I ate a most delicious snack yesterday, and probably more of it than I should have. A student from Vasai had gotten along some fried surmai (which was also outstanding), but in a remarkable event where I am concerned, it was the vegetarian item that won the Kulkarni Tastebud contest yesterday.
The item in question was sukeli, and it looks like this:
This is what the website has to say about the product:
Dried bananas are 100% natural Dried Fruit, without any Artificial Flavor, Preservatives or Color. These are Soft, Chewy and full of Sweet Fruity flavor. These are rich in Potassium which regulates the Blood Pressure (BP). It contains Natural Sugar, Soluble Fiber, Minerals, Vitamins and Antioxidants which are essential to maintain good health. Dried Banana is great energy snack favorite of Athletes and Sportsperson. (sic)https://craftoindia.com/sukeli-sun-dried-banana-of-maharashtra-1kg.html
I wouldn’t know about the nutritional qualities, but I can attest to the sukelis being soft, chewy and full of sweet fruity flavor. Think of it as an intensely addictive cross between bananas and jackfruits.
Ah, but which kind of bananas? Nendran or Rajeli varieties and no other.
Do you know which is the most popular type of banana grown the world over? It is the Cavendish banana, and we produce a lot – a lot – of Cavendish bananas.
Here’s Vikram Doctor in on old piece from the Economic Times:
To get good bananas in Mumbai you must go to CST station. Not to take a train, but because every evening a few hawkers bring baskets of bananas to sell to the evening commuter crowd. The bananas are grown just outside Mumbai and they are small, fat and full of creamy-sweet flavour. They are usually not quite ripe when sold, and tend to ripen unevenly, but nearly all get sold by end of day. It used to be easier to get good bananas.https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/blogs/onmyplate/no-getting-away-from-cavendish-in-banana-republic/
Long Moira bananas from Goa, plantains from Mangalore that had to be kept till their skins turned black, several types of small bananas, thick red bananas, humble green Robustas and Rasthalis from Tamil Nadu so fat they were bursting out of their skin.
Today you mostly just find one cheap green banana, one small banana and then the type that now rules the market. It is perfectly shaped, perfectly yellow coloured and a taste that is perfectly boring, but just banana tasting enough to be acceptable.
Fruit vendors call it Golden Banana and push it hard, justifying its higher price by telling you it is meant for export. Which is correct since this is a kind of Cavendish, the banana variety that accounts for 99 per cent of the world market.
You might also want to listen to a podcast (now discontinued, alas, but it was truly excellent while it lasted) about the same topic. It used to be hosted by Vikram himself, and all episodes are worth a listen. It no longer seems to be online, more’s the pity, but perhaps the more intrepid readers might be able to surface a source for all of us? My top three episodes were about coffee, butter and bananas.
But back to bananas: as I said, we produce a lot of Cavendish bananas. Why? Well, economies of scale, in the jargon of my tribe. In English, we were optimizing for cost minimization:
Nature has a simple way to adapt to different climates: genetic diversity.https://www.theguardian.com/food/ng-interactive/2022/apr/14/climate-crisis-food-systems-not-ready-biodiversity
Even if some plants react poorly to higher temperatures or less rainfall, other varieties can not only survive – but thrive, giving humans more options on what to grow and eat.
But the powerful food industry had other ideas and over the past century, humans have increasingly relied on fewer and fewer crop varieties that can be mass produced and shipped around the world. “The line between abundance and disaster is becoming thinner and thinner and the public is unaware and unconcerned,” writes Dan Saladino in his book Eating to Extinction.
The first two lines of that extract above are now a problem, because mass production of one type of banana is the agricultural equivalent of putting all your eggs in one basket. And this is a problem for the same reason that putting all your savings into one asset class is a bad idea.
If a pest comes along that is particularly bad for that particular variety, well, we’re in deep doo-doo (and the infographic in the Guardian article is an excellent way to understand how we refuse to learn from history). And well, such a pest is now with us:
…diversity boosts the overall resilience in our food systems against new climate and environmental changes that can ruin crops and drive the emergence of new or more aggressive pathogens. It’s what enabled humans to produce food and thrive at high altitudes and in the desert, but rather than learn from the past, we’ve put all our eggs in a few genetic baskets.https://www.theguardian.com/food/ng-interactive/2022/apr/14/climate-crisis-food-systems-not-ready-biodiversity
This is why a single pathogen, Panama 4, could wipe out the banana industry as we know it.
It’s been detected in every continent including most recently Latin America, the world’s top banana export region, where entire communities depend on the Cavendish for their livelihoods.
“It’s history repeating itself,” said banana breeder Fernando Garcia-Bastidas.
And when they say “every continent”, they aren’t exaggerating:
Tropical Race 4 (TR4), the virulent strain of fungus Fusarium oxysporum cubense that is threatening banana crop globally with the fusarium wilt disease, has hit the plantations in India, the world’s top producer of the fruit. The devastating disease which surfaced in the Cavendish group of bananas in parts of Bihar is now spreading to Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and even Gujarat, and threatening to inflict heavy losses to the country’s ₹50,000-crore banana industry.https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/economy/agri-business/india-in-a-race-against-wilt-in-cavendish-banana/article23650060.ece
Well, OK, you might say, bring on the guys in the white coats and figure out the solution. Here’s Wikipedia on the topic, and the relevant section doesn’t have a reassuring heading: it’s called “Disease Management”. Personally, I would have felt better if it was more along the lines of disease eradication. But the first line of this section gives one a sinking feeling:
“As fungicides are largely ineffective, there are few options for managing Panama disease”
The Wikipedia article on Cavendish bananas is equally gloomy on the topic, save for a single line of some hope towards the end:
Cavendish bananas, accounting for around 99% of banana exports to developed countries, are vulnerable to the fungal disease known as Panama disease. There is a risk of extinction of the variety. Because Cavendish bananas are parthenocarpic (they don’t have seeds and reproduce only through cloning), their resistance to disease is often low. Development of disease resistance depends on mutations occurring in the propagation units, and hence evolves more slowly than in seed-propagated crops.[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cavendish_banana#Diseases
The development of resistant varieties has therefore been the only alternative to protect the fruit trees from tropical and subtropical diseases like bacterial wilt and Fusarium wilt, commonly known as Panama disease. A replacement for the Cavendish would likely depend on genetic engineering, which is banned in some countries. Conventional plant breeding has not yet been able to produce a variety that preserves the flavor and shelf-life of the Cavendish. In 2017 James Dale, a biotechnologist at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia produced just such a transgenic banana resistant to Tropical Race 4
It’s not just bananas, of course. The Guardian article is a lot of fun to read, and I would encourage you to arm yourself with a coffee and spend some time going through it. Corn is another great example!
Cost minimization is a great idea, but as with food, it is the dose that makes the poison. Long time readers will know that I have a bee in my bonnet about this, but I honestly think it is an idea that has been taken too far across multiple dimensions.
So what is to be done? I have absolutely no expertise in what the agricultural/scientific solutions might be, but as with JIT supply chains that focus on China, office redesign that sucks all the fun out of work and so much else besides, so also with this.
Ask what you’re optimizing for, and begin to worry if the answer is a single-minded focus on cost minimization.
Raghuram Rajan got this one right, in a different context: what matters is risk-adjusted returns. And it applies across multiple dimensions, not just finance. Moreover, when you design systems, think of risk across large horizons of time, not just short term optimization.
Be clear about what you’re optimizing for, and realize that cost minimization can only take you so far.
Simple lessons, but oh-so-underrated!
But hey, if you get a chance to try the sukeli out, please do!