Bananas: from plantation to plate

What could be more cheerful than this ubiquitous breakfast fruit? But if you’re not buying them Fairtrade and organic, argues Ed Hamer, then you’re buying into a modern agricultural scandal

In the early hours of 16 March 2007, three agricultural labourers, Alexander Zuñiga, Marco Borges and Jamie Juárez, began their day’s work on the Chiquita-owned Coyol banana plantation in northern Costa Rica. The men had been busy harvesting and gathering the unripe bunches of fruit for about an hour when they realised that another team of workers had also been assigned to their section, spraying the fruit with nematicide to control pests.

Within minutes, two of the men had been overcome with the effects of pesticide poisoning and were immediately taken by the other workers to a clinic, where one remained under observation, on a drip, for several hours. The following day, on reporting the incident to their supervisors and holding them accountable, the men were summoned by the company management for a disciplinary hearing and dismissed for misconduct.

Less than a week later, heads of state from across the ‘free’ world joined the British government in celebrating the bicentenary of The Slavery Abolition Act 1807. Speaking at a Downing Street reception, Tony Blair labelled the 18th-century exploitation of indigenous peoples as ‘one of the most shameful enterprises in history’.

Two hundred years after abolition, modernday slavery is still a fact of life for 800 million of the world’s rural poor. Where once there were merchants there are now multinationals; where there were slave-drivers, there are now economies of scale. The transition from the sugar estates of the commonwealth to today’s commodity plantations has been seemingly effortless. The infrastructure remains, all that has changed is the name; from exploitation to externalities.

The Chiquita story is by no means exceptional, but a symptom of our rapidly globalising agricultural economy. As the pursuit of competitive production has fuelled the race for minimal social and environmental standards, it is inevitable that those at the very bottom of the supply chain will ultimately pay for ‘economy’ foods, through their health and the environment.

The banana is in many ways synonymous with globalisation. The first tropical fruit to be cultivated on an industrial scale, by The United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) in 1873, its production has been progressively streamlined. Bananas are now the single biggest profit-making item sold by UK supermarkets, with Tesco generating an average £800,000 profit every week from banana sales alone.

Despite the desperate inequalities associated with its production and trade, the banana can tell us a lot about the future of global food security. Few other products, let alone foods, can claim to have achieved the efficiency of supply or brand recognition of the breakfast banana. A model that agribusiness is keen to replicate.

First introduced to the Americas by the Portuguese in the early 16th century, bananas are today grown throughout the humid tropics and, along with coffee, account for 60 per cent of the combined export earnings for the region. More resistant to pests and disease than coffee, bananas were traditionally recognised as a secure agroexport investment for the newly industrialising economies of the global south.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, production First introduced to the Americas by Portuguese in the early 16th century, bananas are today grown throughout the humid tropics and, along with coffee, account for 60 per cent of the combined export earnings for the region. More resistant to pests and disease than coffee, bananas were traditionally recognised as a secure agroexport investment for the newly industrialising economies of the global south.

Over recent years, the economic might of the European supermarket chains has, for the first time, challenged the 130-year stranglehold of the suppliers over the banana market. Between 2002 and 2005 in the UK, Tesco and Asda engaged in an unprecedented ‘banana price war’, aggressively undercutting each other’s shelf-price with the moral authority that ‘Every little helps’.

Predictably, these price cuts were not absorbed by the multimillion-pound retailers, neither were they picked up by the importers, shippers or suppliers. Instead, they were passed directly on to the plantation workers, who account for one per cent of the banana’s retail price. In Nicaragua, workers receive as little as 75p for a 10- to 12-hour day of intense physical labour. In Ecuador, they may receive as much as £2.50, or even £4, though unfortunately still not enough to pay for basic human needs such as housing, food, education and clothing.

According to an Action Aid report released in 2007, incidences of poisoning, such as that at Coyol, are ‘routine’, as is the aerial spraying of contact-pesticide and herbicide on workers in the plantations. In order to ‘integrate’ the supply chain, packing houses are sited nearby and are staffed primarily by women. Here the bananas are washed of chemical residues and separated into smaller ‘hands’ before being graded and packaged. Although producer countries are subject to domestic labour standards, enforcement is not a priority. It is not unusual for packing operatives to spend their entire shift (10 to 12 hours) standing, with their unprotected hands immersed in chemical baths.

