arrow-downarrow-leftarrow-rightarrow-upchevron-upchevron-leftchevron-rightchevron-upclosecomment-newemail-newfullscreen-closefullscreen-opengallerygridheadphones-newheart-filledheart-openmap-geolocatormap-pushpinArtboard 1Artboard 1Artboard 1minusng-borderpauseplayplusprintreplayscreensharefacebookgithubArtboard 1Artboard 1linkedinlinkedin_inpinterestpinterest_psnapchatsnapchat_2tumblrtwittervimeovinewhatsappspeakerstar-filledstar-openzoom-in-newzoom-out-new

The Surprising Science Behind the World's Most Popular Fruit

From tropical plantations to grocery aisles, getting a banana to market is a complex process—and a race against the clock.

View Images

This article is part of our Urban Expeditions series, an initiative made possible by a grant from United Technologies to the National Geographic Society.

Bananas don’t grow in every

country, but they are ubiquitous

nonetheless. As the world’s most

popular fruit, they account for

roughly 75 percent of the tropical

fruit trade and more than a

hundred billion are eaten annually.

Getting ripe bananas to market is a

surprisingly intricate process.

Facilities unique to the industry

control the ripening stage to ensure

bananas are the ideal green or

yellow when they reach stores,

depending on consumer preference. —Kelsey Nowakowski

THE BANANA PLANT

Grown in tropical and subtropical

areas around the world, bananas

are botanically classified as a

berry. The word banana stems

from the Arabic word “banan,”

meaning finger.

Is It a Tree?

The banana plant is the largest

herbaceous flowering plant.

(10 feet)

It takes nine months to grow a

complete bunch, up to 170 bananas.

COUNTRIES GROW

VARIETIES

Unlike seasonal fruits, bananas grow

year-round and are plentiful.

KING OF FRUITS

As the world’s most consumed

fruit, bananas are a dietary staple.

Bananas are the world’s most

exported fruit, but they’re popular

at home too: Eighty-five percent

are produced for domestic

consumption.

Annual Fruit Production

In millions of metric tons

114

Bananas

Watermelons

Apples

Grapes

Oranges

Coconuts

Mangoes

Plantains

Tangerines/

mandarins

Other melons

Though plantains belong to same genus as

bananas, the crops are counted separately.

WORLD BANANA CONSUMPTION

In millions of metric tons

86

IN INDIA, CHINA, BRAZIL,

AND INDONESIA

These countries consume

most of their production

so they are not among the

top exporters.

Consumption data refers to food supply,

the amount of bananas available.

FIVE PER DAY

Rwanda consumes

the most per capita,

279 kg (616 lbs) a

year, versus 12 kg

(26 lbs) in the U.S.

A Banana's

Journey

Advances in refrigerated

transportation helped bananas

become the world’s most traded

fruit. Many supermarkets price

them at or near cost—called a loss

leader—to get customers into

their stores.

A CASE STUDY FROM

ECUADOR...

of WORLD exports

TOP EXPORTER

...TO NEW YORK CITY,

UNITED STATES

of WORLD IMPORTS

TOP IMPORTER

Supply Chain Stages AND THEIR Value

plantation workers

Grown on large farms, banana bunches are

cut down while still green by workers using

machetes. The Cavendish variety is the

most widely cultivated type.

Value of a Dollar's

Worth of Bananas

plantation owner

Once harvested, the bananas are

transported to packing sheds, where they are

inspected, washed, and boxed for export.

international trade

To prevent them from ripening in transit,

pallets of bananas are shipped in refrigerated

containers.

Container ships pass through the Panama

Canal en route to Wilmington, Delaware,

which handles about a million tons of bananas

a year, the busiest “banana port” in the U.S.,

and second globally only to Antwerp,

Belgium.

ripening and distribution

When the bananas arrive in port, they clear

customs and are trucked to special facilities,

where a ripening process is closely

monitored (detail below).

Bananas are delivered to regional distribution

centers and wholesalers before being sent to

supermarkets and bodegas.

