Aguilar moves quickly through the fields surrounding the old Chiquita headquarters, chain-smoking Marlboros between taking bites of sample fruit. He understands that to actually find the needle he's looking for in his vast yellow haystack, he's got to maintain a fast pace. But he also knows that agricultural husbandry is a slow process. It requires patience. To balance both, he says, it is necessary to see the job as something more than just ordinary science. The race to save the banana is personal. "The bananas," he says, "are my children."
Each of Aguilar's experimental varieties are tagged and set off in rows. To put the new bananas to the test, no fungicides are used here, so it isn't difficult to see the difference between healthy, resistant plants and afflicted ones. The strong plants have expansive green leaves. Both Panama disease and another malady, Black Sigatoka (which unlike Panama disease is present in Central America), cause leaves to wilt and crumble, leaving the fruit unprotected from the sun and reducing photosynthesis-the dying plant can't make sugar, and fruit yield is severely diminished. Sigatoka is a major problem, but, unlike Panama disease, it is controllable with chemical sprayings.
Bananas grow from an underground root structure; what juts out of the ground is more like a stem than a trunk. A long spike, covered in tiny flowers, emerges from the stem. The female flowers grow into fruit at the base of the flower-bearing stalk, while the male flower-bulbous and red-grows at the very tip of the stalk, weighing it down, curving toward the ground. The fruits grow in spiraling groups called "hands" (they're the bundles you buy in the store; an individual banana is called a "finger"). A banana plant can have up to a dozen attached hands; together, a plant's entire output is called a "bunch."
Bananas are different from most other cultivated plants in that almost all the varieties-including the Cavendish-lack seeds (that round, dark center in a banana slice is the vestige of what was once the fruit's reproductive core). Cultivated bananas never reproduce sexually on their own. Rather, new stems grow from the existing root, sometimes for many years. Forcing the pollen from one male flower to make its way to the female of another plant, however, is how traditional banana breeders like Aguilar's team develop new varieties. Most mornings, usually just as dawn is breaking, a team of hand pollinators pedal through FHIA's dirt-tracked fields on battered three-speed bicycles. They move from plant to plant, gathering the powdery pollen from the males and transferring it to receptive female flowers, keeping meticulous records of their activities (Aguilar calls the field "a giant spreadsheet"). The goal of all this is to get seeds, and to use them to grow Aguilar's experimental varieties, one of which, he hopes, will ultimately yield a tasty, market-friendly Cavendish replacement. What are the odds of an individual seed ultimately yielding a thriving hybrid? "About 1 in 10,000," Aguilar says.
It takes about four months for a pollinated plant to bear fruit, which is harvested and brought to a processing shed for seed extraction. Workers press thousands of bananas through mesh strainers. About one seed is found for every 300 bananas. The seeds are then brought indoors, to what Aguilar calls the "embryo rescue unit." Of the tiny number of seeds, only a third of them actually germinate. As the plants grow, they move from test tubes through a series of protected greenhouses and finally back to the fields. The first fruits are harvested two years after the initial pollination. "That's when we begin to get a sense of what we got," Aguilar says.The difference between a near-natural banana and an FHIA hybrid can be significant. Aguilar shows me a series of photos dating back to 1959. The fruit yielded by Phil Rowe's earliest experiments in cross-breeding are very small. The descendants of those initial plants-the most recent is called FHIA-26-are massive and hardy.
Looking good is important for a consumer-friendly banana (Chiquita used to publish color charts that were hung in supermarkets, all designed to guide shoppers to the most yellow bananas). But taste is equally critical. As Aguilar leads me through the fields, we pass row after well-delineated row of exotic bananas. He stops at a group of plants marked "Umpiko," pulls a fruit off the stem, and peels it, taking a quick taste before handing a chunk to me. It's quite good-maybe milder-tasting than typical bananas-but the big problem with the Umpiko is that it ripens too fast. It would never make it to U.S. stores in time.
A few rows down, we duck into the shade of a low-slung plant. Height, too, is key; the Gros Michel was so tall that it was susceptible to wind blow-down. The Cavendish is considerably lower and, therefore, hardier in bad weather, although in 1998 nearly the entire Honduran banana crop was still wiped out by Hurricane Mitch. Aguilar picks and tastes another banana.
None of our snacks are Cavendish, or descended from Cavendish-and none taste much like the banana I'm used to. Just as importers were afraid that consumers would reject today's most popular banana when it replaced the Big Mike, they worry that a fruit that isn't creamy and sweet, like the Cavendish, will destroy markets. "We can make bananas that could be equal," Aguilar says, "but not the same."single page
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