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Completely bananas

Investigate the past, present and future of Britain's favourite fruit with Susan Thomas

During the Second World War, people in the UK literally had no bananas. Crossing the Atlantic was off limits and Fyffes ships, which imported them, were requisitioned for war use. They were always popular, and we now eat more bananas than any other fruit. How do they grow and where do they come from?

The banana plant originated in South-East Asia and China some 10,000 years ago and has a long and distinguished history; Marco Polo came across it at the court of Kubla Khan and it was first exported by Arab merchants who sailed with the root stocks to Africa by dhow. From the coast of Africa, Portuguese merchants took it to the islands of the Canaries and Madeira and, in the 16th century, Spanish travellers took the plants to the Dominican Republic in the West Indies.

Such is the yellow-jacketed fruit's history that life without it seems almost unthinkable - but the banana as we know it could be extinct within a decade. Scientists fear that pests and diseases invading farms in central America, Africa and Asia could wipe out the Cavendish, the strain of banana most familiar to us. In the 1950s, one strain of the fruit, the Gros Michel, was wiped out by a disease caused by a fungus in soil. Now a new fungal disease, black Sigatoka, is threatening the Cavendish, as is a new form of Panama disease, which destroyed the Gros Michel.

The problem is that the bananas we know and love have no seeds and are sterile. The wild banana contains hard seeds that are almost inedible.

Stone Age people cultivated mutant, digestible strains by planting stem cuttings. The descendants of these cuttings - virtual clones of the originals, almost indistinguishable from the first crops harvested more than 10,000 years ago - are what we eat today. But scientists say that as a species bananas are particularly vulnerable to attack from pests.

Genetic modification may save the familiar banana and scientists hope they will have uncovered its genetic blueprint within five years. However, large producers fear the public will not accept a GM fruit. More importantly, there are half a billion people in Asia and Africa who depend on bananas for their staple diet. In Uganda, bananas are grown on a third of all cultivated land and consumption per person is 50 times that of British households.

The banana fruit is a berry that grows on large plants with a stem of furled leaves that resemble a huge leek.This grows to be some five metres high. The mother plant produces a large exotic purple flower bud that unfolds to reveal miniature bananas, each with a flower. One plant grows one bunch of bananas in one year. There can be up to 10 "hands" on each bunch and up to 30 "fingers" on each hand. After fruiting, the stem dies away. During the fruiting season, a new "daughter" shoot will have grown up from the root to provide the following year's bananas. Bananas can be produced all the year round and the tropical climate that they favour allows plants to follow their natural 18-month cycle, starting at any time of the year.

Banana issues Since 1998, bananas have overtaken apples as the best-selling fruit in the UK. The sale of bananas accounts for about 30 per cent of all fruit sales in the UK. My local supermarket sells an average of 100 trays, each weighing 16kg, each week. Some 17,000 customers shop there each week - that's 100g, or one small banana, for each one.

Nowadays, you can buy Fair Trade bananas (see below) from the Windward Islands, organic bananas from Dominican Republic and loose bananas from Central America, Ecuador and the Caribbean.

You may also find, as I did, recipe cards for plantains and bananito - two banana varieties that are being promoted as the banana market expands.

Plantains are vegetable bananas for cooking. They make good crisps if fried in thin slices, and can be boiled and mashed like potatoes. Bananito are also known as apple bananas and are very small and sweet.

Any study of bananas will reveal lots of conflicting issues that pupils can research and discuss. Here are a few:

* Consumers want cheap bananas.

* Plantation workers want a living wage.

* Consumers want blemish-free fruit without harmful chemical residues.

* Plantation workers want to work in a safe non-toxic environment.

* Large plantation owners want a high yield per field.

* Small farms cannot afford fertilisers and other chemicals.

* Small farms are giving up growing bananas.

* European Union politicians allegedly want straighter bananas.

* Fair Trade, an organisation that helps small-scale growers by offering guaranteed prices, charges consumers more for the fruit. Some supermarkets sell Fair Trade bananas.

* Some growers in the Dominican Republic have discovered they can grow bananas without pesticides by constant care of the plants and soil. They get more money for organic bananas.

* Harvesting is being mechanised on South American banana plantations to save time and money. This is not possible on small farms in hilly regions.

Figure it out The sheer number of facts and figures in the banana industry offers plenty of scope for maths activities. Statistics are to be found throughout this project and here are some more:

* Sixty million tonnes of bananas are grown worldwide each year, of which 12 million tonnes are exported.

* Britons consume five billion bananas a year.

* About 60 million people live in the UK.

* A large banana weighs about 160g.

* Forty-five thousand tonnes of Jamaican bananas are sold in the UK every year.

* One metric tonne is 1,000,000g (1,000kg).

Age and ability of students will determine the complexity of the maths investigations to be undertaken but here's a couple you can give to pupils for starters:

* On average, how many bananas does each person in the UK eat each week? Does this number seem reasonable?

* How many bananas do you eat in a year? How many does your classgroup eat?

