Americans love bananas. It is the most consumed fruit by a factor of 3. The banana trade is worth a staggering 25 billion USD a year (Banana Link, 2021)! In the words of probable Economics enthusiast, Gwen Stefani, “This $h^t is bananas…” (Stefani, n.d.) and due to the few times she has been around the track, her potassium laden words are weighted with an air of authority.
The giant of the banana industry is the Chiquita Fruit Company. In 2014, this Cincinnati based fruit firm merged with Fyffes and now move 180 million units of bananas per annum (ABC News Network, n.d.). “Before the merger, Chiquita already had the biggest market share of the banana market, with 125 million cases sold globally, followed by Del Monte (117 million) and Dole (110 million) (ABC News Network, n.d.). Fyffes had been a distant 4th with 55 million. In the U.S., Chiquita ranks #1 in supermarket sales of bananas and #2 in the sales overall. Referring to ChiquitaFyffes, Holohan tells ABC News, “Now there’s a clear #1 market leader. They’ll be able to achieve significant synergies going forward.” That’s important, he says, because bananas are a low-margin business. “It’s a case of 2 plus 2 equals 5” (ABC News Network, n.d.).
In order to ensure efficiency (i.e. predictability of the ripening process, time required for cultivation, window for shipping to ensure optimal ripeness at point of sale, etc…) Chiquita made the (correct on paper) decision to focus on growing only one species of banana the Cavendish. The Cavendish is kept predictable by cloning which reduced genetic variability. This reduced genetic variability has a horrific side effect, however. An increased vulnerability to a voracious fungal infection that is threatening the entire Cavendish species as well as the banana economy (Dubner, 2008).
To a point this may all seem fairly tongue in cheek, and to be quite frank, a 1st world problem but it is not. The history of bananas and how they are cultivated and how they came to be America’s fruit, is a history written in blood. Perhaps the reader may have heard of terms such as “banana republic” and “banana wars”. Holdovers of a bygone lexicon, and surely exaggerations or metaphors, right? Wrong. Immeasurable blood and treasure were spilled in service to this yellow snack.
Before the friendly sounding Chiquita company changed its name, it was called the United Fruit Company. The United Fruit Company had top of the line corporate security with which it could bludgeon its way toward vertical integration. This corporate security apparatus may be familiar to the reader: The United States Marine Corps. “(T)he United States military intervened in Nicaragua between 1909 and 1933 to protect banana interests” (Jennings, 2020). For instance, in 1910, 250 U.S. Marines provided security in Bluefields, a major banana center. The troops were there to guarantee the safety of U.S. corporations and their property (Jennings, 2020). The biggest company was United Fruit.
The Banana Wars left a terrible taste in many Americans’ memories. For example, U.S. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler wrote, “I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period, I spent most of my time as a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers.” As a young Major, Butler commanded the Marines who provided security in Bluefields in 1910” (Jennings, 2020).
Another banana mogul didn’t like the high tax rate that Honduras was forcing him to pay (at the behest of JP Morgan who owned a controlling interest in the Honduran national debt), so he simply overthrew the Honduran government (Jennings, 2020).
This pattern continued all over South and Central America ending in a bizarre CIA Cold War fire fight with Russian troops in the 1950’s (Baltimore Country History Labs Program, n.d.).
In light of all of this I am forced to admit that I concur with noted banana scholar and advocate Gwen Stefani in her erudite assessment…
…The fruit business is indeed B-A-N-A-N-A-S. (Stefani, n.d.).
ABC News Network. (n.d.). Bananas. Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/Business/chiquita-merger-means-us-banana-mellon-pineapple-prices/story?id=22847554.
Baltimore Country History Labs Program. (n.d.). Background on the Guatemalan Coup of 1954. Retrieved from, https://www.umbc.edu/che/tahlessons/pdf/historylabs/Guatemalan_Coup_student:RS01.pdf
Banana Link. (2021). All about bananas: Producers, where they’re grown & why they matter. Retrieved from, https://www.bananalink.org.uk/all-about-bananas/
Dubner, S. J. (2008, June 19). The economics of bananas. Freakonomics. Retrieved October 28, 2021, from https://freakonomics.com/2008/06/19/the-economics-of-bananas/.
Jennings, D. G. (2020, February 2). The banana wars: Plundering central America for fruit - market mad house. Medium. Retrieved October 28, 2021, from https://medium.com/lessons-from-history/the-banana-wars-plundering-central-america-for-fruit-market-mad-house-c5152f7211da
Stefani, G. (n.d.). Gwen Stefani – Hollaback Girl (official music video) – youtube. Retrieved October 28, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kgjkth6BRRY.