Bananas, just a fruit or a global issue?

Although bananas may only look like a fruit, they represent a wide variety of environmental, economic, social, and political problems. The banana trade symbolizes economic imperialism, injustices in the global trade market, and the globalization of the agricultural economy.

-Rebecca Cohen, Global Issues for Breakfast: The Banana Industry and its Problems, The Science Creative Quarterly, Issue 3, September 07 – April 08

Bananas are number four on the list of staple crops in the world and one of the biggest profit makers in supermarkets, making them critical for economic and global food security. As one of the first tropical fruits to be exported, bananas were a cheap way to bring “the tropics” to North America and Europe. Bananas have become such a common, inexpensive grocery item that we often forget where they come from and how they got here.

Bananas are globally one of the most commonly eaten fruit, not just in the tropics where they are usually grown, but in regions like North America and Europe. However, the way bananas are produced and exported gives an insight into a number of global issues. In a number of countries such as Brazil and India, large amounts of bananas are produced but consumed mostly locally. Other regions such as Central America and the Caribbean include a large number of banana exporters. Some of the nations in these regions are quite dependent on banana exports, often to their former colonial rulers.

Writer and journalist Peter Chapman details for us the history of the banana industry and United Fruit Company (now declined and surviving in small part as Chiquita) in particular. He mentions that bananas are not a joke, “no one laughs at the banana in its areas of origin. It is too serious a business, on which jobs and lives depend.” (Jungle Capitalists, Canongate Books, 2007)

Inside a banana packing center (Bella Vista, Belize)

But… what is United Fruit Company?

In short … the history of the banana industry is long, dark, and complex. Economic and political problems and the mistreatment of workers date back to the late 1800s in Honduras, when the first railway system that connected Central America with North America was built. Bananas are a very difficult fruit to transport and keep fresh, and the railways allowed the export of bananas. American businessmen very quickly bought large plots of land and shipped bananas to the United States, and a very prominent American corporation called the United Fruit Company controlled the trade. United Fruit Company soon owned much of the best agricultural land in countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and the banana industry grew exponentially between 1900 and 1930.

Chapman details in his above-mentioned book, how for decades United Fruit Company, was often accused of bribing Latin American government officials in exchange for preferential treatment, exploiting workers, creating an abusive monopoly, and—similar to accusations some oil companies have have faced—encouraged or supported US coups against smaller nations putting in place dictatorships. The story of it’s rise and demise, which Chapman details, almost created the banana industry and what became termed the “banana republics” of Central America.

The banana industry in Latin America peaked in 1930; thereafter, the transnational corporations slowly lost much of their political influence in the banana republics, due to a number of factors such as plant disease, the great depression, and labor issues. However they still wanted to keep a presence in Latin America, and in the 1950s, these transnational fruit corporations intervened when the Guatemalan government attempted to take back land from the corporations to distribute it among the peasants. The American government, backed by the transnational fruit corporations, overthrew the democratically elected government, and helped elect a president who favored their economic interests.

Worker taking the bananas from the field to the packing center (Bella Vista, Belize)

Where and how are bananas produced?

Bananas are produced in tropical climates around the world, from Mexico to Brazil, from to the Philippines to Madagascar. For the most part, bananas that are grown for export are grown in large scale farms up to 100 square kilometers. There are over 300 species of bananas, yet only one is grown for international trade: the Cavendish.

Banana plants take ten months to grow from a sapling to a fruit bearing tree. The fruit is harvested four to five months later, while they are still green, in large bunches that can weigh up to 80 kilograms.

They are then taken to a packing site where they are separated, washed, wrapped and boxed. High esthetic standards must be met, and only “perfect” looking bananas are considered acceptable; any that are spotted or scratched are thrown away. The United Nations Agriculture Organization estimates that 30 to 40 percent of bananas are discarded based only on appearance.

Bananas during the selection process

Is eating a banana with brown spots bad for you?

Unlike fruits that need to ripen on the tree or plant, growers pick bananas that are firm, green and fleshy. Once the fruit leaves the tree, amino acids inside began to change to ethylene gas. This gas eventually ripens the banana. The enzymes soften the banana, sweeten the fruit and change the color from green to yellow.

As the banana ripens, brown spots generally develop as it moves through the ripening stage. The sugar content in the banana increases from almost zero to about 80 percent as the banana ripens, according to Kathy Wollard, author of Newsday’s “How Come?” The more brown spots the banana has, the more sugar the banana contains, and the sweeter it becomes.
Growers often ship bananas long distances, and thicker, tougher peel of green, unripened bananas often makes the journey with less damage. Some growers add ethylene gas to ripen bananas more quickly if they are close to the marketplace.

Bananas packed in plastic bags ready to be shipped to supermarkets in UK (Bella Vista, Belize)

How is the banana industry affecting the environment?

The banana is a very ecologically demanding species. It pollutes the air, water, and land. Land is cleared in order to make space for banana plantations, but because banana trees shed no natural leaf litter to feed the soil, it depletes very quickly. Plantations are therefore forced to expand, and the problems associated with banana production grow. Deforestation and unhealthy soil cause erosion, and the runoff causes frequent flooding and damage from sedimentation. In a 1997 study done off the coast of Costa Rica, it was discovered that 60 percent of the coral reefs in Cahuita National Park had been severely damaged due to runoff from coastal banana plantations.

Heavy pesticide use also causes problems. In an attempt to meet the demand for aesthetically perfect bananas, over 400 types of agrochemicals are used. In fact, more chemicals are used during banana production than any other crop with the exception of cotton. These chemicals can lead to sterility, cancer, and death. Insects become resistant to many of these pesticides, therefore stronger, more toxic chemicals are needed. These chemicals affect mammals, birds, and plants, and the bio-diversity of the area quickly disappears. Pesticides also destroy the possibility for pioneer plant species to grow, and the area dies.

Furthermore, bananas are grown as a mono-culture, meaning that all the bananas on a plantation are genetically identical. Although this makes crops easy to manage, these bananas face an increased risk of being wiped out by a single type of pest, fungi or disease.

What can I, as an individual, do to help?

The power to change the banana trade is truly in the hands of the consumer.

You can purchase fair trade bananas, which are grown on plantations where workers are treated in a just manner and are paid higher wages. If consumers buy these fair trade bananas, demand for them will increase. Theoretically demand for other, non fair trade bananas will decrease and working conditions will improve.

Make sure that the bananas that you buy from the supermarket are certified by the Rainforest Alliance. They are an international nonprofit organization that stands for biodiversity, conservation and sustainable livelihood. From deforestation and global warming to drought and extreme poverty, the Rainforest Alliance is working to solve urgent environmental and social challenges.

To earn Rainforest Alliance certification, small and big farms must meet criteria in all these areas:

•Maintain or increase tree cover

•Prevent erosion and nurture the quality of their soil

•Eliminate the use of critically dangerous agrochemicals, reduce the use of other chemicals, and safeguard local water supplies

•Monitor and protect the animals that live on or pass through their properties

•Facilitate access for workers to clean water, housing, and healthcare, and education for their children

•Prevent children under age 15 from working, except for the purpose of maintaining local culture and family tradition, and help ensure safe working conditions for all employees

•Operate their farms efficiently and profitably and pay their workers at least the legal minimum wage

 

Credits for research: THE SCIENCE CREATIVE QUARTERLY

GLOBAL ISSUES FOR BREAKFAST: THE BANANA INDUSTRY AND ITS PROBLEMS FAQ (COHEN MIX)

by REBECCA COHEN

Pictures and clips: Banana Farm in Bella Vista – Belize, certified by the Rainforest Alliance

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