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Bananas: The Uncertain Future Of A Favorite Fruit
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's become a FRESH AIR tradition to do a
theme week at the end of August leading into Labor Day weekend. This time we're
devoting the week to interviews about food.
So we wanted to give the week a catchy title, and yesterday I asked for your
help in naming the week. We got lots of responses. Here's some of the names our
listeners came up with.
The most often-suggested title was Fresh Fare, but that was hardly the only
title that tried some wordplay with Fresh Air. There was Fresh Airsparagus,
Fresh Air Medium Rare, CrÃ¨me Fresh Air, Chef Air and Bon-airatit. That is
really stretching it.
There were plays on NPR, like NP-Are You Going to Finish That, All Things
Consumed, and Non-Perishable Radio. Some people thought it would be fun to play
with my name, with titles like Grossperies and Grosstronamic.
All right, so the title we've decided to go with is All You Can Eat Week. It
was suggested by three people: Mary Beth Alvarez(ph), Lisa Flynn(ph) and Jim
Pastric(ph). We thank you for naming our week.
So let's begin day two of All You Can Eat Week with the author of the book
"Banana." The first thing that caught my attention in this book was the
description of the epidemic underway that could, in a matter of decades,
essentially wipe out the type of banana Americans eat.
I would really miss a banana at breakfast or lunch, and I know I'm not alone.
According to this book, Americans eat more bananas per years than apples and
oranges combined. Bananas taste sweet, but much of their history is not.
Along with innovations in agriculture, technology, shipping and marketing, the
fruit owes its popularity to banana barons who controlled and in some cases
destroyed nations. That was the meaning of banana republic long before it meant
chain clothing store.
Dan Koeppel is the author of "Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the
World." He's been published in National Geographic, Wired and Popular Science,
and has eaten bananas in five continents. We spoke when the book was published.
Dan Koeppel, welcome to FRESH AIR. What is killing bananas?
Mr. DAN KOEPPEL (Author): Thank you for having me. What's happening with
bananas is that they are being struck by a fungus called Panama disease that is
incurable and that pretty much wipes out banana plantations within a matter of
And what's really interesting is that the banana that's being struck was one
that was believed to be and selected to be resistant to this fungus after the
earlier banana crop, the one our grandparents ate, was destroyed by the same
fungus about 50 years ago.
GROSS: So is this a different strain of that fungus?
Mr. KOEPPEL: It is a different strain of that fungus. What happened was they
brought some of our resistant bananas to Asia, where they hit a mutated version
of that fungus, and from there it just began galloping through that hemisphere
and has made it all the way to Australia and is almost certain to come towards
our own banana fields in Latin and South America sometime in the next 10 years.
GROSS: But it hasn't hit there yet?
Mr. KOEPPEL: It has not hit there yet. But every single banana scientist I
spoke to, and that was quite a few, says it's not an if, it's a when, and 10 to
30 years. It only takes a single clump of contaminated dirt, literally, to get
this thing rampaging across entire continents.
GROSS: Are bananas particularly vulnerable to epidemics?
Mr. KOEPPEL: Yeah, bananas are, for all their ubiquity, and it's the world's
most popular fruit by far, are very, very vulnerable to a lot of diseases. And
the reason for this is that bananas, the bananas we eat, which are called
Cavendish bananas, are fundamentally clones of each other.
There are no seeds. Every banana is grown basically by taking a cutting from
one and turning it into another tree. So every Cavendish banana that we eat,
every banana you eat, that I eat, that people eat in China and Europe,
wherever, is exactly the same genetically as every other one. And just like
human identical twins, what afflicts one afflicts the others.
And these very weak bananas have a number of diseases, and Panama disease is
the worst, but there's a whole bunch of others that are almost as bad that
require incredible amounts of control and chemicals and all sorts of practices
just to keep that fruit coming to our breakfast tables every day.
GROSS: So you say they require a lot of chemicals and stuff. What about the
organic bananas that you see at health food stores, natural food stores?
Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, yeah, organic bananas do not require a lot of chemicals,
obviously, and that's a great thing. And far be it for me to, you know, be
negative about organics, but they don't really help the problem.
It's not possible - there's not enough land to grow enough organic bananas to
make them a practical replacement for all of our supermarket bananas. That's
because organic bananas, in order to fight disease, have to be grown at higher
altitudes and cooler temperatures. That's the way it works. And there are just
not enough high-altitude, cool-temperature places that are also hospitable to
growing tropical bananas in order to make organic bananas a viable, you know,
total replacement for those standard 69-cent-a-pound bananas you find in your
GROSS: You mentioned that the Cavendish bananas that we all eat today in the
United States are different from the type of banana that was eaten a couple of
generations ago. What was that called, and what are the differences between the
Mr. KOEPPEL: Yeah, it's really interesting. Most people don't know this: The
original banana that was introduced to the U.S. around 1880, 1890, and took
off, almost immediately surpassed apples as the number one favorite fruit, was
called the Gros Michel banana. And it was, by almost every account, a tastier,
bigger banana that had a tougher skin, and it was generally a superior food.
