Why Bananas are Dead to Me. (Gasp!)

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“If you eat bananananas, you still don’t want to know this.” 

 

As an on-the-go student and athlete, I praise bananas for their super transportable, muscle relieving/brain reviving super-powers…not to mention affordability (thank you, Trader Joe’s trademark “19 cent banana”)!

As a raw-foods-loving, fledgling vegan I know as well as anyone that bananas are a godsend in the kitchen, used as an egg replacement or frozen as “ice-cream.” Yes, please.

But as an environmentalist who just returned from four months studying sustainability and tropical ecology in Costa Rica—

I now recognize bananas for what they really are: a social and biological nightmare.

Before you read on, watch this two-minute clip that shows just a slice of the shameful history of Chiquita, the largest banana producer in the world:

Yikes!

I’ll admit that the smug, glass-clinking cheers to the massacre of 1,000 innocent people at the end added unnecessary bias (did I mention it was a clip from a movie titled Bananaland: Blood, Bullets and Poison? You can probably guess what their agenda is), but hang tight.

I promise five, unbiased reasons why we should all refuse to support the banana industry (no matter how cheap, delicious and nutritious bananas may be…gulp).

Let’s fast forward to present-day banana production and consumption.

96 percent of Americans eat bananas, and the average American eats 26 lbs of bananas every year, which is twice the amount of any other fruit.

Chiquita and its bedfellows have clearly done their job: banana reigns king in the US.

Here are the reasons I’m calling for a coup:

1. Health Consequences:

Sure, each bite of banana might provide heart-healthy, potassium-rich goodness…but it is eaten at the expense of the health of children, adults and entire communities in Central and South America.

According to the 2011 Barraza et al. case-study about pesticides in banana production in Costa Rica (the third largest banana exporting country in the world), exposure is leaving communities sick and dying.

Ranging from the classic Pepto-Bismol list of symptoms to rashes, contact dermatitis, allergies, neuro-developmental effects, endocrine disrupting effects, sterilization, cancer, and death—banana pesticide exposure can have dramatic effects (24,000 workers in Central America have been sterilized due to exposure to the toxic chemical DBCP).

Aerial spraying disregards barriers, and in some cases plantations surround schools and neighborhoods.

The children, clotheslines and rooftops (from which many families collect rainwater for drinking) regularly become coated in toxic chemicals.

The grueling plantation work often falls on the backs of migrant workers who are forced to rate wages on a piece-meal basis, but who have 12 hour work days, six or seven days a week which are spent body-deep in chemicals and dangerous working conditions (although many are only compensated for eight hours spent in the fields).

chemicals pesticides banana agrochemicals toxic

To add insult to injury, their migrant status effectively blocks them from joining unions so they cannot petition for improved working conditions and do not have access to healthcare plans.

2. Environmental Abuses:

Bananas for export are grown on massive monoculture plantations (Costa Rica alone has dedicated roughly 125,000 acres to production).

Biologically speaking, monoculture is an inherently unsustainable practice. It is a chemical, fossil fuel and water intensive production method that depletes soil, destroys waterways and devastates biodiversity.

Unfortunately, banana plantations are monocultures on steroids.

There is only one species of banana grown for international trade (yes, you heard correctly) and because it is seedless, it must be propagated using shoots.

In other words, all bananas are exact, biological clones of one another.

These growing conditions make bananas extremely vulnerable to disease transmission.

The solution? Receive an extra-scary, extra-grande dose of chemicals (we’re talking the banned, the bad and the ugly: DDT, dieldrin, mirex, heptachlor, paraquat and over 400 other agrochemicals. Are you freaked out yet?) which bio-accumulate and devastate waterways and wildlife as well as human health (see #1).

Lack of government infrastructure in banana-exporting Central and South American countries means that there is little oversight of production methods.

Often times, aerial sprays overshoot plantations and hit waterways or rainforest—completely changing ecosystems.

Sedimentation and erosion of chemical-laced soil are suffocating our planet’s all-important coral reef and mangrove systems.