TO MARKET

Bodegas sell individual yellow bananas, ready

to eat, while larger stores prefer slightly green

"hands" that can last for days.

The Art

of Ripening

Ripeners are scientific specialists in

the banana supply chain. Their

facilities feature high-tech rooms

that control ventilation, humidity,

temperature, and ethylene gas, a

natural ripening chemical.

A typical 5-day schedule

Green bananas are tested for

temperature and color before being

placed in a consistently ventilated

room that's kept at 70 to 90 percent

relative humidity. Bananas ripen at

60 to 70 degrees.

To start the ripening process,

ethylene gas is pumped into the

room. A normal chemical by-product

of ripening fruits, the gas circulates

throughout the room overnight.

GAS

A BANANA'S NATURAL ETHYLENE

CAN RIPEN OTHER PRODUCE

AND EVEN SPOIL SOME SENSITIVE

TO THE GAS.

Ethylene gas is flushed out of the

room, which is then ventilated with

fresh air and kept at 60 to 62

degrees. The fruit is still green, but

now has been triggered to ripen.

TEMPERATURE SERVES AS AN

ALARM CLOCK, WAKING UP A

BANANA.

The fruit is still green but begins to

“break” and transition in color.A

specialist closely monitors the fruit,

waiting for a faint yellow hue to be

visible throughout.

The fruit is ready to ship to retailers.

Bananas ideally ship to stores

around stage three

(chart below). While in transit, the

fruit continues to ripen.

THE COLOR CHART

The industry uses a seven-stage standard to

chart ripening.

RIPENERS

GET

BANANAS

1

GREEN

CONSUMERS

Some prefer

green

bananas,

which are less

sweet, and

cook them.

2

3

BIG STORES

AND

DISTRIBUTORS

4

5

FINAL

CONSUMERS

6

7

edible bananas are tossed

each day in Great Britain

Some view spotted bananas as

spoiled, but that’s when they’re

sweetest. In many countries,

bananas are the most wasted fruit.

AN UNCERTAIN

FUTURE

The Cavendish banana variety may

follow in the footsteps of the once

popular “Gros Michel,” which

disappeared in the 1950s after a

fungal epidemic.

OF COMMERCIALLY SOLD BANANAS

ARE CAVENDISH VARIETY

The banana variety is seedless and therefore must be cloned by farmers.

The Cavendish variety was chosen

because it’s resistant to fungus, but

genetic uniformity makes it more

vulnerable, and a new fungus strain,

TR4, is damaging Asian crops and

quickly spreading.

CURRENT RANGE OF TR4 FUNGUS STRAIN

Banana producing countries

Growing Pains

Monocropping—growing the

bananas on the same land year

after year—is cost-effective for the

farmer, but it also depletes soil and

makes a crop susceptible to pests,

which can more easily spread.

NEXT GENERATION

Scientists are studying the

banana's genetic material in an

attempt to engineer a more

disease-resistant one. Many wild

varieties are not suitable for the

export process—and most palates.

Graphic: ÁLVARO VALIÑO.

SOURCES: DAVID TURNER, UNIVERSITY OF

WESTERN AUSTRALIA; ALISTAIR SMITH,

BANANA LINK; BIOVERSITY INTERNATIONAL;

FAO (Banana consumption and

production data for 2013-14); BUREAU

FOR THE APPRAISAL OF SOCIAL IMPACTS FOR

CITIZEN INFORMATION (BASIC); PROMUSA

Bananas don’t grow in every country, but they are ubiquitous

nonetheless. As the world’s most popular fruit, they account for

roughly 75 percent of the tropical fruit trade and more than a

hundred billion are eaten annually. Getting ripe bananas to

market is a surprisingly intricate process. Facilities unique to the

industry control the ripening stage to ensure bananas are the

ideal green or yellow when they reach stores, depending on

consumer preference. —Kelsey Nowakowski

THE BANANA PLANT

Grown in tropical and subtropical areas around the world, bananas are botanically

classified as a berry. The word banana stems from the Arabic word “banan,”

meaning finger.

Is It a Tree?

The banana plant is the

largest herbaceous

flowering plant.