But the problem with the Gros Michel was that it was susceptible to this fungus
called Panama diseases, which was first seen in Panama. And it was incurable,
and over the first 50 years of the last century, this disease just rampaged and
destroyed the Gros Michel.
This Cavendish banana we eat is considered an inferior banana because it tastes
more bland, it's tougher to ship, it needs to be boxed, as opposed to the Gros
Michel, which could be just thrown into a boat, and it was so - our banana was
so despised by the banana companies, they were so sure it would - they thought
it would be the New Coke of the banana world, that the entire consumer market
would reject this, what they basically considered a lousy banana.
Of course the Gros Michel went away, and we didn't have a choice, and they
didn't have a choice, and luckily for banana lovers, the transition was fairly
invisible, at least on the breakfast table.
GROSS: So when did the Cavendish replace the Gros Michel?
Mr. KOEPPEL: The first real Cavendish plantations came in the '50s by - they
were introduced by Standard Fruit, which is now known as Dole. They were
Chiquita's small competitor. Chiquita refused to do this. They were terrified,
and they were literally on the verge of bankruptcy in 1960 when they finally,
at the last minute, adopted the Cavendish.
GROSS: If the Cavendish is killed off by this fungus that's rampaging around
much of the world, is there a replacement in the works?
Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, it's interesting because the only banana that's exported for
any - in any significant amount is the Cavendish. Yet there are over 1,000
different kinds of bananas. The problem is that only the Cavendish is suitable
In order to be exported, a banana has to have a tough enough skin that it can
stand the long trip. It has to ripen at exactly the same rate so that it - when
it gets to your supermarket, it's going to be just green, and it's going to be
nice and yellow with a couple of brown flecks in seven days.
Of all these bananas - and it has to taste right for consumer taste - and of
all these bananas that people eat all around the world, there is no non-local
banana other than the Cavendish, to a great extent. And so there isn't
necessarily or really a Cavendish replacement. It would require a change in the
way we enjoy and think of bananas in order to get this banana replaced, and
then it would also require a lot of technology, both in terms of science and in
terms of just building structures that could bring these more fragile,
different bananas to market.
GROSS: You've tasted bananas around the world as part of your research. How do
other bananas compare in taste to what we're used to in the United States?
Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, the big disadvantage of spending three years writing a
banana book is that you actually become a banana snob, and you learn to despise
or at least have contempt for the lowly, poor, you know, work-a-day Cavendish,
which is a bland banana. There are some amazingly delicious bananas out there.
My favorite is called the Lacatan.
It's from the Philippines. And it's the - you know, banana enthusiasts, such as
they are, many of them believe it's the best-tasting banana in the world, and I
would have to agree with that. It's got a very intense, creamy flavor.
They're a red banana, and you do see some red bananas in gourmet stores here
which are related to the Lacatan, but they're quite inferior, although they're
still better than Cavendish.
GROSS: Well, one thing you looked into was genetically modified bananas that
could withstand the fungus that is killing bananas in much of the world. So
what are some of the things you've learned about what's possible through
Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, I think the first thing to say is, to get to, is how
important bananas are. We love bananas. We eat more of them than anybody. You
know, our Corn Flakes would suffer without them. But to some extent, they're a
replaceable fruit for us.
In other parts of the world, especially in Africa, bananas are incredibly
important. People rely on them for 80 percent of their calories. People eat 500
pounds of bananas a year, compared to 25 pounds for us, in Uganda.
So I'm saying that because genetic modification is probably the best and
fastest way to strengthen the banana, all different kinds of bananas, not just
Cavendish but these local bananas, to strengthen them against these diseases
that are running so wild right now, and to provide, you know, the fastest way
forward to protecting these food supplies for people who really need them.
And so right now they're doing a lot of work with DNA manipulation, attempting
to cross one banana with another, sometimes trying to add attributes from other
foods. Radishes are quite resistant to a similar fungus. So there have been
attempts to add some radish genes to bananas. Nothing has so far made it into
the fields very much for testing though.
GROSS: Genetically modified foods are very controversial. We don't know what
the long-term effects are on human bodies or on crops. But you think bananas
are in a different position than most fruits and vegetables? Why?
Mr. KOEPPEL: I do, I do, and as I say in the book, I was the, you know, the
poster boy for thinking I want my foods pure, I don't want genetic
modification, I don't want pesticides. I still don't want pesticides, but I've
come full-circle on genetic modification, especially when it comes to bananas.
