Book Review: “Banana” Slips Up

Ah, the ever-ubiquitous banana. Dotting our breakfast tables and showering down upon our cereal, the fruit has become an American (and global) tradition. What few realize, though, and what author Dan Koeppel wants you to know, is that the most popular fruit in the world could soon disappear from our grocery stores and kitchen counters.

In his new book, Banana, Koeppel estab­lishes his goal of saving “the banana that is dying” through an analysis of the fruit’s history mixed with a discussion of it current problems, along with possible solutions for its future. Indeed, the book’s 242 pages of fact-laden prose cover creationism, economic imperialism, and biotechnology – all while focusing on that one “impossible fruit” and its compelling history.

While assertions that bananas are an endangered species may seem alarmist, espe­cially if one looks in a grocery store aisle, Koeppel’s warnings have a historical basis. The only variety of the fruit that most Ameri­cans can remember eating, the Cavendish, was introduced in the 1960s after a plague wiped out the Gros Michel, the version that had previously filled our stomachs.

The issue, Koeppel notes, is that each banana we eat is essentially a clone of every other one we have ever eaten. The only edible bananas are seedless, and consequently cannot reproduce by normal means.

This means that a disease affecting the banana crop in Indonesia can affect a banana in Ecuador or one in Uganda. There are no biological mechanisms, such as genetic variation, in place to prevent the spread of diseases.

Koeppel’s narrative will give the average reader a very thorough introduction into the litany of diseases and other problems con­fronting the world’s banana crop. The place where Banana really shines, though, is in its discussion of the development of the crop from its first introduction in the western world until modern times.

The thick middle history section of the book is instructive to anyone interested in the effects of globalization or economic impe­rialism. Koeppel vividly portrays the development of the ruthless banana companies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the consequences that their actions had on the global economy.

Between the occasional deeply personal narrative of the “banana pioneers” that ran these corporations and the sometimes gut-wrenching discussion of the heavy-handed methods used by the companies to maintain tiny profit margins, the readers can fully grasp why the banana is so inextricably linked to the development of the economic and political character of Central America.

It is in the descriptions of the problems facing the banana and proposed solutions for the fruit that the book falters. Although Koeppel attempts to keep the prose light, the discussion of the variety of diseases facing the crop and occasionally complex expla­nations of the banana breeding process are often overwrought and weighed down by poor development of ideas.

In many sections, it is as difficult to uncover Koeppel’s point as it is easy to unpeel his book’s namesake. Dramatic phrasing and heavy use of internal cliffhangers often make it appear as if he is trying to add a sense of urgency to the already grave problem facing bananas, even while he notes that it could be thirty years before our hemisphere is affected by many of the banana diseases currently raging in Africa and Asia.

His overuse of parenthetical additions to the text also distracts – at one point he segues into a completely unrelated discussion of a Japanese puffer fish before continuing with the discussion of bananas. While some of these traits would be tolerable if present only in the history-related sections of the book, they infuse the prose throughout Koeppel’s narrative and render it grating on the reader.

The real problem with Banana, though, has to do with message. Koeppel seems to ignore that it is probably unethical to advocate the continued presence of bananas on a global scale, considering their large carbon footprint.

He does note that bananas are among the most detrimental agricultural products for the world’s environment, in terms of both greenhouse gas emissions and the use of dangerous pesticides, yet he devotes much of his writing to finding a new panacea – a form of banana that would be engineered to be resistant to the diseases killing the Cavendish.

Koeppel’s concern for preserving the status quo of a universally consumed banana might blind him from the most important issue facing us today – the need to preserve the world we inhabit.

Reading Koeppel’s book is like slipping on a banana peel – per­haps interesting at first, but something you regret as soon as you hit the ground. Peel back the cover of a different book.

Book information:

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World
By Dan Koeppel
Hudson Street Press, 2007, 304 pp.
ISBN: 978-1594630385