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Ethical Food & Drink – Bananas

As with many farmed products from tropical countries, ethical bananas have become a strong seller in the fair trade movement. They are particularly important to the campaign because of the threat from big plantation companies to the livelihoods of people living in the Windward Islands of the Caribbean, where bananas often provide the only reliable employment. Another major issue is the use of pesticides, which can harm both plantation workers and the environment.

Ban‍‍‍ana wars

In 2001 international coffee prices slumped to an all time low, jeopardising the lives of millions of smallholding farmers across the world. This price drop benefited transnational companies and ‘designer coffee’ retailers, as their profits soared while the price of their main raw material crashed. Such corporate gain consigned some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people to extreme poverty. It is estimated that about 20 million households produce coffee crops, which is often the main – sometimes the only – source of cash income. As a result of the crisis, many farmers have been forced to sell assets such as cattle, and cut down on essential expenses by taking their children out of school or even face poverty.

Windward bananas are grown much less intensively and more sustainably than those from other countries, especially those in Central America. Most production is done by small producers with better employment conditions and fewer chemicals than elsewhere, making them very eco-friendly. Windward bananas also tend to be smaller and sweeter.

However, these improvements can cause other financial problems for the growers. When supermarkets compete to force down prices in the UK, it is not their profits that are being cut, but those of the wholesalers and, ultimately, the growers. In areas such as the Windward Isles, where production prices are higher, farmers are forced to either sell their goods for less than they cost to produce, or be driven out of the market.

Fair trade offers one solution to this cycle, by guaranteeing the growers a minimum price that is set in relation to the production costs in their area. Until the day when people refuse to buy products that are sold at unsustainably low prices, their input is crucial – and particularly so for bananas. According to the Fairtrade Foundation they are the UK’s most popular fruit, and with 140 million being eaten every week they account, cost-wise, for 28 per cent of all fruit sales. That’s a lot of potentially unfair trade.

Wa‍‍‍ges and conditions

The big multinationals operating in Central and South America own sprawling plantations where workers may toil for 12 hours a day in poor conditions, as well as facing intimidation by owners. Workers have been trying to organise trade unions to bargain for better wages and conditions, but have encountered company harassment, especially in Costa Rica and Honduras.

As before, a good way for customers to influence the way workers are treated in these countries is to opt for fair trade bananas which, after some delay, are now widely available in all major supermarket chains.

Pesticides and chemicals

Since the 1960s, companies have been increasingly growing the varieties of bananas that have the highest yields. However, these are also very susceptible to pests and diseases, so the industry uses an enormous amount of chemicals throughout the growing process, before and after harvesting, as well as to preserve the fruit in transit. While the average usage of pesticides on farms in industrialised countries is 2.7kg per hectare, within the Costa Rican banana industry the figure is 44kg per hectare, with aerial spraying occurring up to 50 times a year.

The workers are exposed to appalling health hazards and the surrounding areas can become seriously contaminated. Dole, Del Monte and Chiquita have all faced allegations of exposing workers to harmful levels of these pesticides.‍‍‍

Organic options

Planting varieties of bananas that are more resistant to infection is the most obvious way of reducing the justification for such heavy use of pesticides. Growing numbers of bananas are being imported from farms where they are produced without chemical assistance. This market has increased as customers have become more aware of the issues and more observant of the different brands available. Alongside fair trade bananas, organic options are now widely available.

Key Research

Below you will find links to the key sections of our ethical research in Food & Drink:

We have created ethical rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables): Fyffes, Budgens, The Co-operative, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Bonita, Chiquita, Dole, Morrison’s, Del Monte, Lidl, Tesco, ASDA

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