Did I mention the blue, plastic bags that are impregnated (that word freaks me out) with insecticides and placed around every single bunch of bananas? (I always try to use reusable bags when I grocery shop, little did I know that the bananas I once bought were grown in a bag, ugh…so much for feeling eco-chic).


blue bags, pesticides, bananas, banana

They are often found littering streets and stream beds in banana production regions, and have been found in the stomachs of fish, sea turtles and birds.

I’m not going to address the carbon cost of processing, transport and storing, but as you can imagine—it’s high.

3. Economic Issues:

The multinationals like Dole and Chiquita are incredibly powerful, often times having more available income than the host-countries’ entire gross domestic product.

The social and political clout of these multinationals makes it nearly impossible to change laws in favor of environmental protection and workers’ rights.

Self-sufficient farms that once grew a variety of crops are now bought and paid for by companies like Dole and Chiquita. Families have become food insecure, and now must import their food staples.

Also, because the bananas pass through so many different hands on their way to our shopping carts, the plantation workers, often living below the poverty line, suffer the greatest wage theft.

“More often than not plantations receive only five cents from every dollar [spent on bananas], which is then divided up, and as a result, workers are being paid shockingly low wages.” ~ Rebecca Cohen, author of “Global Issues for Breakfast: The Banana Industry and its Problems” (2009)

banana plantation blue bags workers rights

Because bananas are grown for export, money that would otherwise be invested in Central and South American countries is lost to the foreign corporations and communities.

These facts beg the question: How much are we not paying for when we buy the 19 cent bananas?

4. Corporate Corruption:

Chiquita still plays dirty, and is currently in the hot-seat for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to block the 9/11 Victims Bill, a subset of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) which would expand “liability against those that had funded terrorists” aka expand liability to Chiquita.

5. The alternatives (read: Rainforest Alliance, Organic) aren’t solutions:

Sure, Chiquita has two Rainforest Alliance certified plantations, but that means nothing more than they recycle the blue bags and have stricter chemical controls.

The certification does nothing to protect against worker rights, and still allows for massive erosion, biodiversity loss and coral reef sedimentation.

Nothing is changed with regards to the energy intensive production and transportation methods.

Because bananas are so evolutionarily volatile, the costs associated with large-scale organic production is high. Plantations must often be abandoned after pest/disease outbreak which leaves hundreds of thousands of acres fallow each year.

Unless you live in the tropics where you can have a banana plant shading your back patio, the time has come to boycott bananas (although in a few years, we may not have a choice).

Ignorance is bliss, but knowledge is power.

Let us continue asking questions and use our purchasing power to create a more sustainable, and sane future. I think even Carmen Miranda would agree.

banana plantation unhappy frustrated sad chemical agrochemical pesticides blue bags waste

P.S. Want to make a change but are worried about getting your daily value of potassium?

Ain’t no thang. Bananas only provide about 12 percent, which is less than half the amount found in the average avocado (which has a whopping 28 percent).

Or you could get 22 percent in half a cup of dried apricots. Heck, a baked potato provides 26 percent!

For more potassium-rich alternatives, check here.

Now promise me that this is as close as you’ll ever get to a banana again…

Relephant Bonus:

Relephant: 

Why Choosing a Fair Trade Banana is an Act of Love 

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Author: Emma Ruffin

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photos: Ted McGrath/Flickr, BananaLink/Flickr, Rosilyne/Flickr, Marko Vesterinen/Flickr, Marcelo Montecino/Flickr

 

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About Emma Ruffin

Emma Ruffin is a mindful creator and seeker of knowledge, joy and adventure. She now resides in beautiful Boulder, Colorado as a freelance writer, social justice and climate change activist and artist. She loves desert flowers, ginger turmeric tea, speaking Spanish and making checkout clerks laugh at the grocery store. So check her out! Insta, Linkedin.

Comments

57 Responses to “Why Bananas are Dead to Me. (Gasp!)”

  1. Chance says:

    Beware the milky pirate

  2. Fabian Lucas says:

    What do you think about Red Bananas and some of the hundreds of other banana species out there that are sold for a reasonable (?) price (2 per pound). Are they really reasonable? Are they helping to increase Rainforest Diversity by combatting the monocrop of one banana? Or is it just another hoax?