I really believe that the potential dangers are minimal, if any. We talk about
crop contamination. Well, bananas don't have seeds. They don't have pollen.
They're sterile. So the idea that something could happen, as has happened with
corn in a lot of the world, where corn pollen has - from genetically modified
corn has spread in some fields so much that you can't tell which corn is which.
That's not going to happen with bananas.
In addition, I think the need is very urgent with bananas, and I really just
don't think that genetic engineering is the evil people say it is. I think that
it's one of those things that if misused, it definitely can be a nasty thing,
but the way it's being done to bananas is to me no different than an
advancement on the conventional hybridization techniques that farmers have been
using for 10,000 years.
GROSS: My guest is Dan Koeppel, author of the book "Banana." We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Dan Koeppel, author of the book "Banana: The Fate of the
Fruit That Changed the World." I eat a lot of bananas, and some bananas,
they're just like duds. Like, you get them home and they never turn yellow, or
if they do turn yellow, it's this kind of, like, sickly color. And when you
peel (unintelligible) more brownish than yellow. When you peel the â when you
take off the peel, it's kind of stringy and almost wood-like and like a pulpy
wood. And the banana tastes more earthy than sweet.
Mr. KOEPPEL: Yeah, on behalf of all banana lovers, I have to apologize. You
know, the problem is that in theory, all bananas - bananas are the sort of Big
Mac of natural foods. They should all be exactly the same, as they are
The problem is that bananas come from so far away, and a lot of our fruits do
these days, but still, bananas have to be handled very carefully. They're quite
delicate. They're very susceptible to temperature variations. They bruise so
So you're going to get a lot of different kinds of variation in your banana,
and you'll see that. You know, people have asked me, since I've written this
book: Why do my organic bananas ripen poorly? And, you know, theoretically my
answer has to be they don't, but clearly people over and over against say that
there's something off about this banana or that one, and it really has to do
with sort of the amount of distance it travels, the amount of work that has to
be done to get this fruit here and all the little variables that could throw up
roadblocks on that long trip.
GROSS: How does the distance traveled affect the taste and the ripening?
Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, in order to - a banana on a tree is always green. It will
not ripen until it comes off the tree. The ripening process begins the moment
the banana is removed from the tree. That is generally about two weeks before
that banana is looking nice and yellow in your supermarket.
In order to delay and control that ripening, the bananas have to be shipped in
gas-controlled rooms, where the atmosphere is controlled to limit the amount of
a gas called ethylene that fruits give off when they're ripening. It's sort of
a - it's a gas that basically says to other fruits around: Hey, everybody,
let's start ripening.
So if the ethylene is not controlled properly, you're going to get some issues
with the quality of the banana, and this refrigeration gassing process has to
continue. Supermarket chains have huge banana-ripening rooms in their
warehouses that are specifically designed to keep bananas at these controlled
temperature and gas levels.
So if any of these little things goes wrong, if the mix is wrong, if there's
too many bananas, if they ripen too quickly, then you're going to get some
shoddy bananas. If they're handled roughly, if that carton gets dropped, and
the bananas get bruised, they're going to not be as good. So there's like - as
was I saying, there's all these little variables, fine-tuning, that has to be
taken care of in order to get a good banana to you.
GROSS: We've been talking about the taste of bananas and bananas'
susceptibility to fungal epidemics. The banana also has an incredibly
interesting history that intertwines with the history of Latin America and with
dictatorships in Latin America, with American policy toward Latin America.
So let's talk about that a little bit. Was it American companies like United
Fruit that actually brought bananas to Central America?
Mr. KOEPPEL: Absolutely. There were no bananas growing anywhere in this
hemisphere until they were brought by Westerners, originally by Spanish
missionaries. But as a banana industry, there was nothing prior to that. There
were a few trees growing in Jamaica that were brought as an exotic and overly
ripe, terrible tasting treat to rich people until the 1880s.
But a few folks, you know, the banana men, decided that this was going to be a
hot product, and they decided that they were going to - they immediately set
out a goal of defeating apples. They were going to sell at half the price of
apples and sell twice as many bananas.
It was really an amazing thing what they did. Apples are grown within a few
miles of many, many people, and they're readily available. Bananas, they had to
come up with ways to ship this delicate tropical fruit thousands of miles and
sell it for half the price of their local competitor, and they did it.
But to do so, they needed to keep their costs down. They needed to not just
keep their costs down, they had to have no cost, and they brutally assaulted
Latin America, Central America, northern South America. They had to enslave
nations and people. They had to control the land, they had to control the means
of production, the transportation systems, and they had to do it for almost no
money in order to reap the incredible profits that they did earn with bananas.
