How Google is like bananas

By Felix Salmon
January 4, 2011
article about the way in which the world of bananas-for-export is threatened by something known as Tropical Race Four.

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By weird coincidence, Whole Foods was sold out of bananas today, as the latest issue of the New Yorker arrived on newsstands with a great (but sadly paywalled) article about the way in which the world of bananas-for-export is threatened by something known as Tropical Race Four.

It turns out that the banana we all know and love — the Cavendish — is actually the second type of banana grown in enormous quantities and exported across Europe and North America. The first was the Gros Michel, which was wiped out by Tropical Race One; you might be saddened to hear that “to those who knew the Gros Michel the flavor of the Cavendish was lamentably bland.” Indeed, Chiquita was so sure that Americans would never switch to the Cavendish that they stuck with the Gros Michel for far too long, and lost dominance of the industry to Dole.

In both cases, the fact that the same species of banana is grown and eaten everywhere constitutes a serious tail risk, even if today’s desperate attempts to genetically modify a disease-resistant Cavendish bear fruit:

A new Cavendish banana still didn’t seem like a panacea. The cultivar may dominate the world’s banana export market, but, it turns out, eighty-seven per cent of bananas are eaten locally. In Africa and Asia, villagers grow such hetergeneous mixes in their back yards that no one disease can imperil them. Tropical Race Four, scientists now theorize, has existed in the soil for thousands of years. Banana companies needed only to enter Asia, as they did twenty years ago, and plant uniform fields of Cavendish in order to unleash the blight. A disease-resistant Cavendish would still mean a commercial monoculture, and who’s to say that one day Tropical Race Five won’t show up?

This is exactly what I was talking about a year ago, in my post about Dan Barber, world hunger, and locavorism, when I talked about how monocultures are naturally prone to disastrous outbreaks of disease, and how a much more heterogeneous system of eating a variety of locally-grown foods is much more robust and equally capable of feeding the planet.

Also today, my friend Katherine Maher’s Bookforum review of Nick Cullather’s The Hungry World has finally appeared online. Food has been a national-security issue for decades, and the Americans used it as a weapon in the Cold War. Sometimes, the results were simply comedic:

In the Philippines and Vietnam, for example, Cullather chronicles the introduction of IR-8, a visually distinctive, specially cultivated Green Revolution rice strain, in a sobering and revealing exposition of how scientific research can contort itself in pursuit of a favored policy. He provides a sharp account of the media firestorm over discoveries in 1969 that North Vietnam had initiated its own independent cultivation of IR-8; Congress expressed grave concern that seeds would fall into Cuban or Chinese hands, and the CIA was tasked with evaluating the threat of a grain gap opening up between the superpowers.

But at other times, they were scandalous:

In the aftermath of the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War, the word famine itself became a tool for setting policy priorities—a lexical weapon that the administrations of both Indira Gandhi and Lyndon B. Johnson wielded in a masterstroke of politics. The strategic withholding of US aid helped touch off a severe drought in some Indian states; citizens suffered mass unemployment, inflation, and displacement, while the cities saw strikes and riots. This panic produced the specter of wider political instability—and that threat, in turn, allowed the Gandhi government to consolidate power, ensuring Johnson a friendly, democratically aligned ally on the Subcontinent.

Maher points out that high-tech agriculture has had mixed results in much of the world: “many beneficiaries of the Green Revolution remain among those nations with the highest rates of chronic malnutrition”, and 70% of the children most likely to be malnourished are living in middle-income countries.

The problems with monoculture aren’t purely agricultural, either. Anil Dash has a post up today about the decline of Google search quality, and diagnosing the problem as being that “Google has become a monoculture”; Alan Patrick quotes a commenter at Hacker News as saying that if search were more heterogeneous, spamsites would find it more costly to scam every site.

I’m not completely convinced that seeing large numbers of SEO sites atop search results for consumer goods is entirely a function of the fact that Google is a monoculture. My guess is that in fact what we’re seeing is simply the result of enormous numbers of SEO sites, all using slightly different methods of trying to game the Google algorithm. Even if only a small percentage of those SEO sites succeed, and even if they only succeed briefly, the result is still a first page of Google results dominated by SEO spam — a lose-lose proposition for everybody, but one which wouldn’t be solved by having heterogeneous algorithms: they would all simply have different SEO sites atop their various search-result pages.

But maybe if Google wasn’t a monoculture, there wouldn’t be quite as many SEO sites all trying to hit the jackpot of, however briefly, landing atop the Google search results. In general, monoculture is a bad and brittle thing — and that goes for search as much as it goes for bananas.


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