The fruits of our labour
by Carol Off
(reviewed with CITRUS: A History, by Pierre Laszlo)
There was a time, not long ago, when most people spent most of their time producing food. The inverse
is now true, at least for those of us in the developed world. Paradoxically, as we move further and further
away from the source of what sustains us, we've become more obsessed with knowing where our food
comes from and under what circumstances it's harvested.
Our interest has inspired a whole new genre of books about the food we eat. There is a full range of
manifestos on ethical consumption, from the early classic Diet for a Small Planet to the rant on garbage-
eating, Fast Food Nation, to the gastronomic adventure story The 100-Mile Diet. But a subcategory of
foodie literature deals with single commodities, examining the origins, history and politics of ordinary
foodstuff. Some of these books are sweeping accounts of civilization as it was shaped by something as
mundane as salt; others are romantic longings for the pre-industrial age when a tomato didn't taste (and
appear) like a piece of wood.
Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World is the book you've been looking for if you've
heard rumours that the phallic golden fruit that adorns the breakfast table might be heading for extinction.
Dan Koeppel, a seasoned science writer, was drawn to investigate this possibly doomed commodity when
he first learned about a virulent pathogen called Panama disease.
Banana trees (which are actually herbs, Koeppel tells us) are succumbing to this worldwide plague that
attacks the roots of the plant and turns entire farms into wasteland. The fruit (which is actually a giant
berry) is highly vulnerable, principally because almost all the bananas grown for export are clones. The
banana you eat today is the sister of the one you ate yesterday and it's the sibling of the banana someone
in Boston or Vancouver is eating at the same time.
Bananas are seedless and therefore sterile. They're propagated asexually through root cultivation: A
sucker from one plant is the beginning of another plant and so on. There are numerous varieties of
bananas in the world grown and consumed locally, but the multinational industry that cultivates bananas
for international export settled decades ago on a single type. The Cavendish, as it's called, is the ideal
specimen for shipping: It ripens slowly, resists bruising and costs little to produce.
Koeppel focuses his account on the U.S.-based fruit exporters that provide this continent with bananas.
He demonstrates they've learned nothing from their mistakes over the past 100 years. The Cavendish is a
replacement for the Gros Michel, a genus that was wiped out by Panama disease in the early 20th century.
For decades, the industry resisted the inevitable demise of the Gros Michel simply by clearing more rain
forests and leaving behind the blighted land. The fruit companies could do this because they maintained
absolute control over most territory in banana-producing countries.
There are numerous books exposing the callous American corporations that - with the overt and covert
backing of successive U.S. administrations - employed death squads and mercenary armies to suppress
any dissent in what came to be called the banana republics of Central America. Koeppel doesn't dwell on
that history, but he demonstrates that the political practices of companies such as United Fruit (later
renamed Chiquita) and Standard Fruit (Dole), which resulted in the mass murder of activists and the
overthrow of governments, were mirrored in their agricultural policies. The companies allowed the
destruction of land and water systems that actually helped Panama disease to spread. When the Gros
Michel became extinct, they replaced it with another mono-crop, the Cavendish.
The heart of Koeppel's troubling book is the story of how Panama disease is now relentlessly working its
deadly way into the roots of this new variety. But the industry has developed no substitute for it, the
upshot of which is that one day we may wake up to find that, yes, we have no bananas.
Pierre Laszlo's latest book, Citrus: A History, chronicles the story of oranges, lemons and limes from their
first cultivation in ancient Persia to their mass production on millions of acres of land around the world.
But unlike Koeppel's hard-nosed journalistic account about bananas, Laszlo's is a whimsical and
somewhat chaotic narrative about a tropical commodity. He describes citrus fruit's influence on everything
from medicine to poetry, while from time to time dipping into personal reminiscences (his memories of
receiving oranges at Christmas or quaffing cold lime drinks on a hot day).
The book is similar to Laszlo's previous work, Salt: Grain of Life, in that he writes both as a philosopher
with a sensual attraction to his subject and as a chemist with an interest in the scientific properties of the
fruit. Laszlo reminds us that Cezanne was among the many artists who painted oranges; Goethe
immortalized the beauty of citrus groves in his poetry ("Do you know the country where the lemon trees
bloom, where the golden oranges glow among dark leaves ..."). Laszlo the scientist points out that the
juice of oranges and limes allowed sailors to ward off scurvy as they explored and conquered the world,
and the fruit also provided children with a vital source of vitamin C before tablets were available.
Laszlo does mention the darker aspects of citrus cultivation - the African slave trade that helped launch
the industry and questionable agricultural practices in the United States - which allow for the production
of millions of tons of fruit each year. But each time he gets too close to a hot issue, Laszlo pulls back and
instead offers up a recipe for marmalade or key lime pie. For those who like their food books cooked up
with some political spice, Citrus: A History will disappoint. But perhaps that's like asking a poet to
consider the ravages of climate change when he's waxing ecstatic about a beautiful day. If you love the
pure, sensuous act of breaking open the skin of a fully ripened orange, or zesting a sliver of lemon into an
espresso, there is much in this book to delight you.
Carol Off is the co-host of CBC Radio's As it Happens, and the author of Bitter Chocolate: Investigating
the Dark Side of the World's Most Seductive Sweet.
© Copyright 2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.
globeandmail.com and The Globe and Mail are divisions of CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc., 444 Front
St. W., Toronto, ON Canada M5V 2S9
Phillip Crawley, Publisher