Velvet Underground to Warhol Estate: Hands off the Banana

Pop artist Andy Warhol rendered this portrait of a banana in 1967 for The Velvet Underground’s debut record album. Almost half a century later, the rock & roll band is suing the artist’s estate for trademark infringement. The band knows something farmers are increasingly concerned about: bananas need protection.

That’s not just any banana. That’s a Cavendish, the kind familiar to Western grocery shoppers (although the Warhol Museum couldn’t confirm its variety). When The Velvet Underground issued its self-titled banana album, the Cavendish was as new to the American palate as rock & roll. A different banana, the Gros Michel, dominated fruit bowls in the first half of the 20th century. The larger, less-curved and less-sweet Gros Michel survives in tropical regions, but in the U.S. it's as distant as the 20s-era song it inspired: "Yes, We Have No Bananas.”

A fungal pathogen devastated the Gros Michel in Latin America in the 1950s. Profits at United Fruit Co., which is now Chiquita Brands, tumbled 97 percent. That allowed rival Standard Fruit Co., now Dole Food Company Inc., to become the leading fruit seller by adopting the Cavendish. Dole leads the market to this day.

Cavendish bananas make up 99 percent of the world’s shipments, but now they, too, are at risk. A pest called Tropical Race Four has already wiped out the variety in Asia. Scientists believe the soil-borne fungus will make it to Latin America, home to four of the world’s top five banana exporters.

Should the fungus devastate Latin America, the Cavendish would suffer the same end as the Gros Michel. With a new blight threatening, bananas’ best defense may come from biodiversity. Some of the greatest promise is in East Africa, home to more the 80 indigenous banana varieties. (A chapter from my book, Endless Appetites, was recently excerpted on Bloomberg’s Sustainability News website.)

Whatever fate befalls the Cavendish, it has already outlived its contemporary, the vinyl record album. Let’s hope that, just as Spotify, iTunes and compact disks all deliver The Velvet Underground’s debut album today, farmers will have plenty of “formats” for the future banana.

Alan Bjerga covers the U.S. Department of Agriculture for Bloomberg News.

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