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
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.
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