GROSS: What kinds of deals did the banana men make with the Central American
governments in order to get the land they wanted and the wages that they wanted
Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, there were all kinds of deals, and some of them were forced
down people's throats. The first banana-growing Central American nation was
Costa Rica, and the future founder of United Fruit, which is now known as
Chiquita, started as a railroad builder. And he had contracted with the Costa
Rican government to build a railroad from the Atlantic coast to the capital,
San Jose, which is in the hills.
And along the way, he realized that instead of getting paid money - he got some
of that too - he would get â he could ask for land. And so he was given land
all alongside the railroad tracks. And he realized that he could grow bananas
on this land, and he would be able to ship the bananas back and build the
railroad, and pretty soon he was making a lot more money selling bananas than
he was building the railroad.
During the process of this banana-building railroad, over 5,000 Costa Ricans
and workers died, all for the sake of this huge banana plantation and this
fellow, whose name was Minor Keith, who became known as the uncrowned king of
Central America. That was a deal.
You asked - some things weren't deals exactly. Samuel Zemurray, who was known
as Sam the Banana Man, and who would become the CEO of Chiquita in 1929,
decided that when the Honduran government wouldn't deal with him, the easiest
thing to do would be to replace the Honduran government.
So he went down to New Orleans and picked up a couple of thugs, one was named
Machine Gun Maloney(ph), got a puppet president candidate for Honduras, took a
boat, and within six weeks he'd actually overthrown the government, installed
his buddy as president, and that was the deal, basically.
GROSS: Did the U.S. government intervene in Latin America on behalf of the
Mr. KOEPPEL: Repeatedly and terribly. The U.S. government had everything to do
with the banana companies. They were intertwined with each other. There were
corporate relationships, boardroom relationships, family relationships, and the
United States military and United States foreign policy was working at the beck
and call of the banana companies, and over and over again you would see the
U.S. Marines coming to help crush a banana strike or help crush a workers'
Well, any workers' movement or labor action in Central America was going to be
a banana action. It was the only industry around, really. Over and over again
you would see the Marines landing. You would see the CIA involved in creating
propaganda. Any leader who was either against the banana companies or even
simply wanted a fair wage for his people would be instantly deposed, sometimes
murdered, often humiliated, and this happened over 20 times between 1900 and
GROSS: We'll hear more from Dan Koeppel in the second half of the show. He's
the author of "Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World." I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross back with Dan Koeppel, author of
âBanana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.â In a little while, you
can sing along with the old Chiquita Banana jingle. But first, let's pick up
where we left off before the break. Koeppel was describing how the U.S.
government worked to protect the interest of the banana companies operating in
Central America, sending in the Marines to help crush a strike or a worker's
movement, or depose a leader not in line with banana company interests.
Let me ask you to tell one of the stories of a president who was overthrown by
the United States because of the fruit companies, and thatâs Jacobo Arbenz who
was president of Guatemala.
Mr. KOEPPEL: Yeah. Arbenz was elected the president of Guatemala in 1954. He
was the first democratically-elected president ever in Guatemala. And you could
easily say that he was the first truly democratically-elected president in the
history of Central America which had seen nothing but dictators. Crazy
dictators that were really evil and, you know, didn't hesitate to kill or
imprison anyone who they thought got in their way. Arbenz was an antidote to
this. He promised for the first time that banana company land might be
nationalized. And he started by asking Chiquita to allow him to buy back land
that was fallow, land that had been fallowed by this disease, Panama disease -
in other words, land that was no longer useful to the banana companies.
But even this was such a terrible precedent, Chiquita felt, that it enlisted
the help of the United States government to overthrow Arbenz. The CIA
immediately began a propaganda campaign broadcasting out of Miami radio reports
of Arbenzâs so-called communist leanings. The U.S. Congress was involved and by
the time 1954 had been through, a massive invasion funded by the U.S. had been
launched from Honduras.
In fact, Arbenzâs forces had beaten these so-called insurgents but the
propaganda damage was so high that Arbenz was thrown out of the office and in
terror that the U.S. would launch a full-scale invasion. And he was stripped of
his clothes and led on to a plane for Mexico City where he spent the rest of
his life in exile. Guatemala fell into a horrible state of chaos after that.
And the right wing death squads that massacred tens of thousands of Mayans in
the 1980s through that country's terrible civil war, which reverberates today,
is a direct result of that destruction and instability that the U.S.-backed
overthrow of Arbenz began.
GROSS: Do the banana companies or maybe I should say do the fruit companies
have as much power in Central America as they did in the Banana Republic era?
