Pulling Back the
Revealing the Globalized System of Banana Production
what a tasty banana! How many times have you stopped to think about
where that flavourful fruit came from? Most people do not dwell on
'trivial' matters such as the origin of their food, but it is
definitely something to take into account. Worry not! This article is
not intended to make you, the reader, feel guilty about biting into
another scrumptious banana. Instead, this article will chart a course
that begins on the farm plantations of Latin America and small family
lots of the Windward Islands, and will gradually make its way into
your conscience and, if very lucky, into your shopping cart.
Bananas are produced in more than 123
countries throughout the world, but the bulk of banana production is
quite concentrated, with ten countries accounting for 63% of the total
output. The bulk of continental tropical American fruit is sent to
North American markets, with small amounts only being shipped to
Europe; West Indian fruit is variously distributed, the produce of the
British islands going mainly to Britain, that of the French islands to
France, and that of the republics going to North America.
When considering banana production, it
is important not to generalize. The banana market, not unlike many
other industries, is controlled by a small number of large American
multinational corporations such as Dole Foods, Fresh Del Monte
Produce, and Chiquita Brands. Most bananas are grown on huge
plantations, controlled by these corporate giants. Only 13% of banana
productions are not controlled by big business, but rather by small
holdings and collective farming.
To understand your banana's journey,
you must first understand the production process and the producers
themselves. In terms of large scale production, Dole, Chiquita, and
Del Monte are vertically integrated companies. That means that they
each control all the stages from cultivation and packaging through to
export, shipping, import, and ripening, which translates into
Focusing on Dole…this company has a
tendency to produce bananas in countries with the most lax commitments
to enforcing human rights and labour legislations, in this case
Ecuador and Costa Rica. As a result, plantation workers who are paid a
piece-rate are unable to mobilize due to lack of job security and the
continuous flow of immigrant workers (mainly from Nicaragua) who are
willing to work despite the strenuous conditions.
(Photo: Oregon State University)
The situation facing Ecuadorian banana
workers is even worse. Ecuador has the lowest banana production cost
in Latin America, and as a result it produces one third of Dole's
Latin American production. A report published in 2002 by Human Rights
Watch denounced Dole for employing child labourers, the average age
being 11.5, the youngest being 8. The report found that most of the
children worked in unsafe conditions and were no longer attending
school. Three of the girls interviewed had also experienced sexual
harassment at the packing plant of Dole's main supplier. Attempts by
workers to unionize for basic improvements have been met with fierce
resistance and workers involved in union movements are routinely
dismissed and/or blacklisted from future plantation employment.
Furthermore, scientists in Ecuador discovered that aerial spraying of
fungicides was done while workers toiled, near their homes and while
So, how is that banana tasting now?
The trade of bananas for small-scale
farmers involves several stages. First, the bananas are purchased from
the producer by cooperatives and representatives from marketing firms.
The harvesting period is the most labour-intensive time for
small-scale banana farmers. Once the export certificates and import
licences are matched, the bananas are transported to packing stations
and lugged by hand to nearby packing sheds. Washing, applications of
fungicide, sorting, and packing into boxes for export are performed by
a few workers, who may pack as few as ten boxes per day. The boxes are
loaded by hand on to small trucks for hauling to the port. Bananas are
then transported to market by sea.
Under these modes of production, your
tasty banana is picked green and, in order to "aid" in the
ripening process, the bananas are sprayed and then gassed to achieve
that unnaturally bright yellow colour North American consumers have
come to expect. But you needn't cross bananas off of your grocery
list; there are alternatives.
(Photo: Andrea Berry)
Currently, fair trade and organic
bananas are available. The fair trade system insists on 'sustainable'
production; that is, reducing the use of harmful pesticides,
herbicides, and fertilizers and ultimately helping the farmer to
become organic certified. This in turn has a benefit of improving the
health of the growers, because they are no longer exposed to dangerous
chemicals that are often banned in the consumer countries. In small
scale farming, fair trade social premium projects are providing
support to schools, health clinics, and community centres as well as
helping to improve roads in rural areas. Fair trade also aims to help
enhance the on-farm operation and other entrepreneurial activities.
Similarly, organic agriculture stresses the importance of health,
ecology, fairness, and care. Organic banana production protects and
improves soil, offers security of supply for vulnerable farmers, and
is sustainable. Look for the labels or stamps of fair trade and
organic certification on the bananas in your grocery store. Those
labels are your guarantee that you've made a sustainable choice.
Now that's a tasty banana!