Honduras is in many ways the epicenter of the American super- market banana. More than a century ago, a pair of U.S. companies-United Fruit and Standard Fruit, now known, respectively, as Chiquita and Dole-built some of the world's first commercial banana plantations in the Central American nation. Technological infrastructure was the first task: The banana producers began as railroad companies, with friendly local governments granting thousands of acres of surrounding rainforest for each mile of track laid. Although bananas had been sporadically available in the U.S. since colonial days, the post"Civil War advent of motorized transit by rail and steamship made the importation of tropical fruit practical. (An 1896 article in this magazine entitled "Where Bananas Grow" observed that the U.S. market for bananas had increased more than 40-fold in the previous quarter century, owing mostly to improved "facilities for transporting and preserving them.")
By the early 1900s, bananas surpassed apples as the nation's favorite fruit, becoming so popular that in the days before municipal trash collection, the slapstick slip on a discarded peel was a genuine hazard. (Luckily, Boy Scouts were on the case: "A good turn may consist in removing a piece of banana peel from the pavement," their 1914 handbook advised.) The problem of banana litter helped lead to the development of the earliest urban refuse-removal networks, according to Virginia Scott Jenkins, author of Bananas: An American History.
Bananas have always been a technology incubator. Because they're a time-sensitive product-they need to be harvested green, then delivered to market just at ripening time-systems had to be developed to bring precision to the picking and shipping processes. Leonel Castillo, a banana-production consultant who grew up in Chiquita's corporate compound near the city of San Pedro Sula, on Honduras's northern coast, explains that the old way was "to wait until you could see the ship coming over the horizon toward port." Then banana workers would engage in frantic nonstop harvesting and rush the crop to the boats. Chiquita engineers developed the first radio networks in the tropics as a way to bypass this antiquated system. The fruit's popularity also led to the development of ripening rooms whose controlled environment can slow or speed the way picked fruit ages; refrigerated steamships; and early precursors to bar-coding that allowed each bunch to be tracked by field, plantation, originating country and shipping container.
But the main thrust of banana tech has always been the search for new varieties. FHIA now occupies the buildings at Chiquita's old Honduran headquarters that since the 1920s have been the global hub for traditional banana breeding (the buildings also hint at the lifestyle once provided for executives at tropical outposts, spreading across a campus-like compound that once housed a swimming pool and horse-racing track).
Chiquita abandoned most tropical research in the 1970s; FHIA opened in 1986 as part of an initiative to promote local economic development. One of the first new breeds to come out of the effort, which is funded by a combination of government and private grants, was the "Goldfinger" banana, also known as FHIA-01. The Goldfinger was developed by painstakingly cross-breeding samples from the more than 350 banana types originally collected by United Fruit scientists. It is a highly versatile fruit, suitable for cooking and eating; it has a slightly tart, apple-like flavor and is one of the few bred bananas to gain significant consumer acceptance.
The Goldfinger was created by Philip Rowe, a legendary advocate for traditional methods of banana breeding; Rowe died in 2002, and the program was taken over by Aguilar. Like Rowe, Aguilar believes that conventional hybridization-not genetic engineering-is the best way to devise a Cavendish replacement. The Goldfinger was evidence of that belief: It transported well and caught on in certain markets, notably Australia. But it didn't taste like the sweeter Caven- dish and never took hold in the Americas.single page