    • Emma Ruffin says:

      This is a great and interesting question. Red bananas, manzanos and plantains are all distributed by Chiquita which makes me question the integrity of the banana. Red bananas are often grown in monoculture fashion which is inherently problematic, and still requires large doses of chemical inputs (not totally sure about the other types). A viable solution is looking for a banana source that grows using agroforestry techniques (check out this article for info about intercropping bananas/plantains and cacao in Costa Rica http://www.researchgate.net/publication/212923276…. Increasing biodiversity (especially of bananas) is important because with diversity comes power. However, if the biodiversity is increased via monocropping and fossil fuel/chemical-based production methods then I wouldn't consider it to be sustainable.)

      As of right now I would consider the FairTrade/Organic certification combo to be the most "sustainable", although bananas are such a biological nightmare (especially when grown in large-scale monoculture) that it makes me hesitant to support even the combined certification. Also, organic banana production can be extremely wasteful and doesn't protect against erosion, coral reef sedimentation (and therefore devastation), and general biodiversity loss (as bananas are often grown in areas that were once rainforest). Not to mention inherent carbon costs of large-scale production, packaging and shipping! The way I see it, there is no "guilt-free" banana in the US. Hope this helps!

  3. Lea says:

    I also don't eat bananas, thought I might be the only one…. too many classes in cultural anth and watching documentaries like this. I do work in a grocery store though, and you're forgetting another huge factor:

    Banana spiders. I've never seen one but I've heard the legends. They are real.

    • Nick says:

      My friend was in brazil when he was younger, he was sleeping on a hammock in his family banana orchard. One of those spiders walk across his stomach, his simply watched it, and stayed still. They only attack when threatened. Had he be bitten though he would be dead before he could reach the house.

  4. Kevin says:

    I eat 15 bananas a day. I'm going straight to hell, probably with a fucking large brain tumor.

  5. cara says:

    Wake up…bananas are hardly the only crop that honors profit over people and it happens here in the states too. I live in Florida where hundreds ofmigrant workers face the same problem! They live in squalor and spend long hours exposed to pesticides in tomato fields and orange groves for little pay. They must pay taxes but, are offered no benefits. I applaud your effort to raise awareness however, swearing off bananas is not the answer, raising awareness is!

    • Emma Ruffin says:

      You're absolutely right! Bananas are just the tip of the iceberg. Addressing the Immokalee Workers in Florida is an entirely separate article for me (hope you'll check it out in the future!). That being said, there are workers rights/environmental justice issues that can be found all over the globe. I agree that taking a neo-liberal, "vote-with-your-dollar" approach is just a band-aid solution, but it is a cog in the wheel of raising awareness.

  6. Shirley says:

    I think this article would have been much better had it made links to organizations that are combating the problem.
    This cannot be left as is, its an issue of world wide importance.

  7. Carla Golden says:

    I have been asked to comment on this new article because I am such a banana lover. Here goes!

    First, let's put things in perspective:

    1. Meat, dairy, and grain foods do far more harm to planet, people, and animals than any fruit or vegetable.

    2. Refusing to purchase all bananas kills jobs for workers. Being poorly employed beats being unemployed.

    3. Let those of us who have buying, protesting, and petitioning power change the working conditions for banana workers.

    Here is one such organization: http://www.bananalink.org.uk

    Donate, sign their petitions, share their links, and spread the good word!

    4. Purchase organic bananas whenever possible. Working conditions on organic farms are safer than conventional farms.

    5. As a high-fruit lifestyler, replacing bananas with avocados, dried apricots, or cooked potatoes as recommended is not a healthful option.

    Hope this helps! Best, Carla.

    • Shayna says:

      I agree. The solution is not to stop eating bananas. The solution is to come together as a global community and look out for our fellow humans and preserve this earth for future generations. Bananas are supply and demand. If we demand fair trade, organic and sustainable. It will be delivered. More people need to be made aware of the impact their purchases have on this planet so they can speak up and effect change.

