But What Will the Monkeys Eat?

Someday in the possibly not-too-distant future, there may be no bananas to go bananas over. That’s the potassium-threatening possibility posed by Dan Koeppel in a new book on the fruit, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World.

Here’s the problem: Basically all bananas grown commercially are genetically identical, members of a variety called the Cavendish that was first planted on a large scale a half-century ago. It was a replacement for the Gros Michel (“Big Mike”), a larger and reportedly tastier variety that was wiped out worldwide by a fungus named Panama disease. Now that same disease is starting to kill the Cavendish variety: All the plantings in Malaysia, for example, crashed in less than five years. But as the Boston Globe notes in its review of Banana, “Only this time there is no substitute variety, no Cavendish, waiting in the wings.”

The article that kick-started the book appeared in Popular Science a few years ago (under the headline “Can This Fruit Be Saved?”) and is still online and well worth your time. And in an interview with Borders, Koeppel explained the early American origin of banana peel jokes:

Everybody thinks this is just a slapstick gag, but in fact, after the fruit became popular in the U.S. (around 1890), there was so much banana litter that walking on city streets became a real hazard. Ordinances against throwing away banana peels were enacted, and sanitation departments—some of them the first ever for their municipalities—were organized around solving the problem.