I live in a region formerly known as a Banana Republic. No, I’m not talking about the hip clothing factory, though there are plenty of clothing boutiques here. The concept of a Banana Republic formed in the late 1800’s when bananas from Central America were exported to the U.S. and Europe for as much as 1,000 percent profit. The fruit was still cheap compared to other available local fruits, so the banana export trade took off. American railroad tycoons, or similar wealthy foreign men would buy large plantations in Central America and employ local laborers for pennies a day. It was this system that defined a Banana Republic to its current meaning: a region of pliable, bendable government. This meaning was created in part by the United Fruit Company, who over the span of last century, played a heavy hand in the politics of many Central American countries, helping overthrow governments and replacing them with puppets of their own, or violently quelling worker strikes in countries from Guatemala through Columbia and Ecuador. The United Fruit Company is now Chiquita Brands International. Yes, that little blue and yellow fruit-basket-hat-wearing lady so familiar in U.S. supermarkets.So: bananas. Where do they come from? Who picks them and ships them to your supermarket? Why are they so cheap? What happens to those that aren’t purchased?
Bananas in this hemisphere are grown mostly on the Caribbean coast of Central America, in warm temperatures with lots of rainfall and low elevation. Bananas are native to Asia and were brought over around the 15th or 16th Century. In the late 19th Century, plantations began to develop. As these plantations were expanded, marshes were drained, rain forests were cut down, streams were diverted and reshaped with canals to control flooding from heavy rains. The landscape transformed into a homogeneous one, which necessitated the use of agrochemicals to maintain high yields of blemish-free bananas and to restore nutrient loss (the soil nutrients were once protected by the forest canopy). Herbicides are applied to keep weeds in check, nematicides for the root nematodes, aerial fungicides are sprayed to battle fungus, and immediately prior to shipping, another fungicide and other preservative-type chemicals are used to protect the fruit.
These chemicals are washed away during the rains and persist in the environment. They can be found in surface waters such as rivers and lakes, and in the fish and other animals that live in those waters. They can also be found in aquifers and other drinking water sources of communities around these banana plantations. Apart from being terrible for the environment, the workers who have to apply the chemicals and handle the bananas covered with chemicals suffer both acute and chronic maladies from this continued exposure. The workers are also paid very low wages and housed in cramped barracks with no electricity or running water. And while many banana companies will construct communities (houses, hospitals, schools), they will also just walk away if disease or disaster strikes the plantation, leaving the community with no way to earn a living since their entire livelihoods centered around the banana plantation. Essentially, these banana companies (primarily Chiquita, Dole & Del Monte) are treating their workers very very poorly while making loads of profits.
After the bananas are harvested and given their pesticide bath, they are piled into boxes, stacked onto skids, and loaded onto trucks or trains that bring the skids to refrigerated containers that are then lifted onto ships bound for Europe or North America. Ten to fourteen days after being harvest, the bananas are being displayed on supermarket shelves for 20 to 60 cents per pound. This is usually about half the cost of apples, despite the fact that apples are typically much more local, and certainly less perishable. Bananas are sold so cheaply because the costs are externalized. They are paid by someone else, such as the environment or the plantation workers. Economies of scale also allow companies to sell a lot of fruit so cheaply, and since the companies plant only one genetic variety of banana, they can guarantee the bananas all ripen at the same rate, minimizing loss. But bananas are still quite perishable, so supermarkets want to keep the prices cheap to ensure they move off the shelf quickly.
Those bananas that don’t move off the shelves before turning brown then become the supermarket’s waste. Bananas are among the worst offenders of supermarket waste; I’ve seen stats range from 20 to 40% of bananas imported into the States become waste because they turn before being purchased. As mentioned in an earlier post, supermarkets pull items off the shelf before becoming inedible, which means much of this waste is something that could be consumed by hungry & needy people.
Some supermarkets do allow pig farmers to pick up their wasted produce, and so here is where these Chiquita bananas have ended their journey: as dinner for hungry pigs in northern New Hampshire. These pigs have no idea what went into bringing their dinner to their trough; they are completely oblivious to the amazing banana journey.
So is fair trade or organic bananas better? Yes and no. Organic bananas are typically grown by small farmers who don’t use pesticides and typically keep around 20% more profits than their non-organic counterparts. Fair trade bananas can allow small farms to compete with the large plantations, and large plantations that embrace fair trade protect their workers by giving them higher wages and protection against the chemicals. In those ways, fair trade and organic bananas are less bad, but still not good. The best option? Unless you can grow a banana plant in your backyard, perhaps it’s best to pass by the cheap yellow fruit in favor of fruit that’s in season and local to you.