The banana brief

From plantation to consumer: a tale of chemicals, slavery and CO<sub>2</sub>


Due to economies of scale, big is bountiful. Plantations in Central America can extend up to 100 sq km. Cavendish bananas take about nine months to grow and are harvested, while still green, in bunches weighing up to 80kg. These are hauled, by hand, to on-site packing sheds. Pickers are commonly paid ‘piece rates’ to ensure maximum efficiency, resulting in extensive health problems due to overworking.


Here bananas are separated into ‘hands’, washed, wrapped and packaged, primarily by women labourers. Any bananas that do not meet strict ‘cosmetic’ requirements imposed by retailers are rejected. The UN Food Agriculture Organization estimates that 30–40 per cent of total banana harvests are classed as ‘unacceptable’ due to spots or blemishes.


Boxes are transported by road or rail to the port where they are shipped in energy-intensive refrigerated units, to prevent ripening. A report released in March this year by European academics estimates that freight shipping, which represents 90 per cent of transport in world trade, accounts for five per cent of global CO² emissions.


On arrival, bananas are artificially ripened using the chemical ethylene and a gradual rise in temperature in specialist warehouses.


They are then transported, primarily by road, directly to retailers or wholesalers who then supply smaller shops and markets. In 2002, food transport in the UK accounted for 25 per cent of all HGV kilometres and 1.8 per cent of total UK CO² emissions.


Just four retailers – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons – currently account for 70 per cent of all banana sales in the UK. This represents over one million individual sales every week, which should be used as a vote for Fairtrade alternatives.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2007

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