Why do bananas smell so bad

Consumption habits: Totally banana

Raise the banana: this singer (Rolando Villazon) received it as a gift from a fan Photo: Frank Leonhardt / dpa

The best-selling fruit in the world is the dessert banana, created from the spirit of colonialism. Is it even possible to trade something like that fairly?

The yellow peel with the brownish spots is easy to remove: A muffled crack, a little sapscht’s, a heavy, sweet smell. It is reminiscent of childhood: the banana can be sucked like a pacifier, salivated and then squeezed toothless in the baby's palate. Sweetness, childhood, innocence, happiness: Oh, if it were so!

But it is more likely to ask why we have grown so fond of the banana? How did this yellow berry become an icon of pop culture despite pesticide records and brutal cultivation practices? Most traded fruit in the world?

And that in just 125 years: In Hamburg, the fruit importer Richard Lehmann began regularly ordering a few dozen banana bunches in 1895, which he probably also sold. When the first twelve tufts entered the regular auction in Bremerhaven in November 1902, they turned out to be slow-moving. Half of them find no buyers.

Today the Germans are world champions in banana eating. You love them. Is that because she was the tool to undermine the Treaty of Versailles? Its entry into force on January 10, 1920 officially marked the end of German colonialism: the German-occupied territories were distributed to the other European powers. Cameroon fell to the United Kingdom.

But: "The value of the former German plantings was highly valued by the mandate administration," writes Kerstin Wilke in "Die Deutsche Banane", her dissertation at the University of Hanover. "As a whole they are wonderful examples of industry, based on solid scientific knowledge," she quotes the head of plantation management, Frank Evans. So: Wonderful examples of industry based on solid scientific knowledge. And forced labor.

They are looking for buyers, and of course the plantation manager Evans warns against splitting the plantings into small businesses run by local farmers. No, they should end up in the hands of European companies, preferably en bloc. One prepares an auction.

Pepper sacks want plantations back

This is the hour for Hamburg merchants. Because Evans was Germanophile. As early as 1923 he traveled to Berlin, without the knowledge of the British government, and, with the support of Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann, worked on tricks for how the respectable pepper sacks could win back the plantations.

A company is founded, the Fako GmbH named after the Cameroon Mountain. At the top: planter and hobby race scientist Wilhelm Kemner and Kurt Woermann, the second son of Adolph, the Hamburg colony pioneer.

“The attempt to make repurchase a priority in terms of colonial policy was successful,” writes Caroline Authaler in “German Plantations in British Cameroon”. Also thanks to secrecy. Breaking the vow of silence would be “economic treason”, warns the Fako partnership agreement to its signatories. A straw man, the speculator Tress Hart, is hired for the auction in London, to whom the Fako protagonists follow instructions with pencils in the back during the auction.

“In the 1920s”, as the African Fruit Compagnie Hamburg (AFC) summarizes the result of this campaign on its homepage, “the AFC established itself in almost all European markets.” At that time, “solid, fair and honest relationships are both to trade as well as to producers ”. Quite, quite sure. And because anyone who does such a good thing remains silent about it in the Hanseatic tradition, neither the English nor the German press find out about the coup after the auction on November 27, 1924.

On the contrary, Woermann is disinforming the British media. The Reichstag does not need to know anything either, although the state is subsidizing the campaign with almost ten million marks. Balance: From 1925 onwards, German planting is again taking place in Cameroon. The Versailles Treaty has a hole of 86,500 hectares, the Weimar Republic a secret colony and Germany a new favorite fruit.

Bananas have been grown on huge plantations since colonial times. Nothing else grows in these monocultures: total banana. The perennial only bears fruit once in its life. It is cut off after the harvest. Nothing remains of the above-ground parts.

Smell test: Chiquita inspector in Bremerhaven at work Photo: Ingo Wagner / dpa

Its tubers survive in the ground: it reproduces via young shoots that sprout from the old roots. The cultivated bananas grown around the world are genetic clones. They have the same DNA. That makes them prone to disease.

And the banana is sick. At least the banana we know. Because there are many varieties, explains Renata Motta, environmental sociologist at the Free University of Berlin. She conducts research on food and raw materials in Brazil: "Here, the banana is a food that people not only perceive as fruit, but also use it for cooking," she says. There is therefore a huge selection of varieties in Brazilian supermarkets.

Their cultivation and that for foreign trade are separate business areas: "The big companies that dominate exports do not dominate the domestic market here," says Motta.

In Europe and the USA, only one genus of the diverse fruit is marketed: Musa paradisica, the dessert banana. It has to be sweet and easy to chew, i.e. seedless. As early as the 1960s, a hose fungus infection had almost wiped out the "Gros Michel", which was then used around the world.

The variety was replaced by a variety resistant to the pathogen Fusarium oxysporum, the "Cavendish", named after the owner of the greenhouse in which the gardener Joseph Paxton had mended it around 1830. According to the World Food Organization, 95 percent of all bananas in the trade are Cavendish bananas.

Old Fusi travels the world

The fungus is more flexible: Tropical Race 4 (TR4) is a mutation of the good old Fusarium oxysporum, which first appeared in Asia 25 years ago, in Malaysia, China, Indonesia, in the Philippines, then also in Africa, in Australia. Old Fusi attacks the root tubers of the plants. Its spores remain in the ground: Infected areas are out of the question in the long run.

