On March 15th-17 Joe, produce manager at the West 7th store, and I attended Equal Exchange’s Banana Summit in Boston. Since then bananas have been on my mind; their sordid history; their dubious present; their uncertain future. We are living in a world of complexity and uncertainty when it comes to the wide world of bananas. Contemplating them in conjunction with World Fair Trade Day (May 10, 2014) only makes sense.
Ever since a seafaring man by the name of Baker first established the Gros Michel banana as a commodity fruit in the late 1800’s the American populous has been enamored and obsessed with the banana. With the stated goal of selling the banana at half the cost of the apple, Baker started buying up land in Central America and formed the Boston Fruit Company, this evolved into United Fruit which later became Chiquita. The banana quickly became not only the first commodity produce item shipped all over the world, but also became the first monoculture.
Through a brutal practice of tearing down rainforest throughout Central America, paying people the bare minimum, and a heavy use of pesticides to combat disease, the banana has become a staple for nearly every American. It is the most dependable produce item. It is easy to ship, ripens consistently, has no seeds, and comes in its very own protective case. Not only have people who consume and purchase the banana on a daily basis come to depend on it, but so have the growers, shippers, pickers, packers, and countless other people across the world who depend on it for their livelihood. In short, what appears to be a simple fruit is actually at the center of an extremely complex global food system.
In order to keep it cheap and in good supply, United Fruit had to employ many nefarious tactics. This included colluding with the Colombian government in 1929 when the Colombian military massacred over a thousand striking plantation workers, and working with the CIA to overthrow the Guatemalan president in 1954 because he was not willing to play ball with United Fruit’s horrible labor practices.
These inhumane practices are just the tip of the iceberg. By the early 1900’s it had become apparent that the banana was being devastated by a fungal disease called Panama disease. This caused banana plantations to drastically up there practice of applying pesticides to the crops. Most of these chemicals were untested and the affects on workers were completely unknown. As a result, thousands of people have become sick and died from innumerable diseases linked to pesticide application. With Panama disease now threatening our current banana, the Cavendish, pesticide application has only increased.
While Chiquita and Dole continue to spray endless pesticides and treat their workers very poorly, Equal Exchange has employed a different approach. Equal Exchange sources their bananas from small farmers in Ecuador who are members of their own cooperative. Equal Exchange pays them a fair wage for bananas and ensure they work in conditions that have the highest standards. The bananas we get from Equal Exchange are certified organic and fair trade. This means there are no harmful chemicals applied and everyone along the supply chain gets a fair wage for their product. I had the pleasure to meet and listen to the president of the El Guabo Cooperative in Ecuador and hear first hand how they work with their growers to ensure a livable wage and working conditions that meet the highest standards.
There are over a thousand varieties of bananas in the world but only one is exported, the Cavendish. At the conference, I was reminded that this monoculture is not sustainable, yet we can continue to work towards finding solutions and hopefully someday importing more varieties. Until that day though, it is important to know where our bananas come from and how they are grown. There are a lot of “fair trade” labels out there, but only Equal Exchange has the high standards we demand from our suppliers. Many “fair trade” labels only use the term for marketing but once you dig deeper it becomes harder and harder to determine how their workers are treated and how their bananas are grown. This is why we have made the commitment to support Equal Exchange and purchase their bananas whenever they are available. Just as we support local growers who we know and are aware of how they farm, we have a similar relationship with Equal Exchange. We know who the farmers are and we know they are paid what their labor is worth. So, the next time you peel a banana remember—nothing is as simple as it appears to be!
Matt Olson has been at Mississippi Market for 8 years and the produce manager at the Selby store for the last 3. He is passionate about supporting local growers, offering the best organic produce to our member-owners and shoppers that he can find, and advancing fair trade. He also makes a mean guacamole.