  8. Kerensa says:

    I see avacados listed as an alternative but I can not imagine the situation to be much better for avacados –

    • Emma Ruffin says:

      Actually, avocados are an excellent alternative. There are many different varieties, and they do not require extreme pesticide use as the current varieties are very resistant to disease and pests. There are also good rainforest alliance avocados if you are concerned about workers' rights!

  9. stephruff says:

    You've added one more person to the cause, Emma! Thank you for doing your homework — I know that what you've got here is just the beginning of the conversation, and it's definitely got us talking around the water cooler! Thanks!

  10. Paul says:

    I am lucky I can eat the local bananas here in Hawaii. There are people that attack self-sustaining small islands, communities around the world, due to some "barbaric practices" in how they eat animals to survive. I say, leave these people in peace, worry about actual problems like this Chiquita business.

  11. Joe says:

    Just about everything sold in grocery stores have the same kind of sad corporate greed story to them.

  12. David says:

    I want more information on organic Bananas. Your info is very limited concerned organic.

  13. FeatherStory Aniweda says:

    Rainforest Alliance bananas are not the only alternatives!!! Bananas grow in the U.S. too and there are other organic brands. I learned about this many years ago and I stick with my bananas. My health would suffer if I took bananas completely out of my diet and it's also pointless and drastic.

    • Emma Ruffin says:

      Where do bananas grow in the US beyond a few scattered, private greenhouses? Also, don't misquote me—although Rainforest Alliance bananas are a "better" option, from an ecological standpoint I do not consider them to be viable alternatives. In my opinion, boycotting bananas altogether (unless you live in a tropical region where they can grow organically and pesticide free in your or your neighbors' backyard) is the only just solution.

  14. Bananas grown in Israel are sprayed like crazy, with a similar concoction of over-concentrated chemicals. I can't eat 1 banana a day, yet 10 or 20! We buy only organic fruit…so whatever they have each week at the market determines what we buy. At the moment, it's pomegranates and persimmon 🙂

  15. Buffalo says:

    What about bananas in Asia?

  16. Liz says:

    Awesome that you're educating people about where food comes from and the bigger picture of that chain.
    It'd be wonderful to touch more on some of the wider story.. for perspective. Such as some contact around how most conventional crops of fruits and vegetables actually contain much more pesticide than the general population realises. And also some context around the fact that some bananas are grown organically and ecologically in some parts of the world, maybe this is a crop that's harder to find good practices in your part of the world. This is a great conversation to keep talking around; I'd just love to encourage more context 🙂 keep the convos going x

  17. Katy says:

    Thank you for opening my eyes to this. I look forward to the day when Superfoods can be grown sustainably, organically, using permaculture methods, where everybody benefits equally. All this misery goes into the good and it’s no good, I agree. Organic sustainable communities are the way forward.

  18. M<atthew says:

    Baked potatoes as an alternative? Unless you're eating organic this is one of the most heavily pesticide ridden vegetables I've read about. Most farmers won't even eat their own potatoes.

    • Emma Ruffin says:

      It was written as more of a light-hearted joke strictly speaking about potassium content—potatoes are nothing more than sugar and starch, otherwise. But, you've ironically provided the solution in your comment: if you're choosing to get potassium from potatoes, be sure they're organic!

      • seth says:

        Thats ridiculous. Potatoes are super healthy! your body uses those sugars and starches to create energy. Potatoes are also sources of vitamin A, vitamin B6, calcium, and excellent sources of fiber, iron, vitamin C, and potassium! Its just the way we typically prepare them in America kills all the goodness. Potatoes are a fantastic, under-rated vegetable.

  19. Hayu says:

    We are now working with Dr. Vandana Shiva on GMO Banana issue campaign now. Another reason to be mindful with your banana! Here’s the link: http://navdanya.org/campaigns/454-no-gmo-banana-r

  20. Vibeke says:

    You are right. Ignorance is bill. The banana is my most favourite food on the entire planet. Not sure how I would make a smoothie without it. That being said, once you know something it's hard to unknow it. You have given me food for thought.