* All the bananas grown in Jamaica are exported to the UK. How many Jamaican bananas does each person eat each year? How could you find out where the rest come from?

Food facts

Bananas are good for you. If labelled with nutritional information in a similar way to packaged foods, a banana would show no fat, no cholesterol and no salt. (Unripe bananas contain lots of starch. During ripening, this converts to sugar.)

One banana contains about 15 per cent of daily requirements of vitamin C, 11 per cent of the potassium and 16 per cent of dietary fibre. A medium-sized banana (125g) provides 1g protein and 29g carbohydrates, of which 21g is sugar.

If you count calories reckon on about 100. Compare this information with some packaged foods and see why bananas have become the favourite snack of athletes and sports people.

Professional tennis players, footballers and cyclists include them in their diets to boost energy and stamina, and the high levels of potassium in bananas help athletes prevent muscle cramp.

It is said that Manchester United players eat banana and jam sandwiches before a game.

Banana growing

The growing of bananas has moved with the times. In most banana-growing locations, fertiliser is routinely applied, often with the supply of water by some means of irrigation. Pesticides are sprayed in most plantations, and planes spray the fields if fungus diseases appear. The small flowers on each banana are cleaned by hand to prevent damage by insects that hide inside the flowers. Blue plastic sleeves are placed over the fruit to protect it from insects and adverse weather conditions.

The fruit is continually monitored for disease and growth. Callipers are used to check the size of the fingers before cutting. On large farms, a team of three men - cutter, carrier and hangman - harvest the bananas.

They sweep the field, cutting whole bunches of bananas that are large enough for sale. Each bunch weighs about 20 kilograms, so the carrier rests it on a thick shoulder pad until the hangman attaches it to the conveyor that takes it to the packing shed.

At the packing shed the bananas are washed, weighed and cut into clusters.

Usually a fungicide is added. Boxes are packed and labelled for different destinations. The bananas are refrigerated at 14 degrees Celsius for shipping. It takes about 10 days for them to reach the UK from the Caribbean.

Banana jargon

Bunch - the large fruit stem with all its fruit.

Finger - one banana.

Hand - 10-30 fingers growing on a bunch.

Cluster - about 6-8 bananas.Sweep - to cut all the bunches that are ready.

Hangman - the person who hangs the bananas on the conveyor belt.

Sleeve - the blue bag that protects the bunch.

Machete - a large knife for cutting bunches.

Pupil activities

* Map the history of the spread of bananas from South-East Asia to the Caribbean and Central America.

Which countries have traditionally exported bananas and which countries have grown them for home consumption?

* Make banners to represent the demands of different groups of people.

* Build up profiles of people, showing their demands, lifestyles, opinions and hopes.

* Consider a politician's position in legislating on the standards required for bananas imported into the EU. What standards would a group of children demand?

* Producing bananas for sale can be shown as a flow diagram, with sentences and illustrations of each stage.

* Encourage children to survey their local shops and markets and discover the banana trends in their area.

Most supermarket managers are happy to answer a few questions if you pre-arrange your visit, and there's plenty of information on the shelves.

* Focus on a banana product or one banana-producing country for a classroom advertising campaign to increase awareness of the fruit. You could include recipe cards, tasting demonstrations, posters and a TV advert and jingle.

* Carry out some creative food technology using bananas. Budding chefs only need a bunch of bananas and a selection of complementary ingredients to make a delicious dessert. Offer fruit juices, lemon juice (stops the fruit blackening), dates (taste and texture of toffee but healthier), chocolate and some binding mediums such as ice cream, fromage frais or yoghurts.

Nuts, brandy snaps and ginger biscuits add crunch.

* Banana smoothie: liquidise a banana with half a glass of orange juice and half a glass of cranberry juice. Add two tablespoons of natural yoghurt or a dollop of ice cream and blend together.

Serve in a tall glass with ginger biscuits for dipping in.

* Banana log: chop a banana and fold it into 200g of thick Greek-style yoghurt. Take six ginger-nut biscuits. Dip one (count to five) into a dish of orange juice.

Stand the biscuit on edge on a plate, sandwiching it with the banana mixture to the next dipped biscuit and so on, forming a log shape. Decorate with chopped dates or nuts. Chill before serving.

* Play the game "hangman", focusing on banana jargon and vocabulary used in the work on bananas, drawing a hanging cluster of five or 10 bananas instead of a hanging man.

Susan Thomas is a geography consultant

Key stage 2 geography opportunities

Debate topical geographical issues.

Analyse and draw conclusions from statistics. Research in the local market.

Make and use maps of different scales.

Knowledge of patterns and processes in the banana industry.

Knowledge of tropical regions and the interdependency of places through trade.

Cross-curricular links

Maths - investigations using statistics.

Language - vocabulary and spelling.

Design and technology - developing recipes, designing promotional materials.


Bananas (a book for children) By Louise Spilsbury (Heinemann ) Geography Junction: Jamaica, Programme 3, Channel4 educational video Tel: 08701 246444 www.channel4.comlearning


Fyffes website has competitions and games www.fyffes.comproduce

Fairtrade information about producers

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