Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fair Trade Bananas

I have been wanting to post this article that I wrote in the summer for a while, so here it is:

Bananas: What is this fair-trade nonsense?

Someone stops you on the street and urges you to buy fair-trade, the activist tells you that by not drinking fair-trade coffee you are keeping thousands of people in poverty. What is going on? What are these people talking about?

When you walk into a store to buy your week’s worth of delicious, yummy, potassium rich fruit (which, by the way, are the 4th most important staple food in the world) you are faced with the decision to buy the standard, perhaps Dole brand, bananas for $0.59/lb, or you could buy the fair-trade (usually organic too) bananas for $0.85/lb, your thrifty side urges you to reach out for those Dole bananas…I mean come on they are cheaper! But lets take a moment to think about this decision. As citizens of the world, often the best way to get ourselves heard is where we put our money, so where is our money going when we buy the, say Dole, bananas? Well…

1. Currently 85% of the banana industry (including small farms and large plantations) are owned by 5 banana industries (Chiqueta, Dole, Del Monte, Noboa, and Fyffes)
2. In Costa Rica, a major banana growing country, there are 280 different pesticides approved to be used on bananas. This amounts to 44kg/hectare/yr of active pesticides being used, that’s 10 times the amount of pesticides used on agriculture in industrialized countries. These pesticides grossly contaminating both the environment and workers.
3. The run off from these pesticide saturated plantations kills millions of birds, animals, and fish in surrounding wetlands and coastal regions. The run off is so toxic because banana plantations are situated in tropical regions, where lots of rainfall occurs, thus resulting in 60-85% of the pesticides used actually leaching off into the water and surrounding environment.
4. However, environmental degradation doesn’t stop there, because these bananas industries are so large, they often have no means to properly deal with their organic wastes, which on smaller farms could be composted, thus it is thrown away, dumped in massive piles at the edges of plantations or rivers, killing more fish and animals.
5. Surprisingly, extreme amounts of plastic is used in the banana industry for encasing banana stalks for protection, and holding the stalks erect to not collapse from the weight of the bananas. Massive banana companies discard the plastic waste into the environment, choking and smothering many fish, birds, and turtles.

Okay, so you get the point, those $0.59/lb bananas aren’t so great for the environment, but what about the workers? Well…
1. Many of the major banana companies in South America having close ties with the government making it possible to manipulate the countries minimum wages and rules to ensure the company, not the workers, get most of the profit.
2. It is harder and harder to keep family farms, because banana producers pressure such farms to sell their land to the companies, using threats to make sure they abide. Commercial producers apply such stringent rules on small farms that farmers are often forced to turn to wage work on corporate plantations to survive.
3. As the commercial price of bananas continues to drop, workers are forced to work longer and longer hours. Often workers will work 12-14hrs a day, with no weekends or holidays.
4. To keep costs down, and wages low, commercial producers only offer 6 month or fewer contracts, making income very unstable for the workers. This makes it impossible to save money for the future or invest in education with no stable income.
Hmm, well, you decide that maybe you should reach for the fair-trade bananas, but how do you know that extra dough you are shelling out really is going to help the workers and improve the enviro. Is your extra money going to actually change any of these social and environmental problems? Well, yes…

1. Each fair-trade box of bananas carries with it a US $1 “fair-trade premium” which is invested in social and economic projects in the plantations and surrounding communities.
2. On small farms, the fair-trade premium is evenly split between all workers, however on larger scale plantations a joint body is formed to decide what to use the premium for. The premium must be used to improve the living and working conditions of the workers themselves.
3. Fair-trade banana producers must guarantee the growers a fair-trade price that covers the sustainable cost of production. This is why the cost of fair-trade bananas is more expensive then conventional ones.
4. On the plantations, all workers have a say in any major decision making process, this ensures that everyone’s voice is heard. If desired, workers are allowed to unionize to further their power and influence in the business.
5. Children under the age of 15 are not allowed to work. If they are older 15 they may work as long as it does not interfere with their schooling.
6. Finally, the workers must be paid at least as much as the regions average or minimum wage.

Buying fair-trade really does mean more then getting your bananas with a fancy sticker on them. It means providing a sustainable livelihood for thousands of individuals. It means decreasing the number of toxins that are leached into the world. It means saving the wildlife struggling to survive in these tropical countries.

If you demand fair-trade, then companies will provide. As a consumer you have a lot of power that should never be underestimated. Most health food stores and natural food stores sell fair-trade bananas, even some standard grocery stores do! And if they don’t, ask them if they would consider carrying them, you never know!


1. How Your Money Helps the Workers (

2. Where does the money go (note, that although this article refers to coffee, it is very similar when considering bananas) (