Mr. KOEPPEL: No. The banana companies are not that way anymore. But, you know,
and people can take this for whatever it's worth, I think they still behave as
aggressively as any other multinational company would with a big market to
protect and that has a lot of money to be made. And so that's why we see
Chiquita's history of bad acting continuing, even if there's less of it even
GROSS: Weâve been talking about some of the political history of the banana.
But you also write about the cultural history of the banana, which is pretty
interesting. And like the fruit companies really went on this campaign to make
Americans aware of bananas and to tell them what could be done with bananas.
Tell us about some of these campaigns.
Mr. KOEPPEL: The banana was introduced at the 1876, actually in Philadelphia,
at the Centennial Exhibition. That's where it sort of had its coming out party
to the masses. But this was a Victorian era, and the idea of eating a
suggestively shaped banana was considered pretty uncouth. And there have been
some other banana historians who've uncovered old recipes that show that
bananas must be cut and served in foil, anything to disguise their shape. And,
as you know, you can't cut up a banana and, you know, let it sit for a few
hours and serve it.
So one of the first things the guys who founded the company that would later
become known as Chiquita did was they issued a series of postcards, and these
postcards are incredibly hilarious. They picture these very prim Victorian
women, usually four or five of them sitting in a nice dining room or under a
tree somewhere and they're all holding half peeled bananas. And the idea of
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KOEPPEL: ...itâs safe to eat a banana. And this worked actually. It really
worked. Bananas became so popular in fact that these companies started to
suggest recipes. It was Chiquita or United Fruit that first suggested that
bananas should go in cornflakes. And in fact they were the first ones to put
coupons on cereal boxes that would allow people to get their bananas in
cornflakes more cheaply. And it's also a testament to the savvy of these guys
that Chiquita got Kelloggâs to pay for the coupons, so on their own cereal
boxes. Everything they did was designed towards making this fruit super
popular. It had to be because as I was saying, bananas were so difficult to
transport that you had to just go on these huge economies of scale.
GROSS: One of the most famous banana advertising campaigns of all time -
perhaps the most famous - was the âChiquita Bananaâ song in the whole character
of Chiquita Banana. Tell us the story behind the âChiquita Bananaâ song and
Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, it is interesting. And again, it's related to this disease.
This is a commercial jingle and the Chiquita Banana character in those early
days was actually a banana who was modeled after this Brazilian bombshell
actress, Carmen Miranda, who was known not only for wearing a giant fruit
basket on her head, but in movies she had a famous dance that she kind of
wiggled amidst a group of six-foot tall dancing bananas in a very sort of
suggestive way. And she was a huge hit because she had such a huge personality.
United Fruit at the time was looking for a way to identify itself, to come up
with a brand name.
One of the reasons they were looking for this was because they were seeing
shortages and they realized that they needed to try to de-commoditized bananas.
They had to get people to pick their bananas, so they came up with this idea of
Chiquita Banana and they came up with the singing little banana and this great
song which remains, you know, again like âYes! We Have No Bananas,â it remains
one of the most memorable little ditties. Everybody knows this song even though
the words have changed over the years and in fact Miss Chiquita Banana stopped
being a banana in the 60s and became a real human being.
GROSS: Would you feel comfortable singing the song?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KOEPPEL: Sure. I could give it a try. Afterwards I can point out an
inaccuracy as well.
GROSS: There you go.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Fact check the âChiquita Bananaâ song.
Mr. KOEPPEL: Yes, I will fact check the jingle.
Mr. KOEPPEL: Okay. Here we go. (Singing) I'm Chiquita banana and I've come to
say bananas have to ripen in a certain way. When they are flecked with brown
and have a golden hue, bananas taste the best and are best for you. You can put
them in a salad. You can put them in a pie-aye. Anyway you want to eat them.
Itâs impossible to beat them. But bananas like the climate of the very, very
tropical equator. So you should never put bananas in the refrigerator.
GROSS: Okay. Fact check that song.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KOEPPEL: Okay. Here we go. In fact bananas last longer when they're
refrigerated. Bananas are shipped refrigerated. And it is true that a banana
will turn brown if kept too cold. However, that does not mean it will become
over ripe. So what Chiquita was trying to tell you was let those bananas get
eaten as quickly as possible or let them go brown and buy some new bananas. You
do not want your banana supply lasting too long if you want to sell a lot more
GROSS: So you're saying if you want to keep - once your banana turns ripe and
you want to preserve it a little longer you should put it in the refrigerator.
Mr. KOEPPEL: Right. It will look kind of brown and weak on the outside but I
promise it will still taste okay.
GROSS: Weâve been talking about all aspects of the banana. Look ahead for us a
little bit. Like you've told us that bananas are in danger, at least the
Cavendish banana that we eat in the United States is endangered because it's
being attacked in much of the world by a fungus. It hasn't attacked Latin
America yet but experts believe it will. What other developments are there on
the banana front?