COUNTRIES GROW

It takes nine months

to grow a complete

bunch, up to 170

bananas.

(10 feet)

VARIETIES

Unlike seasonal fruits, bananas grow year-round

and are plentiful.

JAN

DEC

KING OF FRUITS

As the world’s most consumed fruit, bananas are a dietary staple. Bananas are

the world’s most exported fruit, but they’re popular at home too: Eighty-five

percent are produced for domestic consumption.

Annual Fruit Production

In millions of metric tons

114

Bananas

Watermelons

Apples

Grapes

Oranges

Coconuts

Mangoes

Plantains

Tangerines/

mandarins

Other melons

Though plantains belong to same genus as bananas,

the crops are counted separately.

WORLD BANANA CONSUMPTION

In millions of metric tons

86

IN INDIA, CHINA, BRAZIL,

AND INDONESIA

These countries

consume most of

their production so

they are not among

the top exporters.

FIVE PER DAY

Rwanda consumes the most per

capita, 279 kg (616 lbs) a year,

versus 12 kg (26 lbs) in the U.S.

Consumption data refers to food supply,

the amount of bananas available.

A Banana's Journey

Advances in refrigerated transportation helped bananas become the world’s

most traded fruit. Many supermarkets price them at or near cost—called a

loss leader—to get customers into their stores.

A CASE STUDY

FROM ECUADOR TO NEW YORK CITY, UNITED STATES

of WORLD exports

of WORLD IMPORTS

TOP EXPORTER

TOP IMPORTER

Value of a Dollar's

Worth of Bananas

Supply Chain Stages

Grown on large farms, banana

bunches are cut down while still

green by workers using

machetes. The Cavendish

variety is the mostly wide

cultivated type.

plantation workers

plantation owner

Once harvested, the bananas are

transported to packing sheds,

where they are inspected,

washed, and boxed for export.

To prevent them from ripening

in transit, pallets of bananas

are shipped in refrigerated

containers.

international

trade

Container ships pass through

the Panama Canal en route to

Wilmington, Delaware, which

handles about a million tons of

bananas a year, the busiest

“banana port” in the U.S., and

second globally only to

Antwerp, Belgium.

When the bananas arrive in port,

they clear customs and are

trucked to special facilities,

where a ripening process is

closely monitored (detail below).

ripening and

distribution

Bananas are delivered to

regional distribution centers and

wholesalers before being sent

to supermarkets and bodegas.

TO MARKET

Bodegas sell individual yellow

bananas, ready to eat, while

larger stores prefer slightly green

"hands" that can last for days.

The Art of Ripening

Ripeners are scientific specialists in the banana supply chain. Their facilities

feature high-tech rooms that control ventilation, humidity, temperature, and

ethylene gas, a natural ripening chemical.

A typical 5-day schedule

GAS

To start the ripening

process, ethylene gas is

pumped into the room. A

normal chemical

by-product of ripening

fruits, the gas circulates

throughout the room

overnight.

Green bananas are tested

for temperature and color

before being placed in a

consistently ventilated

room that's kept at 70 to

90 percent relative

humidity. Bananas ripen at

60 to 70 degrees.

A BANANA'S NATURAL

ETHYLENE CAN RIPEN

OTHER PRODUCE

AND EVEN SPOIL

SOME SENSITIVE

TO THE GAS.

The fruit is ready to ship

to retailers. Bananas

ideally ship to stores

around stage three

(chart below). While in

transit, the fruit

continues to ripen.

The fruit is still green but

begins to “break” and

transition in color. A

specialist closely monitors

the fruit, waiting for a faint

yellow hue to be visible

throughout.

Ethylene gas is flushed

out of the room, which is

then ventilated with fresh

air and kept at 60 to 62

degrees. The fruit is still

green, but now has been

triggered to ripen.

