Why you should Boycott the (conventional) Banana. ~Robbie Stout.

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The Collateral Damage of Conventional Banana Farming.

~ Robbie Stout

All my life I’ve been pretty selfish, but I’ve always meant well.

It’s impossible to be a competitive athlete – in my case riding bikes and (formerly) running – without being at least a little bit selfish. This is something you’ll hear out of every humble athlete’s mouth at sometime or another.

For me, buying organic has always been about the health benefits and avoiding the dangers of pesticides. I’ve been keen on organic animal products after a short stint of animal rights-based veganism in high school.

Eating organic has been one way I’ve worked to achieve that last 1% of top-end fitness.

Crop Dusting Humans

But the collateral damage of conventional farming never occurred to me until a recent hunt for cacao beans led me to Costa Rica.

Driving down a bumpy dirt road between two plots of banana farms, my partner and I noticed that a plane was crop dusting overhead. Just ahead was a farmer carting bananas on an automated line from one side of the road to the other, and we had passed several locals commuting by bike along the same road.

Just after the plane flew by, a sudden splat of some sort of liquid splashed the windows of our van. We had to use the windshield wipers to clean whatever pesticide or chemical substance had just blurred our vision and landed on the other people on the road and working in the field.

The lesson here is clear. In the case of bananas, conventional farming methods equates to farmhands, nearby towns and even passersby being affected by the use of potentially dangerous fertilizers and pesticides. My gut instinct tells me that there is no alternating schedule for when farmers are in the field and when the same field is being crop dusted. I’m no organic farming expert but I don’t imagine that long-term exposure to chemicals that are designed to kill insects can be some sort of health benefit for human life.

In addition, irresponsible farming practices often make it impossible for nearby organic farms to become certified organic. Through some of the cacao cooperatives and associations that we visited, we learned that some cacao farmers could not become certified organic because they were too close to a conventional banana farm, even though they were farming organically.

The Blue Bags

An adopted method for conventional banana farming includes the covering of every banana bunch with a blue bag for protecting the bananas from insects as they mature. However, I can tell you from experience that not all of these bags are collected during harvest.

While riding in a canoe up the Coen River in southern Costa Rica, once again to visit some indigenous cacao farmers, we passed several banana farms that lined the banks of the river. Hard working locals had the task of removing all of the blue plastic bags and transporting piles of banana via canoe, from one side of the river to the other. We saw piles of these blue plastic bags awaiting pick up, and even some that had wandered off. A local that we were traveling with said that it was a common sight to see the river banks lined with these blue plastic bags.

Banana farming along this particular river presents two problems. Stray, chemical ridden plastic bags that make it into the river present a danger to not only the fish, but also to the coral reefs near Boca del Rio Sixaola, where the river enters the Caribbean. And of course, using pesticides so close to a drainage basin allows for the chemicals to spread quickly downstream, poisoning the river’s ecosystem above and below the water.

On a final note, Costa Rica is one of the most genetically diverse countries in the world with hundreds of bird species and other insects and animals that you’re not likely to find anywhere else. And many of these unique and endangered species make their home on banana farms, which means if it’s not organic, they’re exposed to the fertilizers and pesticides too.

The Message

In this case, if you’re going to buy bananas, buy organic and Rainforest Alliance Certified if possible. Buying organic isn’t just about your health—it’s about the livelihood of the farmers, nearby communities and the ecosystems that may be affected by conventional farming practices.

Photos: Robbie Stout

Here's a conventional banana farm along the shore of the Coen River in southern Costa Rica. Check out the blue plastic bags in the trees and on the ground. And those cows feed on grass that most likely receives some of the over sprayed fertilizers and pesticides

Laborers transport bananas from one side of the river to the other. These bananas will be used as ingredients in food such as baby food. If these were for eating raw, they would be treated more delicately so as to prevent bruising

A local farmer sits on one side of the river to watch over the pile of fresh bananas awaiting pick up via canoe

It's a shame that conventional banana farms are allowed to use pesticides and chemicals right along the shore of a river that is a life source for nearby families

A common sight in Costa Rica is that of the banana container

Here you can see the size and scope of just one banana field in southern Costa Rica (which requires a lot of blue plastic bags and chemicals for upkeep)

A white heron that fishes along the Coen River

A healthy lizard hanging out on a cacao tree on an organic cacao farm

This two-toed sloth is one of about 50 sloths on this organic cacao farm in Costa Rica - talk about sustainability

The Elephant Ecosystem

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anonymous Jul 21, 2013 1:41pm

My heart was a little sad yesterday when I unwrapped my organic banana from a yellow plastic bag. The entire time I was thinking these don't seem so organic now.

anonymous Mar 10, 2013 4:49pm

Very timely as I've been trying to eat more food in-season, and I began thinking about my beloved banana. @West Anson makes a very valid point…maybe we need to look at eating as locally as possible.

anonymous Nov 11, 2012 4:41am

I got this same info from someone in my sangha 25 years ago who had recently visited Costa Rica…
I love bananas an have only eaten organic ones ever since, but…I think the above comment from West is correct.

anonymous Nov 10, 2012 2:49am

The “big picture” question is…..should we be eating non-local, fresh produce anyway? Think about the environmental, ecological, societal, and human impact of each food product we consume? I love fruits and vegetables but living in Nebraska what is the “real cost” of eating fresh produce which is “out of Season” or never available locally?

