Trade Talk

102546_hiresIf I were to ask you the question, ‘What is a banana?’ I very much doubt many of you would earnestly answer ‘Well, to me, a banana is a symbol of political freedom in Europe’.

I even doubt any of you would even respond that a banana is a luxury food. Today, in Western Europe – despite its almost god given natural packaging, high energy, low calorie profile and ability to stimulate serotonin production (happiness!) – a banana is just a simple fruit.

But that was not always the case. Believe it or not, the simple banana has played a surprising role in protecting European freedom, and now needs us to use that freedom to help protect its future.

Hold our hands and take us to banana land!

Incredibly and almost amusingly from a contemporary perspective, demand for import of the banana played a significant propaganda role in the three greatest European struggles of the 20th Century; the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War.

Bananas started outstripping the popularity of other (even domestically grown) fruit in Europe 100 years ago, ever since their first refrigerated arrival in Europe. Wartime and communism both had the effect of cutting banana supply to the populations of Europe. And these shortages were used to great affect by pro-democracy propagandists and political organisers.

In the First World War this led to the popularity of the music hall song ‘Yes, we have no bananas’ in the UK. In the Second World War, propaganda posters contained bananas and in 1946 a national banana day was even created to celebrate the end of rationing.

Most amazingly of all though, before the fall of the iron curtain, protesters in Central and Eastern Europe carried images of bananas in celebration of the benefits of free market trade. When the Berlin wall eventually fell in 1989, West Germans ran to the scene to give bananas to their Eastern cousins who were chanting ‘Hold our hands and take us to banana land!’

Now the Banana needs you!

Tragically, now in the 21st century, the commercial banana is facing an existential struggle of its own.

The seemingly unstoppable plant pest Panama Tropical Race 4 is attacking the global supply of the Cavendish banana, widely accepted to be the only truly viable commodity export banana due its toughness and ripening period. Panama disease is already rampant throughout Asia, moving through Australia and expected to reach Central America before long.

Latin and Central America contribute 82 percent of the world’s banana supply, with Ecuador supplying over a third of the growing export market. Australia exports much less, but as a developed country with advanced agricultural practices, the inability of its farmers to control the spread of Panama disease has led some experts to herald the annihilation of the global banana industry should the Panama disease reach Latin and Central America.

Consumer choice that includes GM variety

While there will always be a choice of banana varieties on the market, including some that are potentially more flavoursome than the Cavendish, having a relatively inexpensive and plentiful variety of Europe’s favourite fruit available to consumers is important to help promote a healthy diet.

With the only other commodity variety, The Gros Michel, having become extinct in the 1950s because of another strain of the Panama disease, breeding a Cavendish banana variety that is resistant to Panama Tropical Race 4 is now all important to the future of the industry.

Because of the difficulty of breeding bananas conventionally (due to the length of time it takes for banana plantations to grow and be tested for resistance), genetic modification offers the timeliest potential solution to the threat of Panama disease.

Could Brussels ever ban the banana?

Should the Panama disease continue to spread unchecked, the European Union – that the symbolism of the banana as a benefit of free trade contributed to creating in some small way – may need to take a decision on whether to allow the import of genetically modified Cavendish bananas to Europe.

It will be fascinating to observe the political and public dimensions of a discussion that, should it lead to the reduced import of bananas, will mimic a scenario previously only created by war and communism. Instead, my hope is that we use our political freedom to ensure a future market for the banana and other fruit in Europe, genetically modified or not.

Author :

Leave a Reply