This is Apocalypse Chow, a new monthly column dedicated to radically rethinking our understanding of food.
Will there be bananas under socialism? The question recently swept the internet, started with a tweet from Malcolm Harris, communist and author of Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World. Harris mused that if banana-producing countries became socialist they would “almost certainly reduce American consumer access to bananas and that is FINE.”
At New York magazine, Eric Levitz described the ensuing Twitter brawl as the latest round of a slugfest between pro-growth and degrowth leftists. Ben Burgis in the Promethean-leaning Jacobin aligned with pro-growthers when he wrote that “the instinct by at least some participants in Banana Discourse to trivialize concerns about access to consumer goods as a matter of spoiled Americans not being able to imagine giving up their ‘treats’ is deeply misguided.”
Wherever on the banana patch the food fighters imagine they are planting their flag, they are staking the same claim. Both sides think shitty capitalist food is all there is. They view socialism solely as a labor process rather than a social one that would transform everything from gender and healthcare to cuisine and culture. This narrow approach leads them to focus on the pitfalls of socialism instead of the enormous potential it holds for agriculture and food.
A more fruitful approach than asking what socialism can tell us about bananas is to ask what bananas can tell us about socialism. For one, it tells us that polyculture is far superior to monoculture in food systems as well as in politics and society. In any socialist future worth living in, there would be many more types of bananas available (and foods in general), and much more diverse methods of farming and forms of distribution and consumption.
Undoubtedly bananas would exist under socialism—because 400 million people eat the fruit for up to one-quarter of their daily calories.
There are more than 1,000 sweet and savory varieties of bananas, but the Cavendish cultivar accounts for nearly half of all bananas grown worldwide and 99 percent of those eaten in America. It is also dull tasting, a companion to mealy tomatoes, bland strawberries, and watery carrots. The lifeless fruits and vegetables we find in supermarkets are the result of capitalist farming that breeds for size, yield, hardiness, appearance, longevity, and resistance to diseases and pests—attributes that select against taste. Produce that bursts with flavor tends to be smaller, more fragile, more perishable, and harder to store and transport.
As an industrial tomato grower said, “I don’t get paid a single cent for flavor . . . I get paid for weight.”
Freed from the yoke of Del Monte and Dole, farmers would have little incentive to cultivate disease-prone clones in plantations up to 30,000 acres big and dependent on human rights abuses, child labor, and toxic pesticides. (Because the plants are genetically identical, a single disease or pest can wipe them all out, forcing farmers into a never-ending chemical arms race with nature.) If farmers were no longer forced to grow cash crops, they could prioritize feeding themselves and their communities. Because sustainability would be in everyone’s interest, they could farm to improve soil and biodiversity, and reduce carbon emissions as well as the use of artificial fertilizer and industrial pesticides. Agricultural science would be for the people, not capital.
More varieties of bananas would be available, because cultivation would depend on specific growing and social conditions instead of the tyranny of monoculture. Varietals like red, apple, Lady Finger, Thai, Blue Java, and Pisang Raja bananas might become as common as the Cavendish; the more aromatic Gros Michel, which adorned bowls of Corn Flakes before it was wiped out by a fungus in the mid-twentieth century, could return.
There would be fewer Cavendish bananas and that is FINE.
Varietals would improve cuisine and taste. Cooks would have more foods to play with; people could try and compare different bananas. We would likely eat more plantains, a wonder fruit that is a sibling to other bananas. When green, plantains are a starchy staple that can be eaten as salty tostones con mojo de ajo, mashed, mixed with rice, stuffed with meat, fermented into beer, fried into discs (patacones) that act as sandwich bread, or served in stews, soups, and the glorious hangover cure, mofongo. Fried ripe plantains are a divine dessert. The long-gone National Cafe in the East Village would deep-fry a whole plantain to a dark golden brown until a fork could slice right through its caramelized exterior to its custardy innards. Even the skins are edible. My mother boils green plantains whole, turning the fruit into a sabzi and slicing the skins into ribbons sauteed for a spicy crisp masala.
Bananas are super cheap—Trader Joe’s has sold them for 19 cents each since the 1990s—thanks to super-exploitation of labor. In Ecuador, ten-year-olds work for no money so that their parents’ pay isn’t docked.
Socialism would end this exploitation not magically, but as part of an evolutionary process. Take India, the top producer of bananas in the world at 35 million tons a year. The 572,000 banana workers there earn $90 a month on average, little more than half of the living rural wage in India. If they received an additional $180 a month to improve their wages, as well as better sanitation, housing, clean water and energy, healthcare, and education, it would add less than a penny per banana in increased cost.
And it’s not just bananas; many more species and varieties of fruit would flourish. Under socialism, farmers would have the freedom to work with the environment instead of colonizing it with alien plants. We can glimpse such a future in agroforestry, an ancient practice of cultivating forested gardens to provide food, clothing fibers, building goods, medicines, and space for livestock.
