In the U.S. right now, bananas cost around 60 cents a pound, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But that doesn't reflect the fruit's full cost, says Nicole Vitello, president of the importer and wholesaler Equal Exchange Bananas. "The dark history of bananas," she says, "is we've exported a lot of the costs of this fruit to have a cheap, happy fruit here for the American consumer."
Rebecca Sheir: Here in the U.S., we eat bananas every day, but we don't really know much about them. Why is that?
Nicole Vitello (Photo: Jessica Jones-Hughes)
Nicole Vitello: It's interesting: the banana as a product. Banana companies were essentially the original multinationals. It is still one of the few produce items that can be exclusive to a company. Bananas are such a particular crop that they need a lot of special treatment, special growing practices, special shipping and distribution.
But the history of bananas is not a very happy one. There's been an issue of keeping the consumer separated from the supply chain of bananas. Hence we had dancing bananas, Miss Chiquita, to tell the banana story without really talking about growers, or varieties or distribution.
RS: You mentioned an unhappy history. Why so unhappy?
NV: Bananas continue to be a very cheap fruit, and yet they're a tropical fruit that's shipped halfway around the world. The initial idea around banana distribution was vertical integration; you control the farms, you control the shipping routes, you control the import, warehousing and distribution. A hundred years ago, that was really an unheard-of concept.
The banana shows up here ripe and ready every week on your supermarket shelf. We still see it around the country at 39 or 50 cents a pound. It was designed to be that way. It was designed to be the same price or cheaper than an apple or another piece of fruit, in order to get it into the hands of the American consumers in volume. An individual banana to get here would be very expensive, but thousands and thousands and thousands per week in container shipping, that's really the game behind bananas.
RS: I understand another dark side of the banana is that it's based on a monoculture. Can you explain what a monoculture is, and why that might not necessarily be a good thing?
NV: The variety of banana that we see here is the Cavendish variety. It's a genetic clone. It's actually a giant herb. It basically propagates only from itself.
Heirloom varieties or organic varieties are often adapted to withstand the threats against them from pests, from disease. The banana does not do that. It's actually a very weak plant, so it's grown in a monoculture climate to control for that weakness by using many chemicals. Bananas are sadly the second most chemically intensive crop grown after cotton. We grow and eat a lot of bananas.
Basically, about 50 years ago, the variety of banana that was most common, the Gros Michel or the "Big Mike" banana, was completely wiped out by Panama disease. That is because when you grow in a large monocrop -- it means only one crop is grown in this area -- and you try to control artificially for all of the things that in nature would happen, all of a sudden you have a really weak plant that is opened up to threat. Hence more and more spraying of fungicides and pesticides and the really noxious environment around banana farms and plantations. Often these plantations are located close to residential areas, schools, rivers.
The dark history of bananas is we've exported a lot of the costs of this fruit to have a cheap, happy fruit here for the American consumer who really does not know the true story behind bananas, nor really understands the true cost of this product for people in Central and South America.
RS: Is it better to buy organic bananas? Does that make any difference?
NV: It does make a difference -- organic bananas, fair-trade bananas, Rainforest Alliance. There are some protections for the American consumer, but also I would say with organic bananas, the main thing that you're ensuring is the level of chemical spray and the effect on people in Central and South America is definitely minimized with organic.
Organic is an added incentive. I know a lot of people here as American consumers say, "It's not on the Dirty Dozen list," or "I'm going to peel it, so maybe it's not as important to buy organically." But I would urge people to consider the effects that those really noxious chemicals are having on environments far away from us, and then even beyond that.
At Equal Exchange, we do all organic and 100 percent fair-trade bananas. Fair trade ensures that there is a direct relationship with the farmer. We pay a minimum price, and $1 per box of bananas goes back to the farmer co-op that can be invested in their community.
RS: What does the future hold? How is this crop going to change?
NV: I think it is diversification and also just changing our thoughts around the banana. This very ubiquitous, cheap fruit that we see on the grocery store shelf 365 days of the year may not be the future. Climate change is happening; global warming is happening. We're seeing a lot of agricultural products affected. I think we have to start reconsidering the banana as not a ubiquitous, cheap, happy fruit, but as something that is an agricultural product grown by people often under very difficult and adverse conditions.
Rebecca Sheir is the host of Metro Connection on WAMU 88.5 in Washington, D.C. She previously served as host of AK on Alaska Public Radio Network and reported for NPR member station KTOO in Juneau. Her stories have won numerous awards, airing on public radio programs such as All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, Latino USA, Only a Game, Here & Now, Interfaith Voices and Voice of America.