In December 2002, a £250 million lawsuit was successfully brought against Dow Chemicals, Shell Oil and Dole over the toxic effects of the chemical nematicide, Nemagon. Despite being banned in the US in 1977 on health grounds, Nemagon continued to be supplied to banana plantations in the tropics, in some cases up until 1990, resulting in birth defects, kidney and liver damage and sterility among workers.

Due to the early success of the banana trade, many small nation-states were monopolised by plantation economies, resulting in the decline of secondary industries and services. It is a tragic legacy of this dependence that these plantations still offer the most stable form of income for rural populations, and are therefore rarely short of workers. Under such conditions, it becomes clear why plantation owners would sooner dismiss employees who complain, than accept liability for the health of their workers.

Around 80 per cent of the bananas sold in UK supermarkets are produced on plantations in Latin America and, increasingly West Africa. Although there are more than 300 varieties of bananas in the world, large-scale production favours just one of these, Cavendish, which is cultivated in vast monocultures. This intensive model of farming could not be more different from the species-rich ecosystems that are cleared to make way for the booming banana trade.

Having evolved out of the nutrient-rich forest soils of Australasia, bananas are an ecologically demanding species. Once new plantations are established on cleared land, soil fertility quickly declines as natural leaf litter is no longer available to feed nutrient cycles in the soil. In an effort to maximise the nutrients available to the crop, natural ground cover is controlled with herbicides, leaving the soil exposed to sunlight, wind and rain. Typically, newly established plantations will experience a considerable drop in yields within the first three years of production. The plantation is therefore forced to expand, to compensate for the loss in productivity.

This rapid decline in soil health inevitably leads to erosion and loss of topsoil. Intense tropical rainfall exacerbates run-off, leading to localised flooding and sedimentation of water courses and coastal regions. In 1996 it was discovered that more than 60 per cent of the fragile coral reefs in the Cahuita National Park, off Costa Rica’s east coast, had suffered irreversible sedimentation due to erosion from coastal banana plantations.

The banana export industry consumes more agrochemicals than any other crop apart from cotton. This is largely due to the cosmetic requirements imposed by European and US supermarket chains, which demand ‘perfect’- looking bananas, free from blemishes. Growing a single crop intensively, in a confined area, considerably increases the risk posed by pests, fungi and disease, fostering a dependence on pesticides. It is estimated that commercial banana plantations in the tropics use, on average, 30kg of pesticide per hectare per year, compared to the 2.7kg applied to industrial cereals in Europe.

Such extraordinarily high levels of application are necessary as heavy rains wash the pesticides from the leaves and into the soil and watercourses. In one month in 1994, five serious river contaminations were reported in the Cariari banana region of Costa Rica. Despite the legacy of Nemagon, plantations throughout Latin America continue to use chemicals that have been restricted or banned for use in the USA.

Biodiversity in the areas surrounding banana plantations has also suffered as a result of pesticide use. This has been compounded through the loss of topsoils and deforestation. Chemical residues have prevented pioneer plant species from the natural process of colonising abandoned plantation plots, some of which have been found with concentrations of copper as high as 400ppm10. Mammals, birds and insects are also affected as pesticides are accumulated along the food chain.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, the banana industry produces more waste than any other agricultural sector in the developing world. Organic by-products include shoots, flowers, crown and leaves, as well as rejected bananas, all of which are saturated in agrochemicals, preventing natural decomposition by microbes and biota.

Non bio-degradable waste includes industrial quantities of plastic bags, string, tape and chemical containers. These are either burnt, or find their way into drainage ditches and waterways. Collection and recycling requires storage, a production cost that is regarded as uneconomical. Whilst up to date figures are scarce, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimated that 4,510 tonnes of plastic bags and 4,832 tonnes of polyethylene rope were generated by Costa Rica’s banana industry in 1995 alone.

While the majority of these social and environmental concerns have long been regarded as ‘factors of production’, the past decade has seen increasing scrutiny of our food supply chains from campaign groups and the consumer alike. Despite their apparent indifference, supermarkets are not oblivious to the concerns of their customers – or, more importantly, consumer spending concerns.

