News Update

Fair Trade Bananas Appeal to Aware Consumers

Posted February 23rd 2009

Not yet regularly available in Manitoba, but coming soon, certified fair trade bananas will be following other fair trade food products, such as coffee, tea and chocolate, into the grocery stores and kitchen tables of this province’s cities and towns. Just as the regulations associated with fair trade hold the promise of better pay and working conditions for an increasing number of cotton and cocoa growers and clothing makers, so does the fair trade label promise a better life for those involved in the banana industry, which has historically been one of the worst in how it’s treated both people and the environment.

Throughout Latin America, the Caribbean and the Asian Pacific, bananas are still synonymous with very difficult working conditions, domination by a few companies that supply Northern markets, and environmental degradation caused by intensive farming and use of some of the most toxic chemicals. The term “banana republic” comes from the use of developing nations in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries by multinationals, backed by puppet governments and armies, to extract the maximum number of bananas out of single-crop economy countries, using brutalized labourers.

The banana is the most popular fruit in Canada, outselling even the apple! You can find bananas growing in over 120 countries worldwide and there are numerous varieties of banana and plantain, not just the long, thin ones – the Cavendish - we are used to here. Seventy millions tonnes of bananas are produced each year and about 20% of these are traded internationally. The rest are eaten domestically. Ugandans, for instance, eat all the bananas they produce, while Brazil and India, two of the biggest banana producers, are only minor players in the export market.

For about fifteen countries, the Cavendish group of varieties is a crucial source of export income. The millions of small-scale producers who grow bananas around the world generally use few chemical inputs and don’t worry about blemishes. However, 97% of the Cavendish bananas grown are for international markets, are produced using high levels of pesticides and fungicides and in genetically uniform monocultures, in order that they are presentable to the exacting tastes of Northern consumers. The export banana market is controlled by large American firms, such as Dole, Del Monte and Chiquita and fruit is grown on huge plantations.

Countries, such as Ecuador and Costa Rica, host these companies and offer lax labour and human rights regulations, as well as bringing in migrant workers and offering piece-rate wages, to keep the local labour supply insecure and willing to work at any cost. Human Rights Watch has reported that Ecuadorian banana workers include child labourers averaging eleven years of age. These kids often never attend school, work in unsafe conditions, and are vulnerable to sexual assault. Aerial spraying of fungicides is done often while workers are in the field, or near their homes and while they eat.

Banana production is labour intensive and the final product is aimed at being visually appealing to the North American consumer. Bananas are harvested while they are still green, are washed, packed and lugged to trucks to be hauled to sea ports and then to market. They are sprayed with fungicides and gassed so that they will achieve an unnaturally bright yellow colour, which we look for, once they “ripen”, often doing so while already on our grocery shelves. Banana exporting countries suppress unions, threaten and blacklist leaders amongst the workers, and side with large companies over their own nationals. However, as protests have grown over human rights violations, and as scientific research has found alternatives to over-chemicalization, some countries have begun to make changes in their practices and a fair trade market has also been established.

The first certified fair trade bananas were launched in 1996 in the Netherlands, and a niche market was established. However, by 2007, many countries in Europe and North America had the product available and the market had grown to include, for example, 45% of consumers in Switzerland and 20% in the United Kingdom. From 1996 to 2006, sales of fair trade bananas worldwide grew from 2,500 to 100,000 tonnes. Currently, fair trade small holder associations and co-operatives are producing and exporting fresh bananas, banana chips and puree from Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Dominica, Grenada, Ghana, Costa Rica, Peru and Brazil. Many of these products are certified by fair trade licensing bodies.

Consumers are now used to hearing about and seeing fair trade coffee, tea and chocolate available in stores and cafes. A greater variety of available food products is now on the fair trade horizon, including nuts, bananas and rice. The trend has been established that if Manitoba shoppers can access goods that improve the lives of overseas producers, they will consider purchasing them, rather than conventional brands. What was once a niche market is becoming mainstream and this will force the corporate sector to become more ethical and green.

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This program was made possible with financial support of the Government of Manitoba,
and was undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada (GAC)

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