Automated Bananas

Bananas are not an endangered species, but the one particular banana we see in U.S. grocery stores is on its way out, threatened by a disease that has already wiped out the most popular variety of banana in the USA once.

The Cavendish banana

There are hundreds of varieties of bananas, but only one regularly shows up in U.S. grocery stores. It’s the Cavendish. The Cavendish banana is the only one that can be shipped around the world successfully. Since the 1970s, all major banana growers, by which we mostly mean Chiquita and Dole, have grown Cavendish bananas at their plantations, to the near exclusion of all other varieties.

It is now the most popular fruit in the world.

But is the Cavendish the best banana? That was never the point. The Cavendish has a thick skin which will stay green for weeks and ripen slowly during shipping. The whole shipment can be forced to ripen with gas so that al the bananas are ready for display at one time.

They’re not only consistent in behavior, but also in size, shape, and taste. Bananas, whether individually or in their carefully created bunches, are about as uniform as a fruit can be. This means that their picking, packing, and palletizing are about as automated as they can be.

That means they’re cheap and easy, not something you usually get with tropical fruit.

So what’s wrong with the Cavendish banana? Entire plantations are being wiped out by Panama disease.

Panama disease

The problem is that Cavendish bananas are a great example of monoculture. In fact, since they have no seeds, they are cloned. They’re propagated with suckers from a parent plant, so that they are all exactly identical. Without the advantage of sexual reproduction, they have no way t develop resistance to Panama disease.

Panama disease is the banana disease that wiped out Gros Michel, the banana that used to be the only one shipped around the world. Companies like United Fruit grew Gros Michel exclusively from the 19th century until it was made extinct by Panama disease in the middle of the 20th century.

Then they turned around and did exactly the same thing with the Cavendish, with the same results.

We’re not sure why they didn’t learn their lesson.

Automation wins

As robot makers work to create robots that can handle the normal variation in fruit, they’ll earn to handle variations in bananas — or banana rowers will find a replacement for the Cavendish. Or some combination of the two.

Many banana-related tasks are already automated, and the position of Banana Handler has an 85% chance of being taken over by robots, according to ReplacedbyRobot.

Meanwhile, we can help with all your Indramat support and service needs, with or without bananas.