Big Mike and the Cavendish

Every now and then, dire news quietly appears in the background of media noise. Let's call it doom news. The reporter puts on his best Pulitzer voice, while a stern-sounding expert tries to explain why the apocalypse lurks on the horizon—and, as often as not, why it's already too late. The varieties of doom can be staggering, a many-headed Doom Hydra that covers many bases in order to maximize its apocalypse quotient (A.Q.) The problem is, we kind of don't care. It's not that the stern-sounding experts are wrong, or even overreacting. It's just that anything that doesn't threaten to impact us within the next 4-6 hours winds up falling under the general heading of "abstractulence." It might as well be made of candy and happening on Neptune.

Them: "The world will run out of oil in 30 years!" Us: "That sounds like something that may possibly suck someday."

Them: "Consumer debt is mounting by the trillion!" Us: "That reminds me, I owe Pete for those Arcade Fire tickets."

Them: "The spidergoats are coming to enslave us all!" Us: "Dude, check out this video—alligators and lions fight over a baby yak, and the yak totally survives."

But one piece of doom news had me bolting upright in my chair like a meerkat on jumper cables.

Bananas, it seems, are not long for this world.

I won't lie, I freaked.

To understand how this came about, we need a bit of agricultural history. A hundred and fifty years ago, bananas were quite different from what's on kitchen tables today. Oh sure, chimps loved them, and their peels caused any number of hilarious pratfalls. But they had pretty big seeds, and ripened too quickly to ship anywhere. They were a local crop on the other side of the Earth, and that was that.

Then, around the turn of the 20th century, there mutated a particular strain of banana that was nice and big, had no seeds to get in the way, and ripened evenly in about two weeks. As luck would have it, that meant they were turning yellow just as they were hitting grocery store shelves in the US. Voilà, the banana industry was born. This mutant variety even had a name, the gros michel—that's French for "Big Mike," though I've not been able to determine who Mike was, nor the source of his interest in bananas. By the 1950s, Big Mike had bumped off the apple as the number one fruit in America.

Because the gros michel bore no seeds, the trees were propogated through cuttings, meaning that all bananas shipped worldwide were genetically identical. Clones, basically. Sterile clones, unable to reproduce on their own (see "Runner, Blade"). And therein lay the problem: anything that affected one banana, affected them all.

Can you see where this is going?

Enter Black Sigatoka, known as "Panama disease." Caused by a soil-borne fungus, Sigatoka had a nasty habit of completely wiping out gros michel banana plantations, forever contaminating the land. It wasn't that Sigatoka was evil per se, or that it bore a grudge against the gros michel, or that it wasn't loved in its youth. It just had an aching hunger to kill relentlessly. I'm sure we can all relate.

By this time, of course, the banana industry had practically grown into a sovereign nation. They toppled freely elected Latin American governments on their way to breakfast, installed puppet dictators over lunch, and wore pricey but fashionable clothes (though they could've gotten the same stuff cheaper if they really wanted). Needless to say, they weren't thrilled about the idea of being completely and utterly screwed for all time. Reluctantly, they turned to their only salvation. Another mutation had led to a new strain called the Cavendish, which was resistant to Panama disease.

The industry's reluctance stemmed from the fact that the Cavendish was smaller, blander, and (if its name is any indication) a total nerd. Yet as the gros michel died out, the Cavendish seamlessly stepped into its place. If anyone noticed that their bananas were suddenly inferior, they damn well kept quiet about it. Today, no one seems to have any idea that bananas used to kick ass—personally, I found the whole thing to be a confounding revelation. What else don't we remember? Did pears used to cure cancer? Did spinach actually imbue super strength? Were pineapples originally as tall as a man and able to build rudimentary machines?

Regardless, we make do with the Cavendish, a lackluster mutation of a sterile clone that's prone to catastrophic disease. Which brings us to our current problem.

Can you see where this is going?

Ladies and gentlemen, it's the return of Black Sigatoka! Funny story, turns out fungi can mutate too. A new strain of Panama disease has, perhaps predictably, begun to take down Cavendish plantations. Stern-sounding experts say that unless a replacement variety is produced, bananas will disappear from supermarkets within twenty years. Granted, they've apparently been saying this for twenty years, but the fact remains that the disease is spreading, and banana growers are running out of land. The banana, still the most popular fruit in America, may once again be reduced to a local crop in distant jungles.

Now then, allow me to get to the main point I wanted to raise in this whole big mess:

Holy shit, every banana in the country is a clone! A freaking clone! Are you kidding me? Every banana we've ever eaten has been a clone, and no one has seen fit to tell us? Every time I go into the store now, I see their little faces looking at me, a hundred pairs of identical eyes imploring me not to flay another of their brethren. "It's not our fault!" they cry, with Hello-Kitty-like adorableness. "They create us in deliciousness factories!" And yet we inhale them by the million! What if they were puppies, would it seem so normal then? Can you imagine if every morning for breakfast you skinned and ate a cloned puppy?

Well, can you??

Editor's note: Alternative titles for this article included "Bananapocalypse!" and "It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Peel Fine)"