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  September/October 1998 Features:
Two-Wheeled Revolution
Environmental Impact
The Hidden Life of Bananas
Texas on My Mind
 
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Ways & Means
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Hearth & Home
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Sierra Magazine
The Hidden Life of Bananas

by Tracy Baxter

Of the scores of inventions and curios on display at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, two really packed in the crowds: a miraculous contraption that transmitted a speaker's voice to a listener's ear, and a yellow, crescent-shaped fruit that sold for the princely sum of a dime. A century later, the banana is as common in American households as the telephone. A variety of the plant (dubbed Musa sapientum, or fruit of wise men, by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus) was probably harvested by prehistoric inhabitants of Southeast Asia, where the plant is believed to have originated.

Today's snackers, particularly in the United States, favor the large yellow Gran Cavendish. Top the 28 pounds of bananas we eat per capita with whipped cream and cherries, and you've got yourself a banana split 20 yards long. Some 3.7 million tons of bananas were whirled into our smoothies, baked into our breads, and scattered over our breakfast cereals in 1996.

Most of the bananas raised for export are cultivated in the lowlands of Central and South America. Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Guatemala, and Costa Rica supply two-thirds of the 10.3 million tons of fruit that winds up in international markets. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization predicts a production of nearly 11 million tons in 1999.

In addition to high humidity and sweltering heat, bananas need loose soil with high organic content to grow. Most conventional banana growers raze tropical rainforests to take advantage of the fertile soils, usually cultivating the crop without rotation. After a few years, banana productivity often declines, requiring the clearing of still more nutrient-rich, biologically diverse forests.

Chiquita Brands International, one of the world's largest banana producers, bills the fruit as a "perfect food for life." But most banana farmers inundate the environment with industrial poisons. Herbicides are applied directly to the ground to clear the way for the disease-prone crop's growth. Nematocides combat the small worms that attack the plant's roots. In countries plagued with black sigatoka, an airborne fungus that shrinks the fruit and eventually kills the plant, crop dusters bombard plantations with toxic chemicals up to 40 times annually. And to protect the growing fruit from pests, plastic bags loaded with chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxic pesticide, are tied around the bunches. A postharvest fungicide is applied to bananas before they're shipped to prevent crown rot.

Banana plantation laborers are seldom adequately protected. Pesticides can splash onto workers' skin, seep into their boots, or be ingested if their hands are contaminated. Sometimes during aerial spraying, bananeros are exposed to clouds of fungicides. Skin rashes and headaches are common complaints of those working on or living near banana farms. Thousands of banana workers have joined a class-action suit against Dow Chemical, manufacturer of the now-banned nematocide DBCP, claiming that their exposure to the chemical caused sterility and abnormally low sperm counts. And a recent University of Costa Rica study found that women who work in banana-packaging plants have a high risk of developing cancer and leukemia and of bearing children with genetic defects.

Rainforest Alliance initiated a "Better Banana" certification program in 1991 to reduce the negative environmental and social impacts of banana production. According to the group, its high-profile partnership with Chiquita has promoted across-the-board improvements in the industry. Chiquita vows to certify all of its Latin American plantations by the end of 1999. Yet gauging how much the program has reduced the use of poisons is difficult because that information is confidential.

Multinational dominance of the banana industry and lack of capital make it tough for organic producers to sell their fruit internationally. Yet organic bananas from Mexico and the Dominican Republic are available in some U.S. supermarkets. Picking up a bunch helps support sustainable agriculture. And picking up a pen and urging Chiquita, Dole, and Del Monte to protect the environment will also help improve the lives of the bananeros and their families.


Tracy Baxter is an associate editor at Sierra.

Top bananas:

  • David Murdock, CEO, Dole Food Company, 31365 Oak Crest Dr., Westlake Village, CA 91361
  • Hani El-Naffy, president, Del Monte Fresh Produce Company, 800 Douglas Rd., North Tower, Coral Gables, FL 33134
  • Carl Lindner, CEO, Chiquita Brands International, 250 E. Fifth St., Cincinnati, OH 45202

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