Panama Adventures Part 2: Going Bananas!

From Europe and Asia to the American and African continents, consumers are united by their love of bananas. On a global scale, bananas are the world’s most consumed fruit and the fifth-most traded agricultural product. What’s not to love? Bananas are portable, versatile, and in developing nations they provide much of the nutrition needed to sustain life.  In my home, bananas are a staple. My partner’s mother practices a morning ritual that includes splitting a banana in half, consuming her portion and sharing half with our banana-loving dog, Margot. The mere mention of Margot’s favorite word, “banana”, causes her ears to stand at full attention as she waits for someone to throw a slice or two in her direction.

Recently, I had the pleasure of touring the La Loma cacao farm on Panama’s Isla Bastiemientos. Going in, I expected to learn primarily about the chocolate-making process but was surprised to walk away with a deeper understanding of contemporary bananas and their significance in the formation of the Panamanian cacao trade.

It is important to note that wild bananas look nothing like the bananas found in grocery stores today. With thick skins, gooey flesh, and bodies filled with seeds, a wild banana seems anything but appetizing when compared to its breeded counterpart. Though seeded bananas make for easy reproduction in nature, banana farmers discovered that consumers prefer bananas without seeds, and began using the genetic material in plantains to breed a seedless banana variety. On contemporary plantations, bananas propagate (grow) vegetatively and are sterile clones of the previous generation. Like succulents and other vegetative plants, next generation banana growth extends from existing plants through shoots called suckers. As soon as the fruit is harvested from the primary growth, the plant must be pruned back so that the new growth can collect the nutrients and water stored inside of the base of the plant. People often use the word “tree” to describe the structure that bananas grow on, but the plant is actually an herb that produces berry-like fruit– the banana!

Banana Stem. Photo Credit: Lola West

Banana Stem. Photo Credit: Lola West

Prior to the 1950’s, much of the agricultural land in Panama was reserved for growing America’s favorite tropical fruit. Humidity, high temperatures, and a cooling off-shore breeze provide an ideal growing environment for bananas, which thrive in such settings. By 1940, bananas were one of Latin America’s main exports and large-scale banana operations supported the Panamanian islands collectively known as Bocas Del Toro, where I toured the cacao farm. Though the majority of land today is under cacao production, a history rooted in banana growth can be seen peaking out from beneath a canopy of cacao leaves.

In the first half of the 20th century, the Gros Michel variety was the primary banana available on the market. Smaller and sweeter than today’s Cavedish bananas, Gros Michel bananas were the victims of a deadly strain of fungal pathogen known as Fusarium Wilt, or more commonly as the Panama disease. The disease, which produces a fungus that affects the vascular system of host plants, wiped out nearly all banana plantations in Central and South America. Other vulnerable crops include tomatoes, legumes, tobacco, cucumbers, and sweet potatoes. When fusarium wilt infects crops that reproduce by seed, the disease is easier to manage. However, when it attacks a crop that is a clone of its parent plant, an entire generation can be destroyed and suffer extinction. As such, Panama’s Gros Michel plantations were barren by the 1960’s. For an economy dependent on the export of its bananas, the Panama disease was a devastating blow. New generations of resistant fruit were developed to replace the diseased Gros Michel crops. However, the still seedless Cavedish banana suffer from the same problem– lack of genetic diversity. Presently, a new strain of fusarium wilt is plaguing banana plantations across the globe and threatening the banana industry once again. As humans use selective breeding to produce more favorable qualities such as large size and ease of growth, offspring have less genetic diversity and thus an increased susceptibility to natural selection.

Banana fruit. Photo Credit: Lola West

Banana fruit. Photo Credit: Lola West

Following the first wave of fusarium wilt, the Panamanian government offered banana growers the opportunity to keep their land in production by cultivating a new crop. Hundreds of free cacao plants were offered to any grower willing to farm them. In the 60’s, Hershey’s Chocolate was king and global tastes favored milk chocolate over the dark, bitter treat that pure cacao helps produce. As artisanal chocolates increase in popularity, international cacao production is in high demand and the Islands of Bocas Del Toro are back on the map!

Roasted Cacao Seeds. Photo Credit: Lola West

Roasted Cacao Seeds. Photo Credit: Lola West

Tune in next week to find out more about the intricacies of cacao production and how pirates used Breadfruit trees to locate buried treasure!

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