Bananas have become a staple of many peoples’ diets due to their availability and relatively cheap price. Be it for breakfasts, added atop cereals or toast, or mixed into desserts- bananas are something that we find in our foods on nearly a daily basis.
Now why is it that bananas are such a cheap fruit when a majority of the bananas we see in supermarkets are not locally grown within America but are instead imported from outside, tropical countries?
The simple answer is that the fruit is easy to produce, and foundations had been laid in the past in order to enable this fruit to become the powerhouse budget fruit that it is today.
For a deeper dive into the reasons for this fruit being so affordable, continue reading.
Background on Bananas
The long, yellow shape of a banana is one that is universally known. But other varieties do exist. Red, green, and orange bananas are all examples of different cultivars, or species, of the fruit.
There are some bananas that are used in cooking meals, and these are usually distinguished as plantains, acting more as a vegetable than a fruit.
We also have the typical, yellow sweet, and delicious type of banana that many are accustomed to and enjoy in a variety of ways. These are known commonly as dessert bananas.
Although these two have been given distinctions based on the way that they are commonly consumed, there is no definite distinction between the two types of bananas.
For most Americans, when you say “banana” people will assume you mean the soft, long yellow fruit, known as dessert bananas. In particular, these types of bananas belong to the Cavendish group.
In Southeast Asia, though, were lots of different types of bananas are grown and consumed by the people, there is a much more defined distinction between each type of banana available.
Alongside banana being the term used for the fruits, the banana tree is also referred to simply as “banana” by most people.
The tree of the banana produces an edible flower known as “banana heart”, which has the taste of a vegetable and can be used in various dishes.
One fascinating thing about bananas is that they emit radiation! Albeit at extremely low levels, every banana emits at least a bit of radioactivity.
This is due to the fact that the banana contains potassium, which is an element that has slight radioactivity on its own.
Bananas as fruit have been commonplace in most people’s lives ever since they became a popular import into the Americas back in the 19th century. Since then, it has become a staple healthy food in many people’s diets.
The Business of Bananas
Despite the banana not being grown locally in the United States, it still manages to be incredibly cheap, in most supermarkets, such as Walmart, being merely 49 cents a pound.
The origins of the banana are not so affordable, though. Back in 1876, when they were first introduced to Americans at Philadelphia’s Centennial International Exhibition, they were quite expensive!
They started out as an imported fruit that was priced at around $2 each in our modern times, which was extravagant by the standards of the time.
Due to the popularity of the fruit at the exhibition, two businessmen founded the company that would later go on to become Chiquita- the most famous banana company of the modern day.
For their first order of business, they began buying up land in Jamaica for use as banana plantations, in turn acquiring steamships for transport back to the United States.
Prices for bananas began to drop significantly, due to banana barons keeping costs very low for their own operations.
By purchasing land for incredibly cheap in South American countries, while also acquiring tax breaks from these country’s governments, they could cut costs by huge amounts.
In exchange for these advantages, banana barons would build roads and railroads, as well as other infrastructural things in order to benefit those growing the crop.
Labor costs for the plantations were incredibly low, and some banana barons would get labor from other parts of the world to further cut on costs.
Nowadays, banana barons do not exercise such control and influence over the countries in which their plantations are based, although the exploitation of these countries is still an issue that persists to this day.
Other techniques that cut on costs for banana importation was that many plantation owners invented techniques for keeping bananas fresh through transport, such as refrigeration methods.
Bananas were also made cheap due to many plantations choosing to plant only ONE type of banana, the Cavendish banana.
Not only that, but each banana that is found in supermarkets is almost surely an identical clone of the other. They have been genetically altered in order to cut on production costs and increase output.
The long, yellow fruits have been genetically manufactured to ripen quickly and survive shipment easily, and these are sold throughout the world.
The Price Could Rise
Originally, the banana that was brought to the 1876 Exhibition was not the Cavendish banana that we see in grocery stores today, it was the Gros Michel.
Sadly, this entire genus of banana was wiped out in the 1960’s due to the Panama disease fungus. This is a risk that many plantations run by producing only one type of banana, and each banana being a clone of the other.
Should disease fall upon the plantation, the chance is extremely high that the entire plantation will be wiped out due to each banana sharing nearly identical genetic code.
Although it keeps costs down to produce bananas this way, there is always the risk that the bananas could be decimated by disease.
In the past, the Cavendish was able to withstand the version of the Panama disease that wiped out the Gros Michel banana, but there are new diseases popping up that the Cavendish is susceptible to.
While it is unlikely that this virus will be able to wipe out the entire strain of Cavendish bananas like the Gros Michel before, should it impact production then prices will rise due to lack of supply.
Bananas have been produced cheaply throughout the years due to various techniques employed by banana barons, almost always at the expense of the laborer’s responsible for cultivating the crop.
In the coming days, should the Cavendish banana meet adversity in the face of new viruses, then we can expect the prices for this yellow fruit to go up.
But as it stands, the soft, sweet fruit will stay cheap and delicious, and find its way to many people’s tables as a part of a meal or a treat on its own.