This is a real banana. Two weeks ago, I stood on top of a truck with a machete in the rain, intent on harvesting a bunch of wild bananas I’d found on a back road. A few swings, and slice! The bunch fell to the ground like a crashed spaceship. My friends and I gathered them quickly (not wanting to get drenched), so we barely noticed that there was something odd about them. When I sliced one open, however, I noticed a great difference from the bananas I was used to eating: it was filled with pea-sized black seeds. “Aha!” Axel said. “This is a real banana.”
As it turns out, the tree we’d found was a direct descendent of the first wild bananas human beings ate. Though rich and fibrous, I could understand the reason bananas were bred to be seedless–the seeds are bitter and hard to chew, and separating them out takes a grand effort.
That was my first taste of bananas in Puerto Limon, Costa Rica, the country’s largest shipping hub of bananas. I had traveled here to research the simple question: is it okay to eat non-organic bananas? Are organic bananas really healthier?
The next bananas I ate were nothing like the first. Puerto Limon is home to massive banana plantations that supply fruit to companies like Dole, Del Monte, and Chiquita. Traveling towards the city, our passenger windows were painted with banana trees in endless rows, each bearing a bunch of fruit covered with a blue bag. These plantations are routinely sprayed with agrochemicals by airplanes and on-the-ground workers. These chemicals are applied in such high volumes that they require signs warning the public not to enter for fear of health hazards.
Closer to the city, we find enormous stacks of shipping containers, each with its own temperature control system. Many are marked with Dole’s logo. In the distance, gigantic ships take them away, many back to the US.
The US is the very place where the question of whether it’s okay to eat non-organic bananas first arose–in a rather strange way. I was asked by an organic farmer friend to stop by the local gas station and pick up a bunch of (non-organic) bananas on my way to her farm. I weighed my options, and stopped at the co-op instead. As an organic farmer, she had trouble making a living and had to count every penny. Non-organic bananas and avocados were on her grocery list, because they are said to have thick enough skin to protect the fruit from contamination. But I had a few questions that urged me to buy organic bananas–what about the workers’ health? Contamination of the environment? Does the skin really keep all of the chemicals out? These are the questions that sped me to Costa Rica’s east coast while I was in the country visiting my family.
This is what I observed in Puerto Limon and learned through further research. I’ll point out the differences between organic and non-organic bananas, but that’s not quite the whole story. I’ll get to that in a minute.
Non-Organic Banana Plantations are Destructive to the Environment
The first thing I noticed about the effects of non-organic banana plantations in Puerto Limon was their destructive impact on the environment. Agrochemicals contaminate rivers, which poses dangers to the human water and food (fish) supply as well as to the marine life itself. These rivers flow to the ocean and the chemicals are quickly destroying the ancient coral reef, which is expected to disappear altogether in a matter of years.
Large banana plantations also require clear-cutting of rainforest, which damages the entire ecosystem of the area. “It is not a secret that current practices of banana farming in many areas of the world are contributing to the destruction of tropical rainforests- one of the most diverse ecosystems on our planet. 75% of the earth’s biodiversity lives in these forests, and because the majority of bananas are grown in monoculture plantations (plantations in which they are the only type of vegetation), as well as areas of cleared rainforest, they are playing a big part in the tragic loss of biodiversity we are seeing today.” [Pacific Lutheran University]
Agrochemicals Pose Health Hazards for Workers
Workers are expected to work with large amounts of dangerous agrochemicals without protective equipment. Plantation owners often do not inform workers about the potential health hazards, and they are forced (sometimes through threat of violence) to work in dangerous situations.
