Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
Sometimes, a banana is just a banana. Other times, it is the fruit at the centre of an intense political debate about the future of progressive politics. Bananagate, l’affaire banane, was a mini-moment on left-wing Twitter, wherein participants debated if a just and equitable society would require giving up cheap, imported foods like bananas. Participants were split (sorry) into pro- and anti-austerity camps, with capitalist onlookers shaking their heads at the left infighting.
It all started when the writer Malcolm Harris addressed “pro-growth lefties” in a Twitter thread about how prioritizing the labour issues of banana farmers abroad – and there are real issues – would mean the end of the cheap and ubiquitous American (and Canadian) supermarket banana. “It doesn’t make any other-than-capitalist sense,” he explained, “to create a world-spanning daily banana infrastructure for people in Columbus, Ohio.”
Mr. Harris’s fruit-full musings inspired another Twitter user, Cassie Prichard, to expand on this with a thread that goes longer and deeper: “People framing this as a ‘decline’ in the standard of living, as if there is an inherent human need for year-round banana access at every latitude that must be satisfied. As if we couldn’t be equally happy with a more seasonal and local agriculture.” (Ms. Prichard lives in Los Angeles.)
Mr. Harris insists he is not condemning the individual banana buyer. And Ms. Prichard, who repeatedly refers to bananas as “treats,” says she’s not an ascetic who thinks pleasure makes you a bad person. But together, these threads create the image of a consumer who feels entitled to their bananas.
While critics of Big Banana may have a case, the silliness of trying to recruit people to left-wing politics by declaring that wholesome and affordable food should be less plentiful led to much Twitter merriment. (I suggest a search for the unlikeliest of expressions, “banana discourse.”)
The whole thing has a way of devolving into a dorm-room debate about pure capitalism versus communism, as though these are the only two options, or an opportunity for uninformed Americans to imagine that a country cannot have universal health care and out-of-season fruit, something Canadians know is possible.
Some remarked that banana discourse suggested a return to Twitter’s entertaining heyday, and there is something to this. A few years ago, it was fashionable to insist that people are not paying enough for their groceries, not shelling out the true – that is, ethical – cost. This has become a difficult case to make at a time when food prices are skyrocketing. If you’re struggling to make rent, how moved are you supposed to be by the cause of turning bananas into the new caviar?
The problem with describing grocery staples as “treats” is partly that it’s a way of placing the blame disproportionately on the people who have the least, while sparing the wealthiest. If I saw a $10 banana at the supermarket I’d assume the markup was going to the CEO. (A big sign up in my local chain supermarket reads, “Paying too much for bananas is bananas,” cleverly distracting from the cost of everything else.) But it’s also that the discussion of what consumers feel entitled to has a way of missing the distinction between a nefarious sense of entitlement and a more neutral understanding of the world in which you live.
If I never saw another banana again, I’d be fine with this. As the parent of young children, I spend most of my time putting bananas into tote bags, which is to say, finding banana peels in tote bags, hours (or more) after the fact, half of a now-mushy banana still in them. But if I could only consume only in-season Ontario-grown produce, I would have to find a way to hibernate from October to June.
The ability of modern humans to transport fruit, or to grow it in greenhouses, seems like the sort of thing that should be last on the list of things to chuck in a quest for a better world. Guns, SUVs, or even meat seem like better places to start. Otherwise, you end up going down the pointless road where you’re reading that almonds use too much water, that quinoa is problematic, and concluding that no foods are ethical so you may as well eat that hamburger.