Yes! We have no bananas

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By John Bartlit

“Bananas –59¢/lb.” Bananas are rich metaphors for the untold oddities that lurk deep in nature and in humans.  
People see different things in a banana plantation. You hear them called banana “plants;” others call them “trees.” Botanically, bananas grow on a plant whose “trunks” of tightly-woven leaves look to all the world like trees. Say what you will.
Equally strange, the heavy bunches of bananas grow upwards from their stem-end, which looks upside down to our eyes. Nor is that surprise the last.  
In the early 1800s, sailors returning from trips to the tropical Americas would earn a little extra profit by loading on board the mostly unknown long, yellow fruit. In 1866, one Carl B. Frank began the first planned importing of bananas from northern Panama to New York City.
That same decade saw the birth of banana republics, a name coined in a 1904 book of short stories by O. Henry.  
Bananas are now as common as fish, but the exotic fruit is still popular in today’s markets. Nothing grows a tougher wrapper that makes peeling and eating so easy. Nothing else has a bite-size cross section that neatly reseals the end where it is bitten or cut.
After working things out, bananas are easy to ship, store, ripen and eat, with no real seeds. Alas, grave danger lies in those three words “no real seeds.”
Almost all the bananas sold in world markets trace their start ages ago to an infertile hybrid of two species. Having no viable seeds, all desirable banana plants are grown from shoots taken from the same plant stock. This makes them all clones with little or no genetic diversity.  
The danger with clones is that what will kill one, will kill them all.
The threat is more than theoretical. In the 1920s, a fungus began racing through the banana world. By the late 1950s, the banana apocalypse, as it was known, ended in the ultimate ruin of the industry’s common banana, the Gros Michel.
The ruin gave rise to a catchy song of the ‘20s that is still around today, “Yes! We Have No Bananas.” The public whimsy tamed so many worries that it was attached first to the banana apocalypse, then to relief protests in Belfast, to fruit stands during the Great Depression, and to World War II food rationing in the UK. When times are bad, smiles are medicinal.
Luckily, the industry came up with another usable seedless variety in time to bring the Cavendish banana to today’s markets. The Cavendish runs the same risk of ruin as did the Gros Michel, from some new strain of fungus. We may again be singing, “Yes! We have no bananas.”  
I close with a personal note. I well recall the chemistry lab I took in the mid-1950s at Purdue University. To learn about esters, we combined isoamyl alcohol and acetic acid under proper conditions to create isoamyl acetate.
Any so-so cook has a fair idea of smells to expect from alcohols and acids. Yet few people would guess what the product, isoamyl acetate, smells like. It does not merely smell like bananas. The exact chemical is in bananas to give them their familiar aroma we all enjoy.
So it is with chemistry and nature. The principles of science are the same whether we see them as “natural” or “man-made.”
The same is true of joys and harms. Think about bananas, food routes, disease, floods and drought, fire and conflict. Nature’s ways bring much good and much trouble. People are but part of the scheme.