Mr. KOEPPEL: Well, there is a huge attempt to make subsistence banana stronger
and that's really important. And it's going in parallel with this attempt to
figure out a way to replace or strengthen the Cavendish. At the same time, I
think one thing that is really not happening and that needs to happen is a
bigger picture look at the banana monoculture. And people are just beginning to
talk about that. We only really have one banana to eat. And it would be really
difficult to find shippable acceptable bananas that would work in our markets,
that work on our tables. But the real answer to all this is looking at other
kinds of bananas and there are countries where there are delicious bananas that
are eaten widely if only locally.
Brazil has five different bananas and Brazil is a pretty big country and they
don't eat many Cavendish at all. Australia also grows certain several kinds of
bananas that are pretty good. And, of course, getting bananas across oceans is
tougher, but I really think that the future, if there's a future for the
banana, is going to be more kinds of bananas and the banana companies are the
only ones with the money.
These little research organizations that have these incredibly important jobs
of trying to feed Africa do not have the money needed to develop a commercial
banana. That's going to come from the big banana companies. And there needs to
be an understanding and investment and appreciation that maybe people have
different kinds of tastes these days that a so-called varietal banana might
actually be considered a great thing and not sort of just a technical challenge
that's too difficult to actually undertake.
GROSS: Well, Dan, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.
Mr. KOEPPEL: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Mr. KOEPPEL: Dan Koeppel is the author of the new book âBanana: The Fate of the
Fruit That Changed the World.â Well, I have to say I like his rendition of the
âChiquita Bananaâ song. And after the interview was over, Dorothy Ferebee, who
is our administrative assistant, stopped in the studio and she told me she
remembered a different version of the song. The campaign went on for years and
there were different versions of the song. So anyways, I asked Dorothy if she
would sing it for you. So Dorothy, you want to do it?
DOROTHY FEREBEE: (Singing) I'm Chiquita banana and I'm here to say bananas give
you energy for work and play. And the calorie count I'm happy to say in the
medium banana's only 88.
GROSS: All right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I guess this is when their - diet-conscious campaign. Thank you for
FEREBEE: Youâre welcome.
GROSS: my interview with Dan Koeppel was recorded in 2008 when his book
âBananaâ was published. We called them a few days ago and he told us bananas
still face the threats he described. Anyway, here's the real Chiquita Banana.
(Soundbite of song, Chiquita Banana Songâ)
Ms. CARMEN MIRANDA (Samba singer; Actress): Hello Amigo. (Singing) I'm Chiquita
Banana, and I've come to say bananas have to ripen in a certain way. And when
they are flecked with brown and have a golden hue, bananas taste the best, and
are the best for you. You can put them in a salad. You can put them in a pie -
aye. Anyway you want to eat them it's impossible to beat them. But bananas like
the climate of the very, very tropical equator. So you should never put bananas
in the refrigerator.
Unidentified Singers: (Singing) To have bananas that are fully ripe you must be
absolutely be sure. You take them home and let them ripen and in right
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Oh sure, for sure.
Memories. So what are the odds that some day you eat a hamburger grown in a
test tube? Coming up, New Yorker science writer Michael Specter talks about
current efforts to grow in vitro meat.
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
Tube Burgers: The World Of In Vitro Meat
TERRY GROSS, host:
Imagine eating meat without harming an animal, no factory farm, no
slaughterhouse. Teams of scientists at universities around the world are trying
to grow meat in petri dishes from the stem cells of animals. As you can
imagine, there's a lot of challenges they face, technical and ethical.
My guest Michael Specter wrote about this new research in his article, "Test
Tube Burgers," which was published in May 23rd edition of The New Yorker.
Specter writes about science for the magazine. He's also the author of
âDenialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the
Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.â We spoke the week âTest Tube Burgersâ was
Michael Specter, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Mr. MICHAEL SPECTER (Science writer, The New Yorker): It's a pleasure to be
here. Thank you.
GROSS: There's something inherently creepy about the idea of growing meat in a
laboratory. But part of the motivation behind the idea is sparing animals from
the treatment they get in those big factory farms. Can you talk about some of
the motivations behind the idea of growing meat - some of the humane and
Mr. SPECTER: Well, there are quite a few motivations. First, I would say that
there is something inherently creepy about it. But there is more inherently
creepy about the way we deal with the animals that we eat, and that's one of
the important motivations for this.
Billions of animals, literally billions, are grown only to be killed. They're
shot with antibiotics and hormones and they live a horrible life and they often
die quite cruelly. So the idea of being able to eliminate some of that is
extremely exciting for a lot of people.
