Bananas are the most widely consumed fruit in America. The average American consumes approximately 30 pounds per year. However, since they don’t even grow in this country, are not the best source of vitamins, and pose some serious environmental and ethical issues, should we really be eating so many of them?
Bananas – A Tropical Timeline
Bananas are in fact native to Asia, not the Caribbean and Central America, although most of the worlds production occurs in the latter two regions. There are no commercially available bananas grown in North America so everything available must be packed and shipped over long distances, using many tons of fossil fuels per year. What follows is a timeline of the rise of banana production and its impact on the people and the environment the plant has touched.
1870 – Bananas come to North America
The arrival of the banana in North America occurred in 1870 when Captain Lorenzo Baker brought bananas he had purchased in Jamaica to sell in Jersey City. After this initial success, Baker teamed with a man named Andrew Preston thus forming the Boston Fruit Company.
Around the same time as the arrival of Boston Fruit Company, railway construction had begun in Costa Rica. In charge of the project was a man named Minor Cooper Keith. Keith planted banana trees alongside the railroad as a cheap source of food for his workers. Soon, he began using the railroad to export the bananas grown on his plantations.
1898 – United Fruit is Born
Keith’s first shipment of bananas to the US was a great success. And through this he became partners with Baker and Dow. The three men founded United Fruit in 1898 which resulted in the three men owning 75% of the market for bananas in the United States. We now know United Fruit as Chiquita Bananas, “CHA CHA CHA!”
1903 – “Panama Disease” strikes United Fruit Plantations
Thousands of acres of banana producing land had to be abandoned due to this blight which resulted in thousands of acres of rain forest destroyed to form new plantations. The expansion of United Fruit into new forest land was met with very little government opposition. Pesticide use on plantations began as a reaction to this disease. One of the reasons this outbreak was so devastating is the practice of mono-cropping, or only growing plant species in a large area makes that crop especially vulnerable to disease. And when things are similar in nature, what affect one affects the other.
1928 – Workers Strike in Columbia leaves 1,000 people dead
The largest labor movement ever witnessed in Columbia involved United Fruit workers who in 1928 went on strike. Their demands included written contracts, eight-hour days, and six-day work weeks. The government sent the Colombian army who fired on the unarmed workers. Both bystanders and workers were killed in the incident. The local police later detained some of the soldiers and found their pockets full of U.S. dollars. It has been documented by researchers that United Fruit paid the military to break the strike by any means. (Charbonneau & Clipsham, 2003)
1950 – United Fruit Succeeds in Exiling Guatemalan President
Jacobo Arbenz became President of Guatemala in the 1950’s. Under his government’s Agrarian Reform Act, he declared that 209,842 acres of land belonging to United Fruit would be purchased and distributed to peasants. United Fruit, with the support of the American government, began an aggressive public relations campaign against Arbenz. On June 18, 1953 opposition forces invaded Guatemala and forced Arbenz to go into exile. This operation led to over 40 years of repression of the Guatemalan people. United Fruit’s expropriated holdings were returned to the company and it was business as usual (Charbonneau & Clipsham 2003).
There are now five large companies that control the majority of the global banana market. The table below illustrates this distribution. There are still many issues facing banana production ranging from environmental issues to the human impact on production. Recently, the introduction of fair trade practices and organic production have done much to improve conditions surrounding production. Unfortunately, due to growing requirements needed for organic production and the small number of fair trade growers, these solutions cannot effectively meet the demand for bananas on a global scale. Organic banana production requires that the bananas be grown in cooler temperature at higher altitudes to avoid the need for pesticides. The land available for this kind of production is limited, as is access.
It is well known that much of the tropical rain forests are continually threatened by agricultural industries attempting to clear the land for farming. Many of these practices permanently damage the surrounding ecology and affect human populations in a variety of ways. Banana production is no exception to this rule. While there are a growing number of fair trade producers throughout Latin America it is clear that the lion’s share of the market still belongs to a small number of multinational corporations who tend to be slow to implement change that will positively impact both the people and the environment they are so closely tied to. The past decade has seen some change, mostly on the part of Chiquita to improve the conditions of the workers as well as protect the surrounding ecosystem. However, they still employ the practice of mono-cropping which has been shown to leave a net negative impact on the land.
America’s most widely eaten banana type, the Cavendish, is threatened by a fungus that could wipe out U.S. banana supplies if it spreads to Latin America. Today the Cavendish, America’s most widely eaten banana type, is threatened by a fungus that could wipe it out. Banana expert Dan Koeppel discusses the problem of banana monoculture, and why he says we should demand banana variety in his book, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.
Pesticides: Chemicals are used both during the growing and the packing of bananas for transport. Formaldehyde may be used to deter contamination of the fruit before shipment as well as fungicides.
It is estimated that approximately 30 kg per hectare per year of pesticides are applied to Central American banana plantations, ten times the amount used for agriculture in industrialized countries. Most of these chemicals are banned in the United States (Wheat, 1996). Arial fumigation is a popular practice which causes problems to the surrounding environment rapidly as well as people exposed to the airborne chemicals. During aerial fumigation a large percentage of the fumigant ends up landing on something other than its intended target. The fumigant can also make its way easily into the waterways adjacent to the plantation ultimately ending up in the ocean.
Costa Rica has seen 90% of its coral reef die due at the hands of banana producers. It is not only the pesticides that have destroyed the reef but also sediment from degraded soil, bags left over from fruit production, and other industrial waste products, in enormous quantity, that has quickly destroyed this important ecosystem.
