped, and the bananas get bruised, they're going to not be as good. So there's like - as I was saying, there's all these little variables, fine-tuning, that has to be taken care of in order to get a good banana to you.
GROSS: We've been talking about the taste of bananas and bananas' susceptibility to fungal epidemics. The banana also has an incredibly interesting history that intertwines with the history of Latin America and with dictatorships in Latin America, with American policy toward Latin America.
So let's talk about that a little bit. Was it American companies like United Fruit that actually brought bananas to Central America?
Mr. KOEPPEL: Absolutely. There were no bananas growing anywhere in this hemisphere until they were brought by Westerners, originally by Spanish missionaries. But as a banana industry, there was nothing prior to that. There were a few trees growing in Jamaica that were brought as an exotic and overly ripe, terrible-tasting treat to rich people until the 1880s.
But a few folks, you know, the banana men, decided that this was going to be a hot product, and they decided that they were going to - they immediately set out a goal of defeating apples. They were going to sell at half the price of apples and sell twice as many bananas.
It was really an amazing thing what they did. Apples are grown within a few miles of many, many people, and they're readily available. Bananas, they had to come up with ways to ship this delicate tropical fruit thousands of miles and sell it for half the price of their local competitor, and they did it.
But to do so, they needed to keep their costs down. They needed to not just keep their costs down, they had to have no cost, and they brutally assaulted Latin America, Central America, northern South America. They had to enslave nations and people. They had to control the land, they had to control the means of production, the transportation systems, and they had to do it for almost no money in order to reap the incredible profits that they did earn with bananas.
GROSS: What kinds of deals did the banana men make with the Central American governments in order to get the land they wanted and the wages that they wanted to pay?
Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, there were all kinds of deals, and some of them were forced down people's throats. The first banana-growing Central American nation was Costa Rica, and the future founder of United Fruit, which is now known as Chiquita, started as a railroad builder. And he had contracted with the Costa Rican government to build a railroad from the Atlantic coast to the capital, San Jose, which is in the hills.
And along the way, he realized that instead of getting paid money - he got some of that too - he would get - he could ask for land. And so he was given land all alongside the railroad tracks. And he realized that he could grow bananas on this land, and he would be able to ship the bananas back and build the railroad, and pretty soon he was making a lot more money selling bananas than he was building the railroad.
During the process of this banana-building railroad, over 5,000 Costa Ricans and workers died, all for the sake of this huge banana plantation and this fellow, whose name was Minor Keith, who became known as the uncrowned king of Central America. That was a deal.
You asked - some things weren't deals exactly. Samuel Zemurray, who was known as Sam the Banana Man, and who would become the CEO of Chiquita in 1929, decided that when the Honduran government wouldn't deal with him, the easiest thing to do would be to replace the Honduran government.
So he went down to New Orleans and picked up a couple of thugs, one was named "Machine Gun" Molony, got a puppet president candidate for Honduras, took a boat, and within six weeks he'd actually overthrown the government, installed his buddy as president, and that was the deal, basically.
GROSS: Did the U.S. government intervene in Latin America on behalf of the fruit companies?
Mr. KOEPPEL: Repeatedly and terribly. The U.S. government had everything to do with the banana companies. They were intertwined with each other. There were corporate relationships, boardroom relationships, family relationships, and the United States military and United States foreign policy was working at the beck and call of the banana companies, and over and over again you would see the U.S. Marines coming to help crush a banana strike or help crush a workers' movement.
Well, any workers' movement or labor action in Central America was going to be a banana action. It was the only industry around, really. Over and over again you would see the Marines landing. You would see the CIA involved in creating propaganda. Any leader who was either against the banana companies or even simply wanted a fair wage for his people would be instantly deposed, sometimes murdered, often humiliated, and this happened over 20 times between 1900 and 1955.
GROSS: Let me ask you to tell one of the stories of a president who was overthrown by the United States because of the fruit companies, and that's the story of Jacobo Arbenz, who was the president of Guatemala.
Mr. KOEPPEL: Yeah. Arbenz was elected the president of Guatemala in 1954. He was the first democratically elected president ever in Guatemala. And you could easily say that he was the first truly democratically elected president in the history of Central America, which had seen nothing but dictators. Crazy dictators that were really evil and, you know, didn't hesitate to kill or imprison anyone who they thought got in their way. Arbenz was an antidote to this. He promised for the first time that banana company land might be nationalized. And he started by asking Chiquita to allow him to buy back land that was fallow, land that had been fallowed by this disease, Panama disease -in other words, land that was no longer useful to the banana companies.
