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Tally me banana


Our American food supply chain is ridiculously extensive, in both space and time. We have abundant and deceptively cheap food from all over, at all times. It's always apple season, it's always pear season, it's always springtime for lamb.

Of course, the cheapness is illusory, as the real costs are paid elsewhere, another time. That tiny 10 percent of our income that we spend on food (lowest in the Western world and, probably, lowest in history) is parasitic on other items in our budget, monetary and moral. These covert costs include your share of a military budget that helps keep the price of petroleum products low enough to make sending apples from New Zealand to New England feasible, not risible, and makes petroleum-based agricultural "inputs" a cost-effective alternative to traditional and organic practices. And the costs of environmental degradation in far-off places will come due later, to others.

So for reasons of health, mental, physical, political and planetary, it pays to eat locally and in season. A circle radiating from the Triangle that makes sure to include our coastal fisheries circumscribes a reasonable and rewarding diet many months of year--the months the market farmers are at the farmers' markets. Giving up out-of-season produce from California, Texas, Mexico, Chile, Australia and New Zealand isn't that hard, April to November.

Of course, such dietary restriction can't be immaculate. Certain staples, like coffee, tea, flour, and sugar, I won't give up and I can't grow them in my backyard. With coffee, though, one can stick to locally roasted and responsibly grown (see Sugar is a different problem. I've written here about the strange history of sugar and its transformation in the West from rare and luxurious to ubiquitous and cheap; a history intimately tied to the industrial revolution and novelty of a working class with disposable income (see ).

But there's a more recent strange history, a lot like sugar's, a lot like coffee's, but shifted forward over a century and compressed. And it foreshadowed much of what was to come in a century-long shift from farming to factory food, from local produce to technology-enabled, cheap-labor, capital intensive imports.

I'm talking about the banana.

Very familiar, the banana. And funny, too. Apples aren't even close on the chuckle, giggle, guffaw or smirk scales. ("I can't hear you, I've got an apple in my ear?" I don't think so.) So here's a banana quiz, to gauge that familiarity.

a. Bananas shouldn't be stored in the refrigerator.
b. The days of oppressed banana workers are long over.
c. Most bananas are grown for export.
d. After the apple, the banana is the most popular fruit in the U.S.
e. Central America grows most of the world's bananas.
f. Bananas grow on trees.
g. Bananas were an important staple for Confederate troops during the Civil War.

Prepare to fail your banana quiz. How many of the above are true? Which? I'll tell you soon. (OK, I'll tell you now. They're all false.)

In the 19th century U.S.A., the banana was barely known and then only as an exotic luxury; after the Civil War it was more known but remained an imported luxury, rarely glimpsed by most Americans. By the turn of the century it was well on its way to ubiquity and cheapness--poor people's food, a true commodity. This was fueled (literally) by advances in shipping, refrigeration, marketing and, for distribution within the U.S., the railroad. Bananas are perishable, and it was only through the technology of steamships and refrigeration that bananas came to be an American food.

It also took marketing. American consumers had to be convinced that bananas were good to eat, and they had to be taught how to store them, peel them, cook them and eat them. Curiously, despite elaborate campaigns to insert bananas into every meal and course ("Bananas and Bacon: Guaranteed to start conversation" was a 1931 effort) we have resisted. We just keep slicing them into our cereal, snacking on them and using up the overripe ones in banana bread. Ah yes, and the persistently popular, and thoroughly declasse, banana pudding. Breakfast, snack, dessert.

It is our most popular fruit, dominating sales in the produce aisles and has for a while now. It weighs in at almost 30 pounds per person per year. (Who imports more, you ask? Per capita, only seven countries, most by not much. New Zealand stands out with 44 pounds, but the winner, by far, is the United Arab Emirates with almost 70 pounds. I have no idea why.) Apples are a poor second. (Though apple juice is one of the biggest sellers just a few aisles away--much of it from China.)

Bananas are a huge crop--14 percent of the world's fruit production is bananas. Here's a surprise, though: 80 percent of that is for domestic consumption, with the largest producers, India and Brazil, not producing much for export. The export crop is concentrated in Central America, the Caribbean and the Philippines, with increasing production in Colombia, Peru and Indonesia. These shifts tend to follow cheap labor and compliant governments.

The infamy of United Fruit and the ubiquity of the phrase "banana republic" mean that most people have at least a vague idea of the sordid history of the vertical integration of the banana trade. In the Caribbean and Central America, the United States, via United Fruit and its brethren, cleared jungle, established plantations and overthrew governments. These export crops did little for the local economy as the wages were low and spent at company stores. Little has changed, particularly the environmental degradation. (Though some things have changed, which I'll talk about below.) Workers are getting about 1 percent of the banana money, and about 10 percent stays in the country of origin. The biggest piece of the banana pie goes to the retailer.

United Fruit is now Chiquita. (In a triumph of marketing, a phallus has been named "Chiquita" and dressed as a woman.) The company has fallen on hard times, in the relative sense that it now splits control of the world market with Dole and Del Monte. The big three control two-thirds of the export market.

The move over the last century or so from small backyard plantings to giant plantations produced the same sequence of disasters and "cures" that accompanied the parallel moves in coffee, cocoa, rice, etc. Monoculture provided a perfect setup for devastating diseases such as sigatoka, a fungus that still infests the industry. And, as a consequence, most banana plantations are intensely sprayed dozens of times per year, often from the air, with heavy-duty fungicides. Nematicides, insecticides, herbicides are routine. Many of these pesticides are illegal in the U.S. Pesticide exposure among workers on banana plantations is extreme.

So where's the good news? Dare I eat a banana? Shall I eat my breakfast fruitless? Here's where the parallel to the coffee story comes in. When you buy fair-trade or relationship coffee, the workers who grew the coffee are getting a premium over the market price. Fair-trade certification also involves long-term contracts, credit availability and strictures about working conditions and sustainability. This works nicely with coffee because there already was a non-commodity oriented niche market of small roasters interested in quality and already buying a different product from the supermarkets.

Bananas are a somewhat different story, but fair-trade certified bananas are finally coming to the U.S. Europe has, as you might guess, been ahead of us on this, with fair-trade bananas taking a growing part of the market, reaching 25 percent in some countries. In the U.S. it is just getting started--although the grocery chain Wild Oats has signed on. That probably means that Whole Foods will, as well, though it wouldn't do any harm to badger them about it.

They will probably cost a little more, but not much more. Of course, you are getting a better banana; perhaps not better tasting, just better. Fewer pesticides for you, fewer pesticides and more money for the people who grew it. EndBlock

Want to know more?

  • Go to
  • A major source for the history: Virginia Scott Jenkins, Bananas: An American History
  • Coming Home to Eat by Gary Nabhan (Norton, 2002) is an account of one-year spent eating within a 250 mile radius of his home in Arizona. It is a story of many rigors and many pleasures.
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