issue 317 - October 1999
CHRIS MARTIN / STILL PICTURES
The banana trade is big business. It comes fifth in
terms of world trade in agricultural produce –
after cereals, sugar, coffee and cocoa.
Where they come from
Between 1988 and 1997 the world’s exports of bananas almost doubled, to just over 12 million tons. This was, however, less than a quarter of the total world production of 58.8 million tons, the remainder being consumed locally in producing countries. Ecuador, with 4.4 million tons in 1997, is the world’s largest exporter, followed by Costa Rica with 1.8 million tons, the Philippines with 1.6, Colombia with 1.5 and Guatemala with 0.6. Aotearoa/New Zealand imports the highest per capita amount of bananas in the world, at 20.4 kilos a year, closely followed by Malta at 19.6 kilos.
The chemical content
Almost all the bananas we eat are treated with chemicals throughout the production cycle. By far the heaviest users are the plantations in ‘dollar’ countries that have minimal monitoring or healthcare services. Plantations in Central America apply 30 kilograms of active ingredients per hectare per year – more than ten times the average for intensive agriculture in industrialized countries.
Fungicides: Aerial spraying up to 40 times per year. Some, like mancozebare, are suspected carcinogens.
Nematicides: Applied between two and four times a year. Designed to kill parasitic nematode worms, they are extremely dangerous. The use of DBCP resulted in the mass sterilization of tens of thousands of plantation workers from Central America and the Caribbean to the Philippines and West Africa.
Insecticides: Like chlorpyrifos impregnated into plastic bags and tags placed around banana bunches.
Herbicides: Are sprayed between 8 and 12 times a year. Glysophate is a suspected carcinogen.
Fertilizer: Applied regularly throughout the year.
Disinfectants: After harvest, the fruit is washed with tisabendazol and aluminium sulphate, which can cause severe dermatitis in direct contact with human skin.
Who gets what from the price of a banana
As with almost all commodities produced in the South and consumed in the North, more than 90% of the price paid by the consumer stays in the North and never reaches the producer. Most of the risks of producing a perishable fruit are, however, born by the producer. The largest chunk of all is taken by the retailers – mostly the dominant supermarkets and chain stores.
What bananas cost the environment
Waste: For every ton of bananas produced, two tons of waste are left behind, frequently contaminated with chemicals and non-degradable plastic.
Deforestation: Rising demand for bananas is met by extending the size of plantations, which often means cutting down rainforest.
Soil: Copper and other residues accumulate and can leave land permanently sterile. Fragility of exposed soils, together with the concentrated water flows in irrigation systems, cause severe soil erosion and increased flooding during tropical storms.
Biodiversity: Large amounts of plant, fish (including coral) and animal life are lost from the intensive use of chemical agents. Monocultures encourage diseases, some of which are becoming resistant to the chemicals designed to eradicate them.
Exhaustion: Many of the plantations in Latin America are now more than 25 years old – the maximum optimal productive life for a conventional plantation. Del Monte, Dole and Chiquita are establishing new plantations in other areas of Latin America, India and Indonesia.
Who pays for cheap bananas
The ‘dollar’ fruit from the plantations of Central and South America are cheaper than anywhere else – largely because the costs are ‘externalized’, which means they are paid by someone else; in this case by plantation workers and the environment. If these costs were ‘internalized’, decent wages paid and environmental damage eliminated, the difference would disappear.
Production costs in US dollars per box, 19951
The companies that run the trade
The ‘Big Three’ banana corporations – Chiquita, Dole and Del Monte – control two-thirds of world banana exports. Chiquita’s once-dominant position has been challenged by the Dole Food Company. Del Monte is now owned by a Chile-based, Miami-controlled conglomerate, backed by money from the United Arab Emirates. Among the other major players, Fyffes was once owned by United Fruit and is now based in Ireland. Noboa is the biggest national company of Ecuador, owned by the richest man in Latin America.
1 Source: Banana Statistics, FAO, Rome, 1999.
2 Anne Claire Chambron, ‘Bananas: the Green Gold of the TNCs’ in Hungry for Power, UK Food Group, London, March 1999.
3 Andrew Wheat, ‘Toxic Bananas’ in Multinational Monitor, September 1996.