I am not a “Food Nazi” or “Radical Environmentalist” but these are issues that humanity must come to terms with. SYMFs

anonymous Jul 6, 2012 6:38pm

[…] one large, sliced organic banana per […]

anonymous Jun 22, 2012 9:50pm

hello!,I like your writing very so much! proportion we keep up a correspondence more about your article on AOL? I need an expert on this space to resolve my problem. May be that is you! Taking a look forward to peer you.

anonymous Apr 16, 2012 1:04pm

[…] with reducing plastic waste in connection to banana farming. Unfortunately an account a couple years later a new article highlights that the practices of the banana industry (including the hazardous plastic bags) are […]

anonymous Feb 6, 2012 11:16pm

[…] Oh, I could have a banana! Banananananaanana. It just wants to keep on going and going and going like the Energizer Bunny. Do they even do those ads anymore? I always had a special place in my heart for that bunny. That bunny is me. When I’m working on something I am passionate about, I’m all in. I’m like a dog with a bone and I won’t give it up until it’s gone. But other times…when there’s a little wiggle room…every little stray thought likes to pull me away. […]

anonymous Feb 17, 2011 1:24pm

[…] If you’d like to know more about why, check out our article at the Elephant Journal. […]

anonymous Jul 19, 2010 7:25am

thank you thank you thank you…You know I am guilty of not always buying organic because of cost about a year ago I recieved info about the "dirty dozen" you know the foods that it was best to buy organic and the ones that were "relatively" safe to buy conventional..and I realize now that my scopt of thought has been too small in only considering my own health I have been blind to other things that are equally as important to me…such as the health and welfare of all people and the planet as a whole…I love bananas…I had already been struggling with the carbon footprint issue but I can tell you now I will be even more aware. Bless you for writing such an awesome article

anonymous May 15, 2010 10:49pm

I often buy organic, but at my local grocery stores, organic bananas (and fair-trade bananas) are always "package"… in plastic wired bags or regular plastic bags. So when I buy organic bananas I'm creating more garbage. It's often a lose/lose in this case 🙁

anonymous Apr 28, 2010 3:13pm

Robbie, thanks for this insightful food for thought! I'll be much more careful when buying bananas from now on.

anonymous Apr 27, 2010 11:14pm

Thats a great Egret, not a white heron.

    anonymous Apr 28, 2010 2:51pm

    We're both right, but you're more right. "The Great Egret, also known as the Great White Egret or Common Egret or (now not in use) Great White Heron." The Egret is a member of the Heron family. "The Great Egret – unlike the typical egrets – does not belong to the genus Egretta but together with the great herons is today placed in Ardea."

anonymous Apr 23, 2010 8:47pm

I never thought about this before. My eyes are open. Now…how to act with/against my love for bananas.

anonymous Apr 23, 2010 7:27pm

love love love this. I lived in costa rica while studying abroad in law school in 2004, and a few people in my study abroad group did a project on this very issue. women on the dole plantation they studied were having severe reproductive problems, and no one seemed to care…it was so sad. babies with birth defects, repeated miscarriages, etc. I've insisted on organic fruit from that point forward. being aware of where our food comes from and what our fellow humans go through to get it to us is more important than most people realize. thanks for posting.

anonymous Apr 22, 2010 11:18pm

Thanks very much Robbie, for sharing this missing piece of the organic picture. Indeed (as I used to be one of them!) we tend to focus on the importance of buying organic because of our personal health and that of the planet, forgetting about the health and safety of those that grow the food we eat. Thanks for sharing this message, and the photos – powerful!

anonymous Apr 22, 2010 5:50am

Good work here, Robbie!

anonymous Apr 21, 2010 11:51pm

Thank you for this article. Very well written, informative and necessary. The photos were helpful too.

anonymous Apr 21, 2010 9:41pm

When I was living in FL, they sprayed malathion all over everything (because there were medflies on the oranges) and I got covered in it while walking to school one day. Supposedly it was harmless, but I don't trust the people in charge of most things in FL.

anonymous Apr 22, 2010 12:24am

I like your approach to food. Local, unpackaged food is the best way to go. I'm starting a company in Boulder making chocolate and we're sourcing beans from Central America. I always struggle with the idea of using food that is grown halfway around the world… Fortunately, almost all cacao farms are organic (even if they are not certified organic) and they are grown with a variety of other plants including banana and avocado. The cacao farms from which we are buying beans are natural ecosystems where all types of wildlife can flourish. Cacao needs insects for pollination so insecticide isn't a smart thing to use. While on some of the cacao farms we visited we saw dozens of bird species, snakes, monkeys, sloths, lizards, frogs etc living happily. No machinery is used for harvesting cacao for 99% of cacao farms. Getting the cacao here by plane or by boat has a carbon footprint that is unavoidable (unless we use a sailboat and then bike the beans from Houston to Boulder). We're planning to do 100% bike delivery for Boulder retailers in an effort to offset some of that transportation footprint… But we haven't found a solid solution yet… rather than abstaining from chocolate.