THE COLOR CHART

The industry uses a seven-stage standard to chart ripening.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

RIPENERS GET

BANANAS

BIG STORES AND DISTRIBUTORS

FINAL CONSUMERS

GREEN CONSUMERS

Some prefer green bananas,

which are less sweet, and

cook them.

edible bananas are tossed

each day in Great Britain

Some view spotted bananas as

spoiled, but that’s when they’re

sweetest. In many countries,

bananas are the most wasted fruit.

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

The Cavendish banana variety may follow in the footsteps of the once popular

“Gros Michel,” which disappeared in the 1950s after a fungal epidemic.

The Cavendish variety was chosen

because it’s resistant to fungus, but

genetic uniformity makes it more

vulnerable, and a new fungus strain,

TR4, is damaging Asian crops and

quickly spreading.

OF COMMERCIALLY SOLD BANANAS

ARE CAVENDISH VARIETY

The banana variety is seedless and therefore must be cloned by farmers.

CURRENT RANGE OF TR4 FUNGUS STRAIN

BANANA PRODUCING

COUNTRIES

Growing Pains

NEXT GENERATION

Monocropping—growing the

bananas on the same land year

after year—is cost-effective for the

farmer, but it also depletes soil and

makes a crop susceptible to pests,

which can more easily spread.

Scientists are studying the

banana's genetic material in an

attempt to engineer a more

disease-resistant one. Many wild

varieties are not suitable for the

export process—and most palates.

Graphic: ÁLVARO VALIÑO. SOURCES: DAVID TURNER, UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA; ALISTAIR SMITH,

BANANA LINK; BIOVERSITY INTERNATIONAL; FAO (Banana consumption and production data for

2013-14); BUREAU FOR THE APPRAISAL OF SOCIAL IMPACTS FOR CITIZEN INFORMATION (BASIC); PROMUSA

Bananas don’t grow in every country, but they are ubiquitous nonetheless. As the world’s

most popular fruit, they account for roughly 75 percent of the tropical fruit trade and

more than a hundred billion are eaten annually. Getting ripe bananas to market is a

surprisingly intricate process. Facilities unique to the industry control the ripening stage

to ensure bananas are the ideal green or yellow when they reach stores, depending on

consumer preference. —Kelsey Nowakowski

THE BANANA PLANT

Grown in tropical and subtropical areas around the world, bananas are botanically classified as a berry.

The word banana stems from the Arabic word “banan,” meaning finger.

Is It a Tree?

The banana plant is the

largest herbaceous

flowering plant.

Unlike seasonal

fruits, bananas

grow year-round

and are plentiful.

COUNTRIES

GROW

It takes nine months

to grow a complete

bunch, up to 170

bananas.

(10 feet)

VARIETIES

KING OF FRUITS

As the world’s most consumed fruit, bananas are a dietary staple. Bananas are the world’s most exported

fruit, but they’re popular at home too: Eighty-five percent are produced for domestic consumption.

Annual Fruit Production

In millions of metric tons

WORLD BANANA CONSUMPTION

In millions of metric tons

86

114

Bananas

Watermelons

Apples

Grapes

Oranges

Coconuts

IN INDIA, CHINA, BRAZIL,

AND INDONESIA

Mangoes

Plantains

These countries

consume most of

their production so

they are not among

the top exporters.

FIVE PER DAY

Tangerines/

mandarins

Rwanda consumes the most per

capita, 279 kg (616 lbs) a year,

versus 12 kg (26 lbs) in the U.S.

Other melons

Though plantains belong to same genus as bananas,

the crops are counted separately.

Consumption data refers to food supply,

the amount of bananas available.

A Banana's Journey

Advances in refrigerated transportation helped bananas become the world’s most traded fruit.

Many supermarkets price them at or near cost—called a loss leader—to get customers into their stores.

A CASE STUDY

FROM ECUADOR TO NEW YORK CITY, UNITED STATES

of WORLD exports

of WORLD IMPORTS

TOP EXPORTER

TOP IMPORTER

Value of a Dollar's

Worth of Bananas

Supply Chain Stages

Grown on large farms, banana

bunches are cut down while still

green by workers using

machetes. The Cavendish

variety is the most widely

cultivated type.

plantation workers

plantation owner

Once harvested, the bananas are

transported to packing sheds,

where they are inspected, washed,

and boxed for export.