In New Guinea, where agroforestry practices go back at least 4,000 years, forest gardening maximizes use of surface and vertical space. Tubers are layered in the earth with yams the deepest, cassava above them, and taro and sweet potatoes near the surface. A mat of edible sweet potato leaves and taro leaves covers the soil, and above them stand hibiscus, sugarcane, and banana fronds. The food forest protects thin tropical soil, deters insect pests, and makes efficient use of sunlight.
Agroforestry can be highly productive. Counter to what some pro-growthers claim, we don’t need chemically intensive industrial agriculture to feed Earth’s 8 billion people. Farmers in Malawi using fertilizer trees, which fix nitrogen in the soil, nearly quadrupled maize yields over fields that used neither trees nor the mineral fertilizer that burns out soil.
From Bangladesh to Brazil, agroforestry farmers who grow bananas also cultivate a variety of goods to feed, clothe, and house themselves. They trade and sell their surplus. In this manner, agroforestry looks a lot like the Marxist ideal of “producers for themselves.”
People care little about bananas compared to coffee and tea, wine and whiskey, chocolate and spices. Marxists would be the first to revolt against socialism if deprived of these quotidian stimulants.
Even if socialist farming produces more bananas than before, there is still the problem of how they—along with other commodities—will reach workers in North America. The pro-growth crowd is right that socialists should embrace the development of very low-carbon seaborne and rail transport that can keep the sinews of international exchange robust.
Nonetheless, pro-growthers like Burgis are simply wrong. Spoiled Americans do have to give up some treats, like snarfing almost sixty pounds of beef a year, owning three cars, and living in resource-intensive McMansions. Not giving them up means class war on the rest of humanity; it is impossible for everyone to consume like Americans.
However, de-growthers who want to largely replace trade for local production ironically align with wealthy foodies. Local, seasonal, and organic food may be gourmet virtues now, but until a few decades ago they were a curse for humanity. Eating what grew near you, in season, and without modern agriculture and supply chains meant monotony at best and hunger at worst.
As late as 1900, a century after the Industrial Revolution began, culinary monotony was the rule the world over. The French averaged one-and-a-third pounds of bread a day. Black and white sharecroppers in the South survived on the 3 “Ms”—meal (cornmeal), molasses, and meat (pork fatback)—for nearly every meal every day. Male Japanese farmers ate two pounds of rice a day. Trade, mechanization, and refrigeration ended monotony.
Socialism cannot mean a return to that dismal past. Saying we will have fewer bananas, as Harris does, is to endorse austerity. The bunch of banana debaters suffers from a failure of the radical imagination. If a socialist society decided it wanted foods it did not grow, we can easily imagine how it might happen. Perhaps the People’s Soviets of Greater New York would offer doctors, computer technology, or wind power to the Central American League of Revolutionary Campesinos for bananas, coffee, cacao, and avocados.
Socialism is not just about goods, however. Two other forms of trade have existed since the dawn of humans: ideas and people. Today, ideas are intellectual property, and migrants are largely criminalized. In a socialist world we would trade cultures, customs, and cuisines. More important, food wouldn’t only come to us—we would go to the food.
Socialism would allow us to freely roam the world at a human pace—by biking and walking, on trains and ships—for months or years at a time. Cuisines are complex symbolic languages that we eat, and you have to be integrated into cultures and taught how to appreciate them—just like learning a language. It’s not bucket-list tourism, the ultimate capitalist banality, where Americans imagine they can learn a new culture from the comfort of a tour bus in a few days.
Food is a revelation when you travel. Compared to imports found in America, bananas, mangos, guava, and papaya in India are like the sun is to the moon. In Mexico, avocados, cucumbers, onions, and tomatoes grown thirty miles away are tastier and more luscious than the versions that journey 3,000 miles to our supermarkets.
Instead of hankering for poor imitations, we might rediscover regional dishes like the broiled Missouri partridges, apple dumplings “with real cream,” Baltimore canvasback duck, green corn with butter, and Boston bacon with beans, which Mark Twain lovingly described when he was homesick while touring Europe. Or we may decide Cavendish bananas are not as tasty as forgotten North American fruits like mulberries, paw-paw, huckleberries, and persimmons.
We should conceive of socialism as a world that allows for the full variety of human experiences and pleasures. And leave the bland bananas for the capitalists.
Arun Gupta is an investigative reporter who has written for the Guardian, the Daily Beast, the Intercept, The Washington Post, and other publications. He is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute, cooked professionally in New York City, and is author of the forthcoming, Apocalypse Chow: A Junk-Food Loving Chef Explains How America Created the Most Revolutionary Food System in History (The New Press). Read all of Arun’s writings on Substack, and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org with question, comments, or to join a food tour.