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Varia Historia

Print version ISSN 0104-8775

Abstract

SOLURI, John. Mass markets, biodiversity and breeding improvements of export bananas 1920-1980. Varia hist. [online]. 2008, vol.24, n.39, pp. 47-70. ISSN 0104-8775.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/S0104-87752008000100003.

The export banana industry in Latin America and the Caribbean developed on a very narrow genetic base: a single variety, the Gros Michel, was the only banana variety mass marketed in the United States for at least seventy years. The Gros Michel variety produced large fruit bunches, shipped well, and possessed a flavor and peel color that North American consumers came to recognize as a "quality" banana. The variety was also susceptible to a number of fungal pathogens including Panama disease and Sigatoka. The historical dynamic provoked by the spread of fungal pathogens during the first half of the twentieth century accelerated rates of deforestation, destabilized rural livelihoods, increased occupational health risks for farm workers, and lowered profits of major banana companies. The epidemics prompted both the British government and the United Fruit Company to establish banana breeding programs during the 1920s with the goal of developing an export variety with resistance to Panama disease. However, breeding a variety that possessed both disease resistance and marketability proved to be a difficult task. Both the British and United Fruit sent teams of botanists to comb the world's tropical regions in search of new varieties for their breeding programs. The history of export banana breeding programs reveals one of the principle contradictions of twentieth-century agriculture: the same processes of mass production that tend to reduce biological diversity on local and regional levels depend upon access to a global "genetic bank" in order to maintain profitable production levels.

Keywords : banana; mass market; biodiversity.

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