Photograph by JOAO MARCOS ROSA, NITRO, Redux
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Bananas are the product of 150 years of engineering by governments, corporations, and militaries.

Photograph by JOAO MARCOS ROSA, NITRO, Redux
The Plate

Why Are Bananas So Cheap?

The United States overthrew the government of a sovereign country in the 1950s. That’s one reason.

In the U.S., the country that consumes three million tons of bananas each year and produces almost none of them, bananas are incredibly cheap—usually less than 89 cents per pound, or in some supermarkets, just 19 cents apiece. That’s for fruit grown thousands of miles away and transported in ships and trucks across oceans, highways, and national borders to get to your door. In fact, cheap barely captures it. For Americans, bananas are practically free.

There’s a historic reason for this, and one that’s rarely seen in matters of pomology (a.k.a. the science of growing fruit.) The normal way is to line up easy growing conditions, cheap shipping costs, and consumer interest; and you get popular, powerhouse fruits like apples and oranges.

Yet bananas are different. Banana popularity is a synthetic alloy, the product of 150 years of engineering by governments, corporations, and militaries to fuel abundant production and ever-increasing demand.

The first time many Americans tasted a banana was at the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia, more popularly known as the World’s Fair. The U.S. was a full century old that year, and to celebrate, two new innovations foreshadowed dramatic change. One was the telephone brought by young Alexander Graham Bell, and the other was a banana. The edible novelty—from the tropics!—came wrapped in foil, for the sky high price of 10 cents each, about two dollars today.

Eating a tropical fruit in Philadelphia opened people’s minds to a future of shrinking oceans and a more globalized world. And that early excitement resulted in so much demand that by 1885, the Boston Fruit Company started buying up land in Central America to grow bananas. American fruit companies offered these Latin American governments outside money and the prospect of thousands of jobs, plus money for things like roads and fertilizers. Not everyone loved the arrangement, but for government leaders, it wasn’t just hard to turn the deals down—it was practically impossible.

If this sounds like thinly veiled exploitation, it was. And it only increased. As banana demand ballooned, so did profit. The 1907 edition of the Fruit Trade Journal called the U.S. setup in Central America, “an occupation…with ironclad certainty for immense returns of wealth.” That year, American bananas were a $60 million business and growing. Meanwhile, the laborers tasked with managing this demand saw their wages stay low, far below the average American salary at the time, which was $438.

This model persisted for another 50 years, through two world wars. Governments came and fell, but no Central American leader could shake the grip of the American banana industry. At times, United Fruit effectively took over government duties in Guatemala and Honduras, leading to both countries being known as “banana republics,” their primary purpose to ensure a steady supply of fruit.

By 1950, more than half of Guatemala’s economy depended on growing and transporting bananas. And anyone standing in the way would experience the blunt force of the Banana Industrial Complex. That complex was led by United Fruit, which owned four million acres (almost three quarters) of Guatemala’s arable land.

Perhaps no one knew this better than Jacobo Árbenz, the man whose life and career would be defined by resistance to Big Banana. Árbenz, just 38, campaigned for the presidency of Guatemala in 1951 on a socialistic platform for returning Guatemala's land to its people. He wanted to charge United Fruit the full cost of its operations in the country by collecting fair taxes and guaranteeing fair wages for workers. But as Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer show in Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, this was the dawn of the Cold War between the Soviets and the Americans, and beleaguered Central America countries stood little chance of making their own sovereign choices.

In June of 1954, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower approved a coup, led by the Central Intelligence Agency, to drive Árbenz out of power. It was subtle and designed to be secret: Almost $3 million was allotted for the operation, and the largest expenditure was for "psychological warfare and political action” designed to limit detection of American fingerprints. CIA director Allen Dulles wrote in a memo to President Eisenhower that, “The entire effort is…more dependent upon psychological impact rather than actual military strength.”

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In Guatamala, circa 1953, workers cover bananas at a loading station for United Fruit, which later became Chiquita.

The gambit worked, and when the coup ended, the CIA installed a new president sympathetic to American interests. Árbenz was taken to the airport, stripped to his underwear, paraded before cameras, and exiled to Mexico. The fight with the United States that had cost him his dignity was over taxes, land, and wages. But at its core, it was about bananas.

Árbenz spent the next few decades wandering around Mexico, Switzerland and France. Meanwhile, Guatemala, stripped of its leader, its dignity, and its national ambition, descended into civil war. The conflict lasted 36 years. The ouster of Árbenz and the resulting chaos kept United Fruit (which later became Chiquita) in control. It kept bananas plentiful, allowed supply to exceed demand, and kept the price for American consumers only marginally above zero.

Whether any of this should be relevant when you buy a banana for practically nothing is a question of the ethics of neocolonialism and the politics of exploitation. No American president has ever publicly reckoned with the cheap price of bananas and the long-ago decisions that allow them to remain so. President Bill Clinton came the closest in 1999 when he visited Guatemala, almost 50 years after his country toppled the democratically elected leader of a sovereign nation. America "engaged in violence and widespread repression," he said. “The United States must not repeat that mistake.”

One mistake tends to beget more of them, and while the U.S. government was busy building its banana empire in Central America, U.S. banana companies were making a faulty bet of their own: this time about biology. The decision to focus on just one banana variety, cloned millions of times, would leave not only banana farms, but the entire banana growing complex, at risk of disease. If an insect or fungus was strong enough to kill one banana tree, then little could stop it from killing them all.

This is the second story in a three-part series on bananas. See part one, about the miracle of modern bananas, and part three, on the bananas of the future.