There are other motivations that in some ways are even more compelling, and
those are environmental motivations and they have to do with the size of our
planet and the number of people who live on it and the pressures that we're
putting on the Earth and that we will put on the Earth over the next 50 or so
We now have seven billion people. There will be nine billion by 2050. Those
people need food. They need protein. They tend to eat better as they get
wealthier. And better unfortunately, means a little bit more like Americans a
lot of meat. And a lot of meat means using a lot of land, a lot of water, a lot
of grass and a lot of grain, and we don't have that much room for any of it.
There's also the issue of climate change, because lots of animals emit lots of
methane into the atmosphere and climate change is a serious problem when we
look at the food supply.
So when we add all this up we have to look at alternate ways to feed the people
who are coming to this planet and this is certainly an alternative.
GROSS: So let's talk about how scientists are experimenting with growing meat
in the laboratories. Is this with stem cells, with cloning?
Mr. SPECTER: It's primarily with stem cells. They'll take a couple cells, let's
say, from a pig. They will put them in a nutrient broth, a bunch of amino acids
and sugars, basically, sometimes fetal serum, and it will grow. And as it grows
they will then try to turn those cells, which are muscle cells, because that's
mostly - when we talk about eating meat we're mostly talking about eating
muscle. They will take those muscles cells and put them on a platform that is
sort of normally a biodegradable plastic scaffolding. And that allows the cells
to fuse together and become muscle tissue.
And the idea is as you grow those cells into muscle tissue, you grow the
tissue, and you eventually have the same sort of meat, exactly the same meat
that you would take from the flesh of an animal.
GROSS: Except that?
Mr. SPECTER: Except that it isn't.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SPECTER: I mean this is the thing and it's a philosophical thing as much as
a scientific thing: What is meat? I mean if they come from to cells and they
are grown, is that different from coming from the back of a living animal? It -
to some people the answer to that is yes. I'm not sure.
GROSS: Well, in addition to the philosophical questions, you have like starting
with the basics, the texture questions. As you point out in your piece, muscle
needs to be exercised. It needs to be worked and stretched or else it
atrophies. So if I have a piece of like artificial meat that you've grown in a
lab, it's not going to be walking and running and moving around. So like what
is muscle that has never ever moved?
Mr. SPECTER: I believe the term for that is fat. But...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SPECTER: What they do with this is clever. They - you do have to stimulate
muscle whether you're out there running around or whether you're in a petri
dish. The way they stimulate muscle these days is electrical impulses and you
can sort of zap and it will do what you need it to do.
The problem with that is if we're talking about growing meat in a lab or in a
factory, we're talking about enormous quantities of it and it's difficult to
see our way to zapping tons of electricity into muscle cells, because it will
just be, if nothing else, extremely costly. So while that works in a lab, and
it works well, they are looking at other ways to do it. And the main way
they're looking at it is using chemical signals from the animal's body to sort
of mimic the same electrical impulses. And that seems to be working but it's
early days for that.
GROSS: So now I'm picturing, and tell me if this is an accurate picture, I'm
picturing this artificial piece of meat twitching in a petri dish.
Mr. SPECTER: I hate to use the word twitching.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SPECTER: I don't think it's entirely inaccurate to say there would have to
be some sort of impulse stimulation. I don't think the meat would actually
twitch. I don't think it would actually move. Lots of times you can have pass
electrical currents through things and you don't notice it and the thing that's
being passed through doesn't notice it. It's not like it's an electric chair,
it's a small electrical charge. But, yes, it's got to be stimulated in some way
because it's muscle, and muscle is muscle.
GROSS: Now you know how a lot of health food stores and Chinese restaurants
have soy that's flavored as chicken or beef, and..,
Mr. SPECTER: Sadly, I do.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So is that going to be the premise behind artificially made meat too,
that it would be flavored in the way soy is or flavored in the way - I mean
this is different. It's not meat but there's like rice that's flavored to be -
rice extract flavored to be like mozzarella cheese. I mean they've really got
Mr. SPECTER: Yes, they do have flavoring down and when I talk to people I said
well, you know, what's this going to taste like? And they basically said, that
is not an issue worth worrying about.
There were some kids in a scientific competition a year ago up at MIT who made
E. coli, which is a bacteria that smells god-awful. They made it smell like
wintergreen for half of its reproductive cycle...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SPECTER: ...and bananas for the other half. These are college kids. So this
stuff can be done both in terms of smell and taste.
I don't think it's fair to make the analogy to soy proteins or things like
that. This will be meat. I talked to one scientist and I mentioned this as
synthetic meat and she got annoyed. She said this isn't synthetic, it's
organic. It's meat. It's two meat cells growing to become more meat cells. And
depending on what your definition of any sort of life is, this is as
fundamental as any animal is.