As early as 1990 the success of the Fairtrade movement was putting pressure on the big retailers to modernise their attitudes towards ‘economy’ producers. As a result, the UK’s supermarket chains adopted their own ‘codes of conduct’ regarding their responsibilities, particularly towards Third World producers. On the face of it, these codes represent a commitment to social and environmental standards, monitored independently along the supply chain. In reality they are voluntary and often fail to consult the workers themselves over social and environmental concerns associated with production and processing.

Recognising these superficlal attempts at greenwash, grassroots groups have stepped up their campaigns to expose the unsavoury realities of the banana trade. Banana Link is a small non-profit cooperative, founded in 1996 to work for a socially just, environmentally sound and economically viable banana industry. According to its international coordinator, Alistair Smith, ‘Although companies may want to be seen to be respecting the rights of their employees, and environmental standards, it is for the workers, unions and consumers to decide whether they are ‘socially responsible.’

In addition to the environmental concerns associated with monoculture plantations, the agricultural specialisation that has created ‘banana republics’, has also led to severe economic and social shock. The Windward Island Archipelago, population 160,000, progressively adopted banana production as its primary export industry throughout the 1980s on the advice of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). From 1987 onwards, The Windward Isles enjoyed an exclusive contract supplying US food giant WalMart. In 2002, however, WalMart’s contract was tendered and won by Del Monte, sourcing from Latin America. Almost overnight, the livelihoods of 23,000 small farmers and their families had fallen victim to the ‘nature’ of free trade.

‘When Del Monte became Asda/WalMart’s exclusive supplier, it was based on a ridiculously low price,’ explains Alistair Smith. ‘This sparked a race to the bottom as other retailers sought to push down their supplier prices to compete. The first to suffer were Windward Island farmers, who saw the prices they received fall below costs of production’.

Europe has traditionally sourced bananas, and other tropical produce, from the former colonial islands of the Caribbean, paying guaranteed prices above those of the global markets. While this has not always been the most economic option, it was continued out of respect, following the granting of Independence. Since 2005, however, these arrangements were ruled illegal by the World Trade Organisation, following complaints from the United States that they constituted a ‘barrier to trade’.

As a result, smaller-scale producers in Jamaica, Dominica Republic and Haiti have had to abandon their extensive low-input systems in order to compete with the established industrial plantations of Central America. It is no coincidence that the three largest Central American exporters – Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte – are all US owned.

Bananas have power. They are referred to by retailers as ‘known value items’, meaning that consumers recognise their cost as an indicator of competitive pricing between supermarkets. This is why they occupy prime shelf space at the entrance to the store and feature regularly in promotional price cuts.

This power, however, is vulnerable to manipulation. If retailers experience a shift in consumer spending on a ‘known value item’, it will have an immediate and significant impact on supply. Therefore, if consumers commit themselves to buy only Fairtrade bananas, demand will be passed along the supply chain to provide improved, Fairtrade-certified conditions for plantation workers.

At present, Fairtrade alternatives are not universally available, being stocked by retailers primarily to capitalise on the ‘ethical market’. Recent evidence, however, illustrates the power of consumer demand, with two of the big five UK supermarkets now stocking only Fairtrade bananas. Independently supplied Fairtrade bananas now account for more than 20 per cent of the UK market, ensuring that a ‘living wage’ is paid to more than five million workers and farmers worldwide.

Opting to buy organic may also be seen as an ethical decision. Although Organic certification can not be interpreted as an indicator of social responsibility, organic plantations offer a real solution to the unsustainable environmental exploitation of intensive monocultures. Organics now account for two per cent of the global banana export market, primarily coming from Ecuador, Peru and the Dominican Republic.

Although bananas, as a tradable commodity, have been subjected to a greater degree of industrialisation than almost any other agricultural export, it is only a matter of time before coffee, cacao, tea and sugar suffer a similar fate. What is remarkable, however, is that these five crops, which between them generate 85 per cent of total export earnings within the tropics, are all non-essential foods.

What is more remarkable still – and furthermore, slightly disturbing – is that these developing countries, home to the world’s poorest rural populations, have been encouraged to dedicate their most productive agricultural land to the cultivation of luxury items for the West.

This is no longer simply a question of ‘bonded labour’. In colonial times, slaves were in fact encouraged to be self-sufficient in their own foods. Instead, what we have witnessed is the unprecedented erosion of livelihood security, cultivated by our dependence on artificially cheap foods.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2007

More from this author