Now he has reached Latin America. Because of him, Colombia declared a national emergency in August. If it gets to Ecuador, the country is in danger of collapse: 81 percent of the world's bananas come from there, around 200,000 people work directly in cultivation, and exports are worth almost 3.5 billion US dollars. The gross domestic product is 100 billion.

How importers are handling the disease threat remains unclear. The contact person for marketing questions from the Hamburg import company Interweichert, for example, cannot answer taz's questions, unfortunately. “We look forward to seeing you”, it says on the homepage, but he is always in the meeting when you call. Or on the packing machine. Or already during the Christmas holidays. There is no response to emails.

In the air: banana boxes on the quay in Bremerhaven Photo: Ingo Wagner / dpa

In England, the import company Elders & Fyffes pushed the banana through with large-scale advertising campaigns in the 1920s. It became the first fruit to be registered as a trademark: from 1929 onwards, every banana from Elders & Fyffes in England was given a blue sticker with the “Fyffes” logo.

Importers from Hamburg and Bremen are imitating the example: There are postcards, there are cinema advertisements, paid articles in magazines, banana fairs, songs, radio reports, leaflets. And banana policy: The Reich Association of German Fruit Wholesalers urges wholesalers to participate in community advertising.

Between 1927 and 1930 imports increased by 80 percent. Gustav Scipio's Bremer Fruchthandel GmbH, which is now called Greenyard, has the special refrigerated wagons of the Reichsbahn painted bright yellow. Soon they are popularly called canaries because Scipio relies on Canarian bananas.

Short break from the world war, then restart from 1952 with the own brand "1x1", which has existed since 1942, and the sole import right for "Chiquita" bananas is secured: 1967, the same year that Miguel Ángel Asturias received the Nobel Prize for his banana trilogy. The novels reveal the obscene amalgamation of the Guatemalan dictatorship and the United Fruit Company, i.e. the trade colonialism of the Chiquita company, which has since defected to Interweichert in Hamburg.

Rudi Pfeifer, managing director of Banafair

“The cheap banana is a discontinued model. A change in production conditions, both socially and ecologically, is urgently required "

Branded bananas are bullshit: it means selling fruits that grow on the same plantation at different prices. They are even exact biological clones: so the fruits are not just the same. They are identical. We all eat the same banana. For decades.

The sticker makes the difference - or the cultivation: Since sustainability became an issue, sustainability has also played a role. And there are differences: Cut out loud Eco test almost all organic and Fairtrade-certified bananas in terms of pesticide pollution with "very good". Conventional ones, on the other hand, achieve ratings from “satisfactory” to “unsatisfactory”; Chiquita, for example, achieves “poor”.

Pesticides from the plane

But: How do the pesticides get onto the fruit? Aerial spraying, the spraying of pesticides by plane, is common practice there. Renata Motta sees the main problem there: “The workers are at great risk from the systemic use of pesticides,” she says.

The human rights organization Oxfam had proven this with the 2011 study "Bitter Bananas". The planes often spray while working in the fields, as 90 percent of the plantation workers surveyed confirmed. Walk away? Forbidden. Protective clothing? You can only shield yourself with your own shirts and hold your nose. The planes arrive without warning. Almost all respondents suffer from dizziness, burning eyes, skin irritation, vomiting, severe fatigue and insomnia. Your risk of cancer is increased.

Why not only sell fair trade bananas? Because the market doesn't regulate anything, it just makes everything worse: the power of retailers and discounters is great. More than 34 percent of the banana price ends up in their coffers. But it is difficult to make something out of it: Lidl's attempt to rely entirely on fair bananas, announced with a big hello in 2019, was counterproductive.

Bremen 1999: Protest for the 100th birthday of the banana company Chiquita Photo: Ingo Wagner / dpa

When the customers stayed away, the discounter switched to price wars, which everyone has been participating in ever since. Edeka too. The purchasing company of German colonial goods dealers, who are now called merchants, has its headquarters in Hamburg. Bananas of the brand "Gut & Cheap" are sold nationwide for 88 cents a kilo. How the company sets its prices is not revealed. For "competitive reasons".

All together - that might be possible, but it would be prohibited by antitrust law. A supply chain law would be helpful, a tax break for fair trade fruit or an EU-wide import ban for goods produced under inhumane conditions.

Otherwise there is only hope for TR4. But it also threatens fair bananas: "Even organic bananas are Cavendish bananas," says Rudi Pfeifer, the managing director of Banafair, the importer and wholesaler who only sells bananas with the Fairtrade seal. "We then have almost the same monoculture as in the conventional area."

That is why, for the last 25 years, there has been an increasingly hectic search for resistant varieties that the new fungus cannot harm. Now it should fix the gene scissors.

Rudi Pfeifer advocates another option: In principle, he only markets bananas from small-scale family businesses. "If something protects, it is the task of intensive monocultures in favor of variety diversity, mixed culture, agro-forest systems," he explains. "Healthy, strong plants, high biodiversity and nutrient-rich soil keep pests in check."

He calls for a system change: "The cheap banana is a thing of the past," he says. “A change in production conditions, both socially and ecologically, is urgently required.” Decolonize banana.

You can read more about world trade and what Fairtrade can save there in the taz at the weekend or here.