Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Bananas aren't so good for you....or others

Bananas have become a key part of the Western diet. In fact they are the fourth largest on the list of staple crops in the world as well as being one of the biggest profit makers in supermarkets, making them critical for economic and global food security. Americans eat as many bananas as apples and oranges combined but this has not always been the case. It wasn't until a group of men under the name of United Fruit Company, now known as Chiquita, figured out how to get bananas around the world quickly that they became a viable export from the Caribbean and Latin America. United Fruit Company then invested large amounts of money offering discount coupons, slick advertising campaigns and placing bananas in schoolbooks and on postcards to promote them. Still today bananas are seen as a key source of potassium. However they aren't even in the top ten sources. It worked as today in the US more bananas are eaten than apples and oranges combined.

The production of bananas is not one of the most environmentally friendly. Often rain forests are cleared for plantations and roads/railways to transport the bananas. Large amounts of chemicals are also used to maximise yields. Furthermore, consider the apples that we find at our local markets and stores are usually grown within a few hundred miles as opposed to bananas that are shipped from much greater distances from the tropics. This means bananas have a much larger carbon footprint locally available foods.

When it comes to the stability of bananas, consider they only last for a couple of weeks after being picked unless subjected to specialised refrigeration. Apples on the other hand can stay ripe for a couple of months. Why then is it that bananas are generally cheaper than apples?

Chiquita, along with four other companies — Dole, Del Monte, Fyffes and Pratts, control about 80% of the international banana trade. To keep expenses down it has long been alleged that these companies resort to heavy handed tactics in the countries of production. Often, with assistance from US forces, countries and their governments are bullied to ensure the banana companies get their way. In 1954, United Fruit helped arrange the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Guatemala. When it comes to treatment of workers, the banana companies’ tactics include workers not being given appropriate health care, sometimes being unsafely exposed to hazardous chemicals, paid low wages, child labour being utilised, as well as workers being forbidden the right to congregate. In 1929, Colombian troops shot down banana workers and their families who were gathered in a town square after church.

Banana Link, a UK-based organization campaigning for fairer and sustainable banana trade also points their finger at supermarkets. They say, "Supermarkets are now the only players in the banana chain to consistently make profits from bananas, having dramatically increased their economic power in the banana chain in the last decade. Bananas are the single most profitable item passing through the check-outs in British supermarkets, accounting for 1% of all sales. In the USA, it is estimated that bananas represent 2% of the total turnover of North American grocery retailers." Supermarkets will often force their suppliers to reduce their margins to ensure they can keep making their large profits with margins of between 20-35%.

Overall bananas are not as great as we may believe. Organisations such as Banana Link are working to ensure conditions improve for banana workers and environmental impact is reduced. If you’d like to leave bananas on your shopping list then fair trade bananas are now available and will help support workers. Alternatively you can reduce or eliminate bananas from your diet. Food with more potassium than bananas include sweet potatoes, beet greens, dates, white beans, potatoes, yogurt, tomatoes, raisins, crimini mushrooms, spinach, kale, eggplant and clams.

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