  21. Kar Davis says:

    Earth University bananas are an option. You can get them at Whole Foods Market (full disclosure: I'm employed by Whole Foods but that's how I know about these, and I am commenting as a private citizen)

  22. Devorah says:

    You mentioned eating avocados as a potassium replacement. However, after learning about the conditions that the Mexico avocados are grown I no longer purchase these, although Hass are my favourite type. Any thoughts about the Mexican Avocado?

  23. Jean-Michel says:

    Check these 2 movies of the same swedish movie-maker, if you want to know more! Eat only fairtrade organic bananas!!
    http://www.bananasthemovie.com/
    http://www.bigboysgonebananas.com/welcome?splash=

  24. Daisy says:

    You could write a similar article about pretty much any food grown/processed by giant corporate agriculture companies. Buy organic and you will not be supporting any of this. The issue is not about bananas its about farming practices and greed.

  25. Madeline says:

    Oh my God! I didn't know this and I just bought a dozen of them! Oh no!

  26. Robin Turner says:

    Eat Turkish bananas – seriously, they exist and they have more flavour. I don’t know if you can get them in the US, though.

  27. Daisy says:

    check out Organics Unlimited. This is where my local market gets their bananas from.

  28. city zen says:

    I feel confident avocados, apricots and potatoes have most of the same or similar issues. It's not bananas that are the issue, it's capitalism. The whole system is sick. Whatever food or other product you buy, you are almost surely contributing to environmental destruction and political oppression. So please stop picking on bananas.

  29. Scott Dufty says:

    Easily fixed, get your bananas fromAustralia.

  30. Canario says:

    have you heard of the “Platano de Canarias”?
    Before you put ALL bananas in the same bad basket, you could have researched how local grown bananas from Non-American countries are the main source of income for those territories. Without chiquita, dole or other poisons added.
    So PROMISE ME that you will keep eating bananas, just stay away from the multinational coorps that exploit them

  31. Paul says:

    Obviously the granola girl is just one more pro union person spreading propaganda for her cause under the guise of something it is not. Yes there are issues there but the unions you so strongly slant towards here will finalize the bankruptcy of the country and economic slavery of your children and grandchildren to pay for the debt the advocate going into.

  32. Kurt says:

    The only thing I can disagree with, is that the blue bags prevent the invasion of a certain type of spider that is very poisonous. It hides in the banana hands and while carrying the banana on the bunch the spider can come out and bite the person moving it. It also prevents transportation of any insects that might become invasive in other places and it also protects the growing bunch from birds and smaller animals. I'm NOT, advocating anything, just a bit of information for people to chew on.

  33. Leo The King says:

    So the bananas are good, right?…. Oh thank god i thought is was harmful to eat. Thank you Costa Rica!!

  34. Helena says:

    Eat local, that’s the solution. Whenever a crop need to be grown in large scale, transported and cost only cents, be sure that somebody is paying the price! The same happens in the fashion industry. How do you think cheap clothes are produced? Slave work is still a sad reality. Add that to very degrading poisonous agricultural techniques that destroys the environment but produce cheap fruits, vegetables and grains and meat, there’s nothing left. Eat local people!

  35. Hatepal says:

    Very interesting. No please excuse me while I go eat a banana.

  36. Felicity says:

    In the UK where I live, at least two of our big supermarket chains only stock Fairtrade bananas. As a nation we’ve had a longstanding relationship with small producers in the Caribbean. When import restrictions were lifted on bananas from South American plantations, there was a fear that this would see the end of the smaller sweeter West Indian fruits for sale. But in fact this hasn’t happened. You can also get organic bananas which if they are properly certified are produced with minimal pesticides.

