Carrots, Bananas and Breadfruit

In the 1930s, Britain feared that Germany was nearing completion of a death ray, an electromagnetic weapon that could kill at long-range. In attempting to create their own death ray, British scientists instead developed a technology that came to be known as radio detection and ranging, or radar. After the outbreak of World War II, radar became a valuable tool in detecting approaching German aircraft. Although many of the advances in radar technology originated in Germany, the Nazis didn’t perceive its potential and consequently, its uptake by the military was slow.

In order to deflect growing Luftwaffe suspicions that a new technology was responsible for the success of British pilots during the Battle of Britain, a misinformation campaign was created. The British public were told that the RAF’s best night fighter pilots had developed superior night vision through years spent on a diet laden with carrots.The idea that carrots improved vision already existed in Germany and apparently they fell for it, at least for a while. In the meantime, an entire generation of British children were fed large servings of carrots along with the dogma that they were good for their eyes.

It was one of the most successful and enduring wartime propaganda campaigns but with the unintended consequence that the myth would continue unabated for more than seventy years.

(The above is an excerpt from a speech given to my three-year old daughter when I found the carrot myth presented as fact in a book she was reading. She no longer eats carrots.)

The Banana Revolution

That's not a banana: the November 1989 cover of Titanic magazine.

When East Germans flooded across the border into West Germany after the fall of the Inner German Border in November 1989, many were after one thing: bananas. Being virtually unobtainable in the East, people queued at fruit stalls and supermarkets to buy bunches of them. The enormous changes being embraced by East Germans as the Soviet bloc crumbled came to be known as the Banana Revolution.

 Breadfruit and Mutiny

Anyone familiar with the Mutiny on the Bounty will know that Captain Bligh’s near demise was due in large part to breadfruit. Native to New Guinea, the breadfruit tree is one of world’s most productive food plants. After the success of crops such as the potato, tomato, tobacco and cocoa, breadfruit was going to be the New World’s next superfood. Seen as a potentially cheap source of food for slaves, President of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks offered a reward to the first person able to retrieve specimens and deliver them to the West Indies. In 1789, Bligh had collected over 1,000 plants from Tahiti and was on his way to the West Indies when the Fletcher Christian-led mutiny ended the endeavour.

Bligh survived the 6,700 km journey in an open boat to safety and returned to complete his mission in 1791. Despite his heroic efforts, breadfruit never succeeded as a source of food for slaves, many of whom were reluctant to eat it.

Transplanting of the Breadfruit Trees from Otaheite, Thomas Gosse, 1796

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