But even this was such a terrible precedent, Chiquita felt, that it enlisted the help of the United States government to overthrow Arbenz. The CIA immediately began a propaganda campaign broadcasting out of Miami radio reports of Arbenz's so-called communist leanings. The U.S. Congress was involved and by the time 1954 had been through, a massive invasion funded by the U.S. had been launched from Honduras.
In fact, Arbenz's forces had beaten these so-called insurgents but the propaganda damage was so high that Arbenz was thrown out of the office in terror that the U.S. would launch a full-scale invasion. And he was stripped of his clothes and led onto a plane for Mexico City where he spent the rest of his life in exile. Guatemala fell into a horrible state of chaos after that. And the right-wing death squads that massacred tens of thousands of Mayans in the 1980s through that country's terrible civil war, which reverberates today, is a direct result of that destruction and instability that the U.S.-backed overthrow of Arbenz began.
GROSS: Do the banana companies or maybe I should say do the fruit companies have as much power in Central America as they did in the banana republic era?
Mr. KOEPPEL: No. The banana companies are not that way anymore. But, you know, and people can take this for whatever it's worth, I think they still behave as aggressively as any other multinational company would with a big market to protect and that has a lot of money to be made. And so that's why we see Chiquita's history of bad acting continuing, even if there's less of it, even today.
GROSS: We've been talking about some of the political history of the banana. But you also write about the cultural history of the banana, which is pretty interesting. And like the fruit companies really went on this campaign to make Americans aware of bananas and to tell them what could be done with bananas. Tell us about some of these campaigns.
Mr. KOEPPEL: The banana was introduced at the 1876, actually in Philadelphia, at the Centennial Exhibition. That's where it sort of had its coming-out party to the masses. But this was a Victorian era, and the idea of eating a suggestively shaped banana was considered pretty uncouth. And there have been some other banana historians who've uncovered old recipes that show that bananas must be cut and served in foil, anything to disguise their shape. And, as you know, you can't cut up a banana and, you know, let it sit for a few hours and serve it.
So one of the first things the guys who founded the company that would later become known as Chiquita did was they issued a series of postcards, and these postcards are incredibly hilarious. They picture these very prim Victorian women, usually four or five of them sitting in a nice dining room or under a tree somewhere, and they're all holding half-peeled bananas. And the idea of that...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KOEPPEL: ...its safe to eat a banana. And this worked actually. It really worked. Bananas became so popular, in fact, that these companies started to suggest recipes. It was Chiquita or United Fruit that first suggested that bananas should go in corn flakes. And in fact they were the first ones to put coupons on cereal boxes that would allow people to get their bananas in corn flakes more cheaply. And it's also a testament to the savvy of these guys that Chiquita got Kellogg's to pay for the coupons, so on their own cereal boxes. Everything they did was designed towards making this fruit super popular. It had to be because as I was saying, bananas were so difficult to transport that you had to just go on these huge economies of scale.
GROSS: One of the most famous banana advertising campaigns of all time -perhaps the most famous - was the "Chiquita Banana" song in the whole character of Chiquita Banana. Tell us the story behind the "Chiquita Banana" song and character.
Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, it is interesting. And again, it's related to this disease. This is a commercial jingle and the Chiquita Banana character in those early days was actually a banana who was modeled after this Brazilian bombshell actress, Carmen Miranda, who was known not only for wearing a giant fruit basket on her head, but in movies she had a famous dance that she kind of wiggled amidst a group of six-foot tall dancing bananas in a very sort of suggestive way. And she was a huge hit because she had such a huge personality. United Fruit at the time was looking for a way to identify itself, to come up with a brand name.
One of the reasons they were looking for this was because they were seeing shortages and they realized that they needed to try to de-commoditize bananas. They had to get people to pick their bananas, so they came up with this idea of Chiquita Banana and they came up with the singing little banana and this great song which remains, you know, again like "Yes! We Have No Bananas," it remains one of the most memorable little ditties. Everybody knows this song even though the words have changed over the years and in fact Miss Chiquita Banana stopped being a banana in the '60s and became a real human being.
GROSS: Would you feel comfortable singing the song?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KOEPPEL: Sure. I could give it a try. Afterwards I can point out an inaccuracy as well.
GROSS: There you go.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Fact-check the "Chiquita Banana" song.
Mr. KOEPPEL: Yes, I will fact-check the jingle.