  37. Emilia P says:

    Hi Emma thank you for taking this on!!! I too have seen the barren landscape of Costa Rica banana plantations and dead waterways littered with blue bags. Are fair trade bananas ok?? Your next article says they are. Thank you for spreading consciousness!
    PS
    Some of the comments on here are pretty ignorant. 🙁

  38. Chloe S says:

    Valiant effort. Unfortunately, suggesting to eat Californians avocados as some fail-safe alternative is environmentally irresponsible due to the extreme drought conditions. Should we all now be boycotting food grown in California??? If you follow that reasoning… then there is almost nothing left to eat. The problem is corporatized agriculture and big business, all of them – eat local, organic and eat seasonally, grow your own and preserve extras to over-winter. Your food isn't meant to travel – unless you are a nomadic hunter following a heard. Good luck.

  39. Chloe S says:

    Valiant effort. Unfortunately, suggesting to eat Californians avocados as some fail-safe alternative is environmentally irresponsible due to the extreme drought conditions. Should we all now be boycotting food grown in California??? If you follow that reasoning… then there is almost nothing left to eat. The problem is corporatized agriculture and big business, all of them – eat local, organic and eat seasonally, grow your own and preserve extras to over-winter. Your food isn't meant to travel – unless you are a nomadic hunter following a heard. Good luck.

  40. Heather Lane says:

    I didn’t see anything in this article mentioning EARTH bananas. http://www.earth-brand.org/english/bananas.php
    They sell these at a local market here in Costa Rica called Auto Mercado and according to their website, Whole Foods in the US, imports this brand of banana.

  41. TC the Great says:

    Hmm probably would mean something if a really gave a flying f*** about Costa Rica. By the way this banana I’m eating is deeeelicious! 😀

  42. Brad says:

    Whilst I agree in general with your research, you should plainly state this is about bananas produced for export at the lowest cost. I happen to be a yogi expat in Panama and there are choices here like red bananas and other small varieties known as bananito or criollo. To spread your alarmism to plantains and these other varieties is bad journalism without proof. I know someone personally that worked for one of the largest fruit producers eventually sold to Chiquita, so your monoculture and pesticide claims are valid. However, when the “bananacalypse” happens, the single variety grown “Cavendish” will not be available, but there are 400 varieties grown. Yes, the plantations and working conditions are horrible. Boycott those, but select bananas that aren’t grown that way instead of saying “AVOID TOTALLY”.

  43. Mike Ryan says:

    Used to live in Zancudo, Costa Rica. Zancudo is located in the Golfe Duce in the Southern Pacific Zone directly across from the Osa Peninsula. Golfito, is the major port there and used to be the home of United Fruit. If you ate a banana up until the 70's, I believe, it most likely came from Golfito. About 90% of the bananas shipped to the U.S. came from Golfito. Zancudo is a peninsula between the Golfe Duce and the Rio Coto Colorado River..(big Crocs). The plantations used to float the fruit down the river into Golfito. There was a large American section of town with more upscale homes than the locals. There was a strike by UF's workers who were being exploited in many ways. The strike turned violent & UF left Golfito almost overnight Turning the town into a poverty ridden ghost town. Now there is nationally established Free Port there drawing people from all over to go there & purchase greatly reduced goods…lots of big ticket items. We owned a small resort & bought our liquor there. I once purchased a bottle of Barolo wine for $10. This is a long way of getting to my big point. Aerial spraying is common. We had an employee who used to work at a Rice Plantation just down the road. When they spray they try to prevent overshooting the field. This young man was forced to stand in the middle of the field holding flags so the plane could judge its approach. They sprayed all over him. God knows what was in that pesticide cocktail, but whatever it was, it made him ill. He was young, had serious health problems, married with several children. That's how corporations treat their workers. More important to waste pesticide than a person's well being.

  44. carlos says:

    What I don´t understand is why the author believed necessary to apologise for the “the smug, glass-clinking cheers to the massacre of 1,000 innocent people at the end”.

  45. Chris says:

    It’s good to wake people up to the environmental and social effects of the food we eat. The long history of workers and ecosystems being abused by corporations is appalling. However, to say that consumers should stop buying bananas ignores the existence of companies like Grupo Hualtaco, a cooperatively owned company in Peru that sells sustainably grown and socially responsible bananas. They happen to sell to Europe, but they’re not the only group doing bananas the right way. For the writer to basically advocate putting people like them out of business because other growers are unethical is reckless and overly simplistic.

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