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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Day-O, Day-O

GMOs - genetically modified organisms (foods that have been altered by humans for reasons other than health or nourishment) - are gaining attention as issues of health risks remain unanswered, yet more and more crops are being grown as such, particularly corn and soy.  Yet it turns out we've been eating a GMO food for centuries, although they only became popular, and affordable, in the last century or so.  Further, the companies that made them available and affordable were monopolistic and vertically integrated (controlling the growing, processing, shipping, and marketing) and manipulated ways to build enclave economies (self-sufficient, pretty much tax-exempt, and contributing little to the general economy). Think Dole, Chiquita - the equivalent in agriculture to the 1% OWS protests against.

A plantain, red banana, Latundan banana, and Cavendish banana.

If you haven't guessed by now, we're talking bananas.  This now ubiquitous fruit is actually a giant herb - the largest flowering herb, which can get as tall as trees. They are one of 3 genera in the Musaceae family, which includes plantains.  They have no trunks, just long-stemmed leaves which grow from corms, swollen plant stems similar to bulbs and tubers.  Fiber is a by-product of the plants.

A banana corm.

Besides humans, various moths and butterflies consume them, as a number of the species are edible.  Edible bananas have a complex history of hybridization, mutation, and selection.  Most bananas are parthenocarpic, or seedless, and therefore are sterile.  Banana botany is difficult to label with Linnean tags, so cultivar names are given instead (a cultivar is a plant whose characteristics are maintained by propagation).

A "Banana Moth" adult and larval case, so named because it feeds on bananas.

Bananas come in a variety of sizes and colors.  The word "banana" refers to the soft sweet fruit that is generally eaten raw, both popularly and commercially.
Plantains are larger, firmer fruits that require cooking.  It is unclear where the word comes from, but two options are from the Arabic "banan", meaning finger, or "banaana" from the African language Wolof, spoken in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauretania.  The name of the genus - musa - comes from the Arabic word for fruit, "mauz", which is also the same in Persian and Turkish.

Southeast Asian farmers were the first to domesticate bananas.  Archaeological evidence from Papua, New Guinea indicates that cultivation goes back at least 5,000 years, possibly even 8,000 years.  Researchers think it may have developed simultaneously in different areas of Southeast Asia because of the diversity of types.  Africa also has evidence of cultivation but there is debate about when it started.  When Madagascar was colonized by Southeast Asian groups circa 400 CE, linguistic evidence reveals that bananas were introduced.  Bananas also were grown in various parts of the Middle East.  From there they eventually went to Muslim Iberia.

The largest of herbs - banana plants.

They were brought to the Americas by Portuguese sailors.  In the 15th and 16th centuries, Portuguese colonists developed plantations for growing bananas in the New World.  They were not a profitable commodity until the introduction of steamships, railroads, and refrigeration.  Most bananas today are cultivated for local markets, India being the leader in this kind of production.  Production for the world market is centered in the Caribbean.  The cultivar that is most important on the world market is the Cavendish banana, which replaced the Gros Michel banana that now has limited availability due to a fungal disease.  The Cavendish today is similiarly threatened.  The Cavendish was chosen for mass production because of its shelf life and ease in transportation, rather than its taste.

Cavendish bananas.  Image courtesy of Steve Hopkins/Wikipedia.

Each banana is composed of 75% water.  They are very high in potassium which makes them slightly radioactive.  In fact, scientists refer to a "banana equivalent dose" when attempting to mitigate nuclear danger.  Wild bananas have many large, hard seeds, that are inedible.  The Cavendish has little dark spots in lieu of seeds.

A wild or "untamed" banana with seeds.

The banana plant has a "heart" where the fruits develop, known as an inflorescence.  This is a cluster of flowers on a stem.  The female flowers turn into fruit, which hang in cluster of around twenty called tiers.  Three to twenty tiers are known as a banana stem, and can weigh anywhere from 60 to 110 pounds.  What is commonly referred to as a bunch is a cluster of three to ten fruits.  Bananas grow pointing up, not hanging down.

A partially open inflorescence.

Bananas for the world market are picked green and ripened in special rooms once they reach their destination country.  These ripening rooms are filled with ethylene gas, which gives them their characteristic yellow color.  They are refrigerated during transport at around 58 degrees Fahrenheit.  Tree-ripened bananas are greenish-yellow that slightly brown as they ripen.  Their taste is superior, but the shelf life is only 7-10 days.  Ripe bananas fluoresce when they are exposed to ultraviolet light, but not green ones.  This leads scientists to believe that critters who can see ultraviolet light, such as some butterflies and birds, can easily find ripe bananas.

How bananas look under ultraviolet light (right).

Bananas are a staple for some cultures.  Depending on the cultivar, they can be sweet or starchy, and both skin and inner part can be eaten raw or cooked. Plantains are used in stews and curries, often like we use potatoes, even mashed or baked.  The banana hearts, or flowers, are considered a vegetable in some South and Southeast Asian cuisines.  The flavor is said to resemble an artichoke, and like an artichoke the fleshy part of the leaves and the heart are edible.  Banana leaves are often used as ecological "plates" or wrappings for food.

Banana flowers.

Bananas have become a regular part of the U.S. diet, and it's hard to imagine breakfast, for me at least, without them.  Hopefully the disease that is threatening the Cavendish will be halted or controlled before it goes the way of the Gros Michel, and it will remain a staple in our diets.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

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