“Flagmen (often clothed only in jeans and Tshirts) are employed to guide in the crop spraying planes in the knowledge that they face ‘a slow death’. Workers risk cancer, sterility or other serious diseases from pesticide poisoning.” [MNN]
Bananas that are grown with agrochemicals have less nutrition than organic ones. “Some people say that bananas aren’t as much of an issue because we don’t eat their skin, so we’re protected from sprays. But the impact of chemicals… isn’t limited to what we eat on the fruit. It extends to what is in the soil, on the soil, and depleted in the soil (nutrients) and therefore in the food.” [Prevention.com]
While I didn’t encounter this personally, child labor on banana plantations is well-documented.
“A Human Rights Watch report on the banana industry in Ecuador, the center of Dole’s production and trade, found widespread child labor on plantations. Those interviewed worked 12-hour days, on average, and completed many dangerous and physically demanding tasks. These children, some as young as eight, wielded sharp tools and pulled loads of bananas from place to place in the plantation, and lacked adequate access to drinking water and bathrooms. Well below half were attending school, and yet all they earned for this sacrifice was a little over half the legal minimum wage. Three young girls reported being sexually harassed.” [Food is Power]
The main argument I hear for eating non-organic bananas is that the peel is thick enough that the fruit is not contaminated by agrochemicals. While this probably does mitigate their effects, chemicals in a plant’s environment are absorbed in other ways. Made In Nature reports: “Are those chemicals really a big deal if you’re just going to peel the skin anyway? Yes! The toxins used to grow conventional bananas are not just on the outside. They leach into the soil where the fruit is grown. So even when it’s peeled, you’re still ingesting some of them. No thanks. Organic farmers use natural fertilizers like manure and seaweed, and rely on insect predators rather than pesticides to keep pests and weeds at bay.”
Monocultures are Unsustainable
Are Organic Bananas Really Best?
When I set out to research this article, I expected to find that buying organic bananas was the best choice. As we’ve seen, there are advantages to buying organic bananas. But that doesn’t make them the best choice.
While organic banana plantations don’t use agrochemicals that are dangerous to workers and destructive to the environment, workers’ pay is not necessarily better, and rainforest still has to be cleared for large plantations. They’re still monocultures (except these), and there’s nobody to say whether or not they use child labor.
Where to Buy Bananas
Fortunately, there are ways to find bananas that are sustainably grown by workers who are treated fairly.
“The Rainforest Alliance works with banana farms to help them conserve their natural resources and promote the well-being of workers and local communities. Banana farms that are Rainforest Alliance Certified undergo annual audits to ensure that they comply with rigorous social criteria designed to protect workers, families and nearby communities. For example, while Rainforest Alliance certification requires the phasing out of dangerous pesticides, farms must provide extensive safety training, protective gear, and washing stations to workers handling agrochemicals while they are in use to prevent workers—and their families and communities— from being exposed. Like other certified farms, Finca Santa Marta in Costa Rica provides healthcare and subsidized transportation for employees.”
The Rainforest Alliance also requires a level of environmental stewardship that outmatches any other certification I have found, though it is far from perfect. Equal Exchange and Fair Trade certifications also identify a positive impact for workers, though not necessarily the environment. Even some non-organic brands, Chiquita and Favorita, have been working with the Rainforest Alliance to become more sustainable.
The Good Stuff:
- Rainforest Alliance Certified
- Fair Trade Certified
- Equal Exchange Certified
- Non-organic brands like Chiquita and Favorita.
Looking at the photo of the “real banana” I was holding, I’m amazed at how much has come from that simple fruit. So much money. So much nourishment. So much suffering. So many smoothies.
I’m in Costa Rica now, so it’s easy for me to find organic bananas directly from farmers, which I consider the best practice short of growing them myself (which my parents do). However, most of us in the US don’t have that luxury. When I return, I will look for a Rainforest Alliance or Equal Exchange label along with the organic certification.
That said, there are situations where I would compromise that. If someone had low blood sugar. If my partner, who eats a mostly plant-based diet, were hungry on a long road trip. Most of the time, however, I focus on making sure my actions reflect my values, knowing that they have real-world consequences–even if I can’t see them.
Should we even be eating bananas at all? Read this article.