Friday, January 16, 2009


In this post on the Huffington Post blog, Johann Hari argues that the current disease threat to bananas is a "parable for our times." Basically, he argues that when corporations are not constrained by government regulations, they trample over people and the environment in the pursuit of profit.

I see a slightly more nuanced "parable" in the case of the banana. It seems to me that when there is a minimum of diversity in the actors controlling an important step in a food commodity chain (in this case, the big three banana companies, but it could also be the fast food restaurants that want standardized tomatoes), it tends to result in decreasing biological diversity (monoculture). What do you think?

We might consider the alternative: what kinds of food commodity chains tend to lead to greater biological diversity?


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  2. The question I would raise in regards to this, is whether this story of the banana can be seen as something more than a parable; is the story of the banana a grim view into a future that we are approaching as a result of the decisions made on our behalf by greedy CEOs and corporations? With the story of the banana, one of the most discouraging facets is the simple fact that it is a repeat, a sequel to an almost identical story that took place about a half a century ago. It is not simply a story, in fact, it is reality.

    I think the issue here rises far above that of the banana. Although many American consumers would be distressed by the loss of the beloved Cavendish variety, I think the concern here goes far beyond that of this single species of banana. The issues surrounding this can be summarized in:

    1. The practices of those in control of the food industry. Why is this a problem? And why, after it has already occurred once, is it being allowed to occur twice? In this case it is clear that the concern of those in charge has been on earning money, which is not such a surprise, but it is a problem. Perhaps the problem is in the rules and regulations that should exist to prevent such occurrences.

    2. Those that would be affected on the production end of such specific food industries. In this case, I would argue that there should be a greater attention paid to the farmers that grow the Cavendish bananas than the American consumers who aren't used to eating any other type of banana. That is to say that yours or my life will go on without the Cavendish, we could adjust to a different type of banana, or we could simply select one of the other options of fruit that will continue to be available to us. This may not be the case for the farmers that depend entirely on species for their means of making a living. It may not be as easy for these farmers to simply adapt to the extinction of the species that they have depended on for their livelihood.

    3. The fact that bananas are probably just the beginning. If bananas are experiencing this problem, then there should be a concern that similar problems could affect other species popular in our produce aisles of the grocery store. This is a process that unchecked could continue for some time and affect numerous other species. This is not a question of losing choices in the grocery store, though, this is a question of our food production processes causing the extinction of our natural food resources.

    This is an incomplete list, and I invite anyone to add to it concerns that they find apparent in this story, this reality of the banana.

  3. Responding to the post, one way of increasing biological diversity might be to place more emphasis on consumers acquiring their produce directly from local farmers, who frequently already grow a variety of heirloom variety vegetables specific to the region as well as more universal varieties and are usually more than willing to explore new varieties on request.

    The extension of this idea is that creating more accessible, direct lines of communication between consumers, the companies in the bottleneck, and farmers might produce simialr results. If people are made aware of the diversity which they are missing out on, they may demand it directly, and the companies may respond (however, in this way, we are still to some degree taking the choice of what should be produced (perhaps in conflict with what can most economically be produces) in any given region away from the farmers). With more direct lines of communication, consumers, farmers and companies connecting the two could potentially all benefit.

    However, it seems that multinational corporations have no qualms about leaving a certain area once it can no longer produce what is needed in part because they are "multinational." In other words, they largely do not have specific ties to any given region, nor the people who inhabit that region. With the latter point in mind, increased consumer-corporation-farmer communication still might not be able to ameliorate the problems which are endemic to the current system.