When you buy a bunch of bananas, you may be supporting devastating environmental practices, the suppression of workers’ rights and labor unions, and even inadvertently supporting terrorist organizations. Here’s what’s really going on under the banana peel and how you can choose to buy ethical bananas instead.
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Bananas. They are the most popular product in the produce section and usually available for only a few cents per pound. However, the real-world cost of this humble fruit is far higher than most people realize.
The Problem with Grocery Store Bananas
Understanding why bananas are so problematic requires a look at the power dynamics at play with producing them. This number one selling fruit is grown exclusively in tropical regions, usually in less-developed countries that sell them to global powers like Europe and the United States.
This creates a highly competitive market where grocery stores put enormous price pressure on the producers, leading the suppliers to cut corners to keep costs as low as possible.
Here are some of the problems associated with banana production today.
Bananas are grown as a monoculture throughout massive swaths of the tropics. There, they are sprayed with millions of tons of pesticides to keep them blemish-free. In fact, bananas are considered to have one of the highest pesticide loads of all commercial crops and use more agrochemicals than almost any plant besides cotton.
While you are protected from any pesticide exposure thanks to the fruit’s thick peel, farmworkers aren’t as fortunate. One pesticide, known as Dibromochloropropane (DBCP), has been linked to thousands of cases of male sterilization in the 1990s. Other compounds used with banana cultivation are linked to serious health problems like depression, cancer, respiratory challenges, and birth defects.
Equally concerning, these agrochemicals often seep into water systems where they can damage plant and animal life while polluting the local community’s water source. And, because pests and diseases become resistant to these chemicals quickly, banana growers are forever upping their concentration and potency, which increases their adverse effects.
At present, more than 97% of the world’s banana supply comes from a single variety, called the Cavendish. Every Cavendish banana is a clone, meaning they share identical genetic material. Each is suspectable to the same pests and diseases, and a single pathogen could wipe out the entire supply.
This isn’t hypothetical. In the 20th century, a fungus called the “Panama Disease” decimated that era’s commercial variety, and there’s reason to think history could soon repeat itself, leaving an estimated 450 million people without a staple food crop or income source.
Governments are notoriously entangled with banana production. Industry leader Chiquita pled guilty of giving money and assistance to rebel groups in Columbia from 1997-2004, one of which is a known terrorist group.
The banana industry is far from fair for the workers within it. Many of the biggest companies (Dole, Chiquita, and Del Monte) are actively moving their operations into regions with less unionization to suppress workers’ rights.
These massive banana conglomerates put pressure on each plantation to keep wages as low as possible and prevent protests. In fact, union leaders have been killed in recent years throughout Colombia, Honduras, and Guatemala.
Globally, the banana industry is worth over $7 billion. Unfortunately, those working in the plantations rarely see much of the profits. One 2018 study found that most banana workers barely make enough to get by, as the industry’s minimum wage isn’t high enough to cover basic essentials. In fact, most earn 20% less than a living wage.
Even worse, most plantation workers put in long hours in unsafe conditions where repetitive strain injuries are common.
Buying Ethical Bananas: The Standards to Look For
Despite these dire statistics, the good news is that it’s possible to keep purchasing bananas without supporting a corrupt and exploitive industry. Many banana brands are going beyond the industry standard to produce the fruit in ways that are less harmful to the environment and the people that work with them.
Here are four standards to seek out the next time you’re buying bananas at the grocery store.
#1. Certified Fairtrade
Fairtrade certification has a simple goal—it aims to leave more profits with producers through fair pricing that lets workers earn a living wage. It’s typically used with products produced for export, such as coffee, chocolate, sugar, and bananas.
Its standards incorporate a holistic blend of criteria that address social, economic, and environmental concerns. These include transparent relationships between buyers and producers, fair pricing, safe working conditions, gender equality, respect for children’s rights, and respect for the environment.
Certified Fairtrade bananas were first sold in the Netherlands in 1996, and the certification has since set the standard for ethical fruit. To date, there are over 240 Fairtrade-certified banana farms within 16 countries that support close to 35,000 workers.
All Fairtrade bananas have a minimum price, which protects the producers against market fluctuations and provides a guaranteed income. Many plantations also receive what’s known as a Fairtrade Premium, which is money that can be invested in business or community projects that will improve the workers’ quality of life. Past projects have included schools, medical clinics, and better housing for workers.
All these interventions make a difference. One study by TruCost found that Fairtrade bananas have a 45% lower social and environmental cost compared to standard production measures.
When shopping, look for bananas with the Fairtrade International Certification.
#2. Certified Organic
Bananas use more toxic agrochemicals per acre than any other crop in the world, which spells bad news for the environment, plantation workers, and the person who eventually eats them. Buying fruit that’s certified organic guarantees that every party is protected from these toxic compounds.
According to 2013 numbers, organic banana production represents almost 1% of the global industry, with most coming from the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and the Philippines. While certification requirements vary slightly by country, they work to ensure that the crop is produced without synthetic amendments.
Certified organic bananas are available in most grocery stores and typically only cost a few cents more per pound.
#3. Earth University Bananas
One way to source ethical bananas is to purchase them through Earth University. This educational nonprofit is dedicated to sustainable development in the tropics and has operated a Costa Rican banana farm since the late 1980s.
This farm acts as a platform for experiential learning about environmentally-conscious farming and entrepreneurial development. All bananas grown are sold above market price, and the profits go towards a scholarship fund to support students who can’t afford to attend—many of whom would otherwise work in the commercial banana industry.
Earth University bananas are grown with fewer agricultural amendments than commercial plantations, and organic wastes are converted into compost to support the next harvest. The plantation is surrounded by a natural border that supports wildlife. All plastic necessary for production is reused as much as possible.
Today, you can purchase Earth University bananas at Whole Foods and certain Starbucks locations.
#4. Equal Exchange
Equal Exchange certification aims to cultivate a closer connection between people and farmers worldwide by keeping producers in charge of their own business. This offshoot of Fairtrade certification works to build long-term trade partnerships that account for both economic and environmental sustainability for parties on both sides.
The certification started in the late 1980s with Nicaraguan coffee and has since expanded to dozens of other global exports. It encompasses three banana cooperatives in Peru and Ecuador known as AsoGuabo, APOQ, and AVACH that are run democratically with elected leadership that makes decisions for the good of the entire co-op. Each is also both organic and Fairtrade certified.
You can order Equal Exchange bananas online or from independent co-ops and natural food stores across the United States.
Takeaway: It’s Okay to Pay More for Ethical Bananas
Ounce-for-ounce, it’s hard to find a more cost-effective form of produce than a bunch of bananas. But, while you might save money at the cash register, each fruit is taking a toll in other ways. Make a conscious decision to support ethical environmental and economic practices by paying attention to who is producing your bananas and what their end goals are.
Seek out bunches that are certified organic, Fairtrade or Equal Exchange certified, or grown by Earth University, and you can be confident that your money is going towards banana producers with the right priorities. Making the ethical choice is always worth a few more cents per pound.
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