GROSS: So is the biggest slab of beef that they have so far a little dot in a
Mr. SPECTER: Yes. The biggest slab - there are quite a few slabs this size, but
they are about the size of a contact lens, which you think is ridiculous. It's
millions of cells and it's one of these situations where if you can grow
millions of cells you should be able to grow many many billions of cells.
But they have started out really very thoughtfully. They want to make sure that
the science works before they try scaling it up. And they all sort of feel -
many people feel that scaling it up is not the issue that it will - that will
happen. It's an engineering problem and if there is money you can scale
something up. But right now that's not where they are. Right now they want to
make sure you can grow the meat, you can grow it in a healthy way so that the
cells work and engineer it so that it's actually something you'd want to eat.
GROSS: So you haven't tasted any of this but have the scientists tasted any of
Mr. SPECTER: Yeah.
GROSS: Or is it not ready to be tasted yet?
Mr. SPECTER: It's we're pre-taste. We're just in the stage of growing cells as
opposed to growing tissue. So we haven't even gotten to the point where you'd,
you know, see a chicken breast or something like that. That could have been
somewhat rapidly, but there's another issue too, which is it's hard to taste
something like that because you don't know what's in it and so no scientist is
going to let you taste it because if you were to keel over it would kind of be
bad for its funding. So these things have to be approved by the FDA and by
organizations in Europe like the FDA before anyone could be chomping down on
GROSS: My guest is Michael Specter. His article "Test Tube Burgersâ was
published in The New Yorker.
Weâll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Michael Specter who writes about science for The New Yorker
magazine is about efforts to grow meat in petri dishes from the stem cells of
Now there are ethical motivations behind lab grown meat, including trying to
spare animals from the horrible treatment that they get in these factory farms.
But are there ethical challenges on the other side, ethical questions about
growing meat in a lab?
Mr. SPECTER: Sure. When, I think there is what people described to me as a high
yuck factor when people talk about this. And people want to know, as they do
with many food substances that have been manipulated in different ways, who's
doing what to it? Who's getting what out of it? How do we know it's safe? How
do we know that these cells are really just meat cells and they are not
contaminated and some strange way? There will have to be a lot of discussion,
debate and a learning curve. There's no question about it.
There are ethical debates about a variety of this sort of thing. Right now
they're trying to - there's a company that wants FDA approval for a salmon that
it engineered to grow twice fast as normal salmon. And the idea would be,
obviously, you grow them faster, you get more protein, it's quicker, it's
better. Lots of people don't see it that way. They're actually repulsed by this
idea. And that's clearly going to happen with this and there's going to be a
And what I think is it's worth having the debate and the discussion, because
the stakes, the ethical stakes, the animal welfare stakes, the environmental
stakes, the climate change stakes, are really, really high.
GROSS: You know all the concerns about genetically modified foods and, you
Mr. SPECTER: I'm aware of them.
GROSS: Yeah, and a lot of people won't - I'm sure you are. And a lot of people
won't buy genetically modified foods because they think it's bad for crops and
they think it might be bad for their own bodies. Are there similar concerns
surrounding artificially created meat?
Mr. SPECTER: There will be. I don't think we're at the point where we're in
widespread concern yet, but there will be. And that's why we need to talk about
it, because, for instance, the health concerns around genetically modified
foods are just unsubstantiated. We've been eating them by the - we've been
growing them by millions of hectares for years and years. There has never been
one substantiated case of illness, ever on Earth, as a result of eating
genetically modified foods. There are environmental issues, as there are issues
with everything you ever grow or eat or do.
But in terms of health, that isn't an issue yet, it's seen as an issue. And
what needs to happen is people need to have conversations about this thing so
that they understand what the pluses and what the minuses are.
And one of the pluses, by the way, of growing this kind of meat is that almost
two billion folks go to bed hungry every night in the world today. It's not so
much, you know, in Berkeley or Union Square in New York or Silver Spring,
Maryland that we necessarily need this meat. But if we could do this in such a
way that people who have no protein and are either eating no protein or trying
to eat wild animals like monkeys and gorillas to stay alive, could get this
kind of meat and get it at a fair price and know that it was healthy for them,
that would be wonderful.
GROSS: Well, it's an interesting story. And I want to thank you for talking
with us about it.
Mr. SPECTER: Always a pleasure.
GROSS: Michael Specter's article "Test Tube Burgers" was published in the May
23rd edition of The New Yorker. We spoke the week it was published. Specter is
also the author of the book "Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders
Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.â
You can download Podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, all you can eat week continues with some food
memories from food writer and editor Ruth Reichl. Also, why chopping onions
makes you cry and how to fry the perfect French fry. Russ Parsons talks about
the science of cooking.
(Soundbite of music)
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