March 1st 2014: WHEN bananas started to be widely exported in the 1870s, they were an exotic treat. But by the 1950s the fruit (botanically, a herb, but never mind) was a favourite of millions far from the tropics. Then Panama disease struck. The soil fungus swept through Central and South America, killing banana plants in its path. By the 1960s Gros Michel (Big Mike), the variety accounting for virtually all exports, was close to extinction. The export industry approached collapse.
But in the nick of time growers identified a resistant commercial variety, called Cavendish. Compared with Gros Michel, it was small and bland. Gros Michels could be flung into train carriages and ships’ holds; Cavendishes had to be packed in cardboard and shipped in pricey refrigerated containers. But there was no other alternative. Soon Cavendish replaced Gros Michel as the world’s top banana: the variety now accounts for 95% of all exports.