Bags: Another common practice is to place large bags over the growing bananas to prevent insects from damaging the fruit. Apple and pear orchards employ similar practices to ensure that the produce arrives at the market blemish and bug free. The problem is that these bags, of not properly disposed of, end up in the water where marine life will often mistake them for fish and suffocate.
What Gets Left Behind: Soil contamination from banana production has long term effects that prevent future use of the land for agriculture. This is the case for much of the South Pacific lowlands of Costa Rica. Abandoned plantations tend to have high quantities of copper in the soil. Normal measures of copper in soil are usually 20 to 50 PPM, while abandoned plantations have concentrations as high as 4000 PPM (Astorga, 1998).
The Human Impact
Child Labor: According to a report from Human Rights Watch child labor is fairly common and widespread in Ecuador, the current leading exporter of bananas to the United States. Children as young as 8 years old will go to work on plantations. And again, the issue of pesticide use has both immediate and far reaching effects on children. We may not see the total impact for many years to come on these lives, but the following are accounts from child plantation workers describing how they feel after aerial fumigation.
“Fabiola Cardozo told Human Rights Watch that twice when she was twelve she became ill after aerial fumigation. She described that the first time, “I got a fever. . . . I told my boss that I felt sick. . . . He told me to go home. . . . [The second time,] I became covered with red things. They itched. I had a cough. My bones hurt. I told my boss. He sent me home.” Similarly, Carolina Chamorro told Human Rights Watch that after aerial fumigation, “I felt sick twice. I was ten years old. . . . I began to shake.” She said that she thought she was going to faint and told her boss, who sent her home. Crist?bal Alvarez, a twelve-year-old boy, also explained, “That poison – sometimes it makes one sick. Of course, I keep working. I don’t cover myself. Once I got sick. I vomited [and] had a headache . . . after the fumigation. I was eleven years old. . . . I told my bosses. They gave me two days to recover.”
Human Rights Watch has also documented first-hand accounts of child sexual harassment on plantations.
Mass Sterilization: The North American produced pesticide, DBCP, has been used on banana plantations in Costa Rica since the 1970’s. It is mainly used to keep bananas blemish free, which is the number one criteria for product selection at your local grocery store. This pesticide was banned for use in the United States by the EPA in 1979. DBCP has been linked to sterilization in male plantation workers. There have been many lawsuits and several settlements between plantations and the workers affected. For more detail on this topic visit: http://www1.american.edu/ted/costpest.htm DBCP, as of 1987 has been banned on all Central American plantations.
According to a report in Ethical Consumer in 1997 it is estimated that half of all work related accidents happen on banana plantations and of those pesticide poisoning is the most common.
Economic: The average plantation worker is hired on a short term basis and makes far below the minimum wage. Keeping workers on temporarily allows plantations to avoid the costs associated with full time workers including healthcare.
An Overview of Average Daily Wages on Banana Plantations
|Ecuador – Virtually no unionsNicaragua
*While women’s daily wage is generally the same as men’s on union plantations, women’s actual earnings tend to be from 40-70% less since they can only work when there is fruit ready to be packed. Source: El Comercio, Ecuador October 20, 2000
Clients of mine who are looking to balance their blood sugar are always concerned when I tell them to stop eating their daily bananas. Bananas are touted as the best source of potassium by many doctors, but at 51 grams of carbs per serving, there are many other better sources of potassium out there for people who have metabolic issues. One cup of cooked Swiss chard or one cup cooked spinach have more potassium than bananas, and are much less inflammatory. With diabetes and other inflammatory disease skyrocketing in America, excessive banana consumption is not helping the issue.
What You Can Do: A more sustainable choice if bananas are still going to make it on your table is to purchase Fair Trade bananas. Bananas bearing the FAIRTRADE Certification Mark have been produced by small farmer organizations or in plantations that meet high social and environmental standards. Farmers who produce Fairtrade certified bananas are guaranteed a Fairtrade minimum price to cover the costs of sustainable production and a Fairtrade Premium of US$ 1 per 18.14kg-box of bananas to invest in projects in their communities.
The Fairtrade standards for banana production differ between small farmers’ organizations and plantations. However the Fairtrade minimum prices and Premium are set at the same level for both types of organization. Source: http://www.fairtrade.net/bananas.html
Buy Local: While Fair Trade bananas do support a positive growing culture in Latin America the bananas grown still have to travel thousands of miles to make it to your local market. The dependence on limited resources required to ship the bananas is an issue that cannot be overlooked when opting for the most sustainable choice. It is mainly for this reason that buying local fruits and other produce may be superior to purchasing something grown far away. Locally grown produce also helps keep money in your community and supports the livelihood of farmers who are likely your neighbors!
There are many small farms popping up all over the United States with the common goal of engaging their local communities in the importance of community food security, and providing fresh, delicious products. Farm direct food, or food purchased through farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects helps the farmer offer products at a more affordable price by reducing the middle man necessarily involved in trading commodities that need to be shipped in, like bananas. To learn more about local farms in your area and how to purchase form them visit: Local Harvest at: http://www.localharvest.org/. In Massachusetts there are tons of local farms dotted throughout the state. There are also numerous farmers markets and other outlets to buy produce directly from the farmer. And, as far as fruit goes the local berries that arrive in the summertime can’t be beat.
Grow your Own: If you live in a southern or tropical climate you could have your own bananas in your backyard! Check with a local greenhouse or extension agent to see if this is an option for you.
This article was co-written by me, Diana Rodgers and my sister, Frances Towle, LAC.
Fair Trade information about Bananas: http://www.fairtrade.net/bananas.html
Information about buying locally: www.localharvest.org
Human Rights Watch: News, analysis and resources from human rights perspective. www.hrw.org