Bananas’ Taiwan Story

Source : Wikipedia

The Banana (Musa x paradisiaca) is a fruit that can be commonly seen everywhere in life, with a slightly velvety texture and a sweet taste, popular amongst old and young. It is due to that very reason that bananas once brought up to 100 million USD worth of foreign exchange for Taiwan, and how exactly did this largely beneficial fruit find its way into Taiwan? Let’s take a look.

The banana has many names in Taiwan, “甘蕉” (literally meaning “sweet banana”), “芎蕉”, “芽蕉” (“sprout banana”), and “弓蕉”(“bent banana”), and it is the largest perennial herbaceous plant in the world known to man. Although giant bamboo (Dendrocalamus giganteus) can grow taller than Musa ingens, the biggest banana species; but the diameter of giant bamboo is only 30 centimeters while M. ingens can reach a diameter of 1–2 meters.

The species of banana we normally eat are Cavendish bananas, a subgroup of the triploid group cultivars Musa acuminate, called “北蕉 (‘bei jiao’, literally meaning ‘North Banana’)” in Taiwan, probably because it was introduced to Taiwan from the Port of Keelung (located in the north of Taiwan) when first imported from the Guangdong and Fujian Province of Southern China. There are currently 135 countries around the world growing bananas, a total of 15% exported worldwide.

Like many crop plants, bananas do not originate from Taiwan. Archaeological discoveries tell us that bananas may have been domesticated back in 5,000 BC in Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea, the oldest site being in Kuk swamp. When it came to Taiwan is still in debate, some believe it came about 200 years ago from Fujian, after which during the Japanese occupation, was test-planted all around Taiwan due to the Japanese’s love for the fruit, ultimately discovering the middle and southern parts of Taiwan most suitable for growing bananas; therefore becoming the main producing area, especially in Kaohsiung’s Cishan region. The region was once given the title “Banana kingdom”, exporting bananas to Japan back in 1907; in 1967, Cishan’s banana production constituted 58% of the whole nation’s production, almost a tenth of Taiwan’s total export value, becoming one of Taiwan’s most important economic support. However, in later years they were unable to compete against the Philippines and Central American countries, nowadays produced mainly for domestic consumption.

United States’ bananas are mostly imported from Central American countries, but the profit is mainly monopolized by a few companies; and in order to ensure their own profit, they demand that the farmers use dangerous pesticides to treat the bananas, causing the health of Central American farmers to deteriorate, with severe effects like infertility, even death. Though with the rise of fair trade, farmers no longer have to use aforementioned pesticides, their income has also been raised considerably, which has subsequently improved their lives.

Although we mainly consume Cavendish bananas as of today, back in the 1950s the Gros Michel, often known as “Big Mike”, was the most popular species. So why was it replaced? At the time there was an outbreak of Panama disease across the globe, and with the cultivated bananas species all being triploids, they could only reproduce via asexual reproduction; the pros to this were that all bananas tasted the same, but the downside was once a pathogen appeared, widespread infection was inevitable. The whole world’s banana industries suffered, though fortunately they discovered that Cavendish bananas were resistant to the Panama disease, thus encouraging farmers to grow them instead, Cavendish bananas immediately becoming the main strain of bananas worldwide. However, Cavendish is also triploids and a new strain of Panama disease seems to make a comeback recently, it is urgent to breed and select a new cultivar of resistant banana.

Besides Cavendish bananas, we can also find the varieties of Japanese banana (Musa basjoo): pink banana, scarlet banana (or apple banana), and various other kinds of bananas. Most bananas in Taiwan are eaten raw; but in other parts of the world there are bananas that are meant to be cooked. Cooked bananas (plantains) have a higher starch content, but bananas eaten as fruit can also be used to make sweets such as a banana cake. Plantains are also triploid, but it is a hybrid between M. acuminate and M. balbisiana. The main production area of plantains is Uganda. In Africa there are many varieties of plantains and it can be used as currency. Plantains are also related to the first human being in African legends.

The shift of Gros Michel to Cavendish also caused the change of packaging industry. Unlike Gros Michel, Cavendish is more delicate so they have to separate each bunch of bananas, putting it in boxes in order not to damage it.

Standard Fruit Company (becoming Dole Food Inc. now) developed the banana packaging system and they also tried to promote this packaging technique to other countries under U.S. influence. Needless to say, they tried to put their influence on Taiwan, too.

Standard Fruit Company demanded Taiwan build a carton factory and let them use it for twelve years for free. Taiwan has to buy all the boxes from the company, despite the factory being built on Taiwanese money. Moreover, Taiwan has to give the company 1% of the profit if Taiwan did not export more than six million baskets of banana. Not to mention in order to package bananas in boxes, those bananas that are too big or too small will have to be discarded. This will eliminate at least one-third of the bananas. Concerning about farmers’ profits, Mr. Wu Zhenrui(吳振瑞), the CEO of Kaohsiung Green Fruit Transporting and Marketing Cooperative(高雄青果運銷合作社), refused.

On March 7, 1969, officers from Investigation Bureau (調查局) raided Kaohsiung Green Fruit Transporting and Marketing Cooperative. Mr. Wu was being accused of corruption and purchasing gold illegally. At the end, he was being sentenced two and a half years in jail. By the time he was out, Taiwan already lost competition over the Philippines and Ecuador. All the accusations against Mr. Wu was exonerated many years later, but Taiwan’s banana industry suffered greatly.

Compared to other fruits, bananas have a high concentration of potassium, eating it on an empty stomach will swiftly alter the body’s ion balance. Potassium is one of the main cations within our cells, and while a healthy person may be able to bear the physical pressure of the sudden change of ionic balance, the same cannot be said for those with heart or kidney problems, so it’s best not to gorge on bananas, especially on an empty stomach.

Have you ever heard of the Taiwanese saying “lost love tastes like banana peels”? It might be due to the gustatory contrast between its sweet pulp and unappetizing peel, and so people compared the feeling of lost love to that of “eating banana peels”; but recent studies have discovered that the banana peel contains tryptophan, which can be used to synthesize serotonin, a natural antidepressant, so eating banana peels might actually help! Interestingly enough, the saying “going bananas” is used to describe someone who’s gone crazy or losing their mind in western countries!

According to legends, Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden for eating an apple; but according to some researchers, what they ate might have been a banana! And why is that? Because the climate of Mesopotamia, the site of our earliest civilizations, is not fit for growing apples, yet alternatively has always produced bananas in abundance! But hey, that’s just a theory!

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葉綠舒 Susan Yeh

黑手老師、科普作者、資深書蟲 Educator, popular science writer and bookworm.