To prevent them from ripening in

transit, pallets of bananas are

shipped in refrigerated containers.

international trade

Container ships pass through the

Panama Canal en route to

Wilmington, Delaware, which

handles about a million tons of

bananas a year, the busiest “banana

port” in the U.S., and second globally

only to Antwerp, Belgium.

When the bananas arrive in port,

they clear customs and are

trucked to special facilities, where

a ripening process is closely

monitored (detail below).

ripening and distribution

Bananas are delivered to regional

distribution centers and

wholesalers before being sent to

supermarkets and bodegas.

TO MARKET

Bodegas sell individual yellow

bananas, ready to eat, while larger

stores prefer slightly green "hands"

that can last for days.

The Art of Ripening

Ripeners are scientific specialists in the banana supply chain. Their facilities feature high-tech rooms that

control ventilation, humidity, temperature, and ethylene gas, a natural ripening chemical.

A typical 5-day schedule

GAS

To start the ripening

process, ethylene gas is

pumped into the room. A

normal chemical

by-product of ripening

fruits, the gas circulates

throughout the room

overnight.

Green bananas are tested

for temperature and color

before being placed in a

consistently ventilated

room that's kept at 70 to

90 percent relative

humidity. Bananas ripen at

60 to 70 degrees.

A BANANA'S NATURAL

ETHYLENE CAN RIPEN

OTHER PRODUCE

AND EVEN SPOIL

SOME SENSITIVE

TO THE GAS.

The fruit is ready to ship

to retailers. Bananas

ideally ship to stores

around stage three

(chart below). While in

transit, the fruit

continues to ripen.

Ethylene gas is flushed

out of the room, which is

then ventilated with fresh

air and kept at 60 to 62

degrees. The fruit is still

green, but now has been

triggered to ripen.

The fruit is still green but

begins to “break” and

transition in color. A

specialist closely monitors

the fruit, waiting for a faint

yellow hue to be visible

throughout.

TEMPERATURE

SERVES AS AN

ALARM CLOCK,

WAKING UP A

BANANA.

THE COLOR CHART

The industry uses a seven-stage standard to chart ripening.

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

edible bananas are

tossed each day in

Great Britain.

RIPENERS GET

BANANAS

BIG STORES AND DISTRIBUTORS

Some view spotted bananas

as spoiled, but that’s when

they’re sweetest. In many

countries, bananas are the

most wasted fruit.

FINAL CONSUMERS

GREEN CONSUMERS

Some prefer green bananas, which are

less sweet, and cook them.

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

The Cavendish banana variety may follow in the footsteps of the once popular “Gros Michel,”

which disappeared in the 1950s after a fungal epidemic.

CURRENT RANGE OF TR4 FUNGUS STRAIN

OF COMMERCIALLY

SOLD BANANAS ARE

CAVENDISH VARIETY

The banana variety is seedless and therefore must be cloned by farmers.

BANANA PRODUCING

COUNTRIES

Growing Pains

NEXT GENERATION

The Cavendish variety was

chosen because it’s resistant

to fungus, but genetic

uniformity makes it more

vulnerable, and a new fungus

strain, TR4, is damaging

Asian crops and quickly

spreading.

Monocropping—growing the

bananas on the same land year

after year—is cost-effective for the

farmer, but it also depletes soil and

makes a crop susceptible to pests,

which can more easily spread.

Scientists are studying the

banana's genetic material in an

attempt to engineer a more

disease-resistant one. Many wild

varieties are not suitable for the

export process—and most palates.

Graphic: ÁLVARO VALIÑO. SOURCES: DAVID TURNER, UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA; ALISTAIR SMITH,

BANANA LINK; BIOVERSITY INTERNATIONAL; FAO (Banana consumption and production data for 2013-14);

BUREAU FOR THE APPRAISAL OF SOCIAL IMPACTS FOR CITIZEN INFORMATION (BASIC); PROMUSA

For more on the history of cultivation and the future of the Cavendish, check out our three-part series on the banana.