Mr. KOEPPEL: Okay. Here we go. (Singing) I'm the Chiquita banana and I've come to say bananas have to ripen in a certain way. When they are flecked with brown and have a golden hue, bananas taste the best and are the best for you. You can put them in a salad. You can put them in a pie-aye. Anyway you want to eat them. It's impossible to beat them. But bananas like the climate of the very, very tropical equator. So you should never put bananas in the refrigerator.
GROSS: Okay. Fact-check that song.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KOEPPEL: Okay. Here we go. In fact bananas last longer when they're refrigerated. Bananas are shipped refrigerated. And it is true that a banana will turn brown if kept too cold. However, that does not mean it will become overripe. So what Chiquita was trying to tell you was let those bananas get eaten as quickly as possible or let them go brown and buy some new bananas. You do not want your banana supply lasting too long if you want to sell a lot more bananas.
GROSS: So you're saying if you want to keep - once your banana turns ripe and you want to preserve it a little longer you should put it in the refrigerator.
Mr. KOEPPEL: Right. It will look kind of brown and weak on the outside but I promise it will still taste okay.
GROSS: We've been talking about all aspects of the banana. Look ahead for us a little bit. Like you've told us that bananas are endangered, at least the Cavendish banana that we eat in the United States is endangered because it's being attacked in much of the world by a fungus. It hasn't attacked Latin America yet but experts believe it will. What other developments are there on the banana front?
Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, there is a huge attempt to make subsistence bananas stronger, and that's really important. And it's going in parallel with this attempt to figure out a way to replace or strengthen the Cavendish. At the same time, I think one thing that is really not happening and that needs to happen is a bigger picture look at the banana monoculture. And people are just beginning to talk about that. We only really have one banana to eat. And it would be really difficult to find shippable acceptable bananas that would work in our markets, that work on our tables. But the real answer to all this is looking at other kinds of bananas and there are countries where there are delicious bananas that are eaten widely if only locally.
Brazil has five different bananas and Brazil is a pretty big country and they don't eat many Cavendish at all. Australia also grows certain several kinds of bananas that are pretty good. And, of course, getting bananas across oceans is tougher, but I really think that the future, if there's a future for the banana, is going to be more kinds of bananas and the banana companies are the only ones with the money.
These little research organizations that have these incredibly important jobs of trying to feed Africa do not have the money needed to develop a commercial banana. That's going to come from the big banana companies. And there needs to be an understanding and investment and appreciation that maybe people have different kinds of tastes these days that a so-called varietal banana might actually be considered a great thing and not sort of just a technical challenge that's too difficult to actually undertake.
GROSS: Well, Dan, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.
Mr. KOEPPEL: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
GROSS: Dan Koeppel is the author of the new book "Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World." Well, I have to say I like his rendition of the "Chiquita Banana" song. And after the interview was over, Dorothy Ferebee, who is our administrative assistant, stopped in the studio and she told me she remembered a different version of the song. The campaign went on for years and there were different versions of the song. So anyways, I asked Dorothy if she would sing it for you. So Dorothy, you want to do it?
DOROTHY FEREBEE: (Singing) I'm Chiquita banana and I'm here to say bananas give you energy for work and play. And the calorie count I'm happy to say in the medium banana's only 88.
GROSS: All right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I guess this is when their - their diet-conscious campaign. Thank you for doing that.
FEREBEE: You're welcome.
GROSS: My interview with Dan Koeppel was recorded in 2008 when his book Banana was published. We called him a few days ago and he told us bananas still face the threats he described. Anyway, here's the real Chiquita Banana.
(Soundbite of "Chiquita Banana Song")
Ms. CARMEN MIRANDA (Samba Singer; Actress): Hello Amigo. (Singing) I'm Chiquita Banana, and I've come to say bananas have to ripen in a certain way. And when they are flecked with brown and have a golden hue, bananas taste the best, and are the best for you. You can put them in a salad. You can put them in a pie -aye. Any way you want to eat them it's impossible to beat them. But bananas like the climate of the very, very tropical equator. So you should never put bananas in the refrigerator.
Unidentified Singers: (Singing) To have bananas that are fully ripe you must be absolutely be sure. You take them home and let them ripen and in right temperature.
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Oh sure, for sure.
GROSS: Memories. So what are the odds that someday you will eat a hamburger grown in a test tube? Coming up, New Yorker science writer Michael Specter talks about current efforts to grow in-vitro meat.
This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.