Panama Disease-ravaged plantation in Asia (from Plant Health Progress.)
In an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer, Chiquita CEO Fernando Aguirre - for the first time - publicly acknowledged the existence of Panama Disease (the incurable malady that wiped out the world's banana crop in the first half of the 20th century, and that has devastated much of Asia over the past two decades) - in relation to his company's mainstay product, though he downplayed the threat to the point of barely admitting it existed.
The story is headlined "New banana disease poses threat: How serious is open to debate." In it, Aguirre described the disease as "limited," and asserted that - when the disease arrives in Latin America - quarantine measures would "pre-empt and prepare" the advance and effects of the malady. I was interviewed for the story, and I disagreed, pointing out that such measures had failed most everywhere they've been tried in the past.
Chiquita CEO Fernando Aguirre, from the Cincinnati Enquirer. Photo by Steven M. Herppich.
I was glad to see that the reporter, James Pilcher, also contacted Randy Ploetz, the scientist who is probably the world's best authority on the fungus. Ploetz is less grim and more circumspect than I am (as well as a lot smarter than me), but he's still way down on the fencing-your-farm idea: international quarantines will not work," he said. "If it did get over to Latin America somehow, it is almost impossible to stop. When and if that will happen. No one can say for sure."
I'm quoted in the story as saying that the Cavendish banana is a "dead end." That's something I've come to believe even more since I wrote the book. None of us - not the CEO of the world's largest banana company; not a dedicated scientist; nor an author who has books to sell - knows when Panama Disease will hit. But what I suspect we all know is that the Cavendish is indeed a biological (and therefore, ultimately, a commercial) cul-de-sac. Breeding a new version of the banana we all eat is nearly impossible. It is totally sterile. It produces no seeds. (Each Cavendish is a genetic duplicate of the other. That's why each gets sick when the other does.) This makes it a poor candidate as a parent to any new banana, except if genetic engineering is used, a technique Chiquita and most consumers reject.
The answer is diversity: a robust banana aisle with four, five, or six different kinds of fruit. Those varieties are out there. The technology needed to deliver them to market - to keep them fresh and intact from the places they're grown to the places they're sold - would be considerable. But it be worth the investment. Right now, at my local Safeway, I can buy four kinds of peaches, five kinds of apples, four kinds of lettuce, and more. Why not bananas?
When Panama Disease struck and destroyed the earlier breed of banana that our grandparents ate, Chiquita executives claimed that they knew how to protect their fields from the disease. They spent years saying so. They were wrong. There has never been a technical solution to Panama Disease. In 1960, as the last plantations were succumbing to the old blight, Chiquita was on the verge of bankruptcy. It had spent decades denying that there was a problem. It then wasted more time trying to find an answer using a means that didn't work. It came close to destroying its franchise product. Chiquita can make the same mistake again. It has already taken willful steps down that path, and it doesn't even know it. Though Aguirre is right in saying that the danger has yet to arrive, the danger will arrive, and the solution Aguirre outlines absolutely will not work.
My key takeway from the Enquirer story: Chiquita acknowledges a problem on the horizon - and it has publicly embraced a strategy that cannot work.
As far as diversity is concerned, Aguirre said that the company has "been working for a number of years on different opportunities to grow different bananas."
OK, readers. I am warning you right now: RANT ALERT!!!!
I can't stand this kind of PR-speak. What the heck did the Chiquita CEO even say just there? I mean, these are bananas. Bananas! India, the Philippines, the South Pacific, and even Brazil offer dozens of wonderful banana types that might delight and intrigue American consumers. I've tasted them and they're freakin' AWESOME. They taste BETTER than ours. Haagen-Dazs to bucket vanilla better! Don't "work" for "a number of years" on "opportunities." Just grow some danged fruit and sell it to us! You're CHIQUITA! Your JOB is to sell us bananas!
OK, I'm feeling better now. The point is that there are plenty of ways to get Panama Disease mitigated before it gets here, and the first step is to not put all of our bananas in the Cavendish basket.
One more thing: for years before the Gros Michel - the old banana - went functionally extinct, Chiquita executives not only denied that there was a problem, but they also denied that the Cavendish was a solution. It was a competitor that came up with the proper techniques needed to grow and ship the Cavendish that made it a viable supermarket banana. That competitor was Dole, whose market share tripled and has barely declined since. A new competitor, with a new banana, may be waiting for Chiquita as this round of Panama Disease emerges - and this time around, Chiquita may not be so lucky as to be so unlucky.
Note: For context on this story, you might want to read the magazine article my book is based on, in the entry above.