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More on bananas…

2011 March 7
by Dylan

As I was shopping at the grocery store Saturday morning, I was in the produce section and nearly became overwhelmed with curiosity as to why bananas were so cheap. If you think about it, it’s really incredible. The food comes from thousands of miles away in Latin America, ripens fairly quickly, and have a short shelf life. Yet, surprisingly enough, here they were for $0.49/pound, far less than the apples, cherries and grapes which are all grown fairly locally.

Using the power of Google, I began searching. It led me to a blog post by Stephen Dubner, co-author of the superb Freakonomics. His post actually linked to a New York Times Op-ed Column, written by Dan Koeppel, the author of the book you see to the left (which, by the way, I purchased after reading the article).  He explains:

That bananas have long been the cheapest fruit at the grocery store is astonishing. They’re grown thousands of miles away, they must be transported in cooled containers and even then they survive no more than two weeks after they’re cut off the tree. Apples, in contrast, are typically grown within a few hundred miles of the store and keep for months in a basket out in the garage. Yet apples traditionally have cost at least twice as much per pound as bananas.

Americans eat as many bananas as apples and oranges combined, which is especially amazing when you consider that not so long ago, bananas were virtually unknown here. They became a staple only after the men who in the late 19th century founded the United Fruit Company (today’s Chiquita) figured out how to get bananas to American tables quickly — by clearing rainforest in Latin America, building railroads and communication networks and inventing refrigeration techniques to control ripening. The banana barons also marketed their product in ways that had never occurred to farmers or grocers before, by offering discount coupons, writing jingles and placing bananas in schoolbooks and on picture postcards. They even hired doctors to convince mothers that bananas were good for children.

Once bananas had become widely popular, the companies kept costs low by exercising iron-fisted control over the Latin American countries where the fruit was grown. Workers could not be allowed such basic rights as health care, decent wages or the right to congregate. (In 1929, Colombian troops shot down banana workers and their families who were gathered in a town square after church.) Governments could not be anything but utterly pliable. Over and over, banana companies, aided by the American military, intervened whenever there was a chance that any “banana republic” might end its cooperation. (In 1954, United Fruit helped arrange the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Guatemala.) Labor is still cheap in these countries, and growers still resort to heavy-handed tactics.

The final piece of the banana pricing equation is genetics. Unlike apple and orange growers, banana importers sell only a single variety of their fruit, the Cavendish. There are more than 1,000 varieties of bananas — most of them in Africa and Asia — but except for an occasional exotic, the Cavendish is the only banana we see in our markets. It is the only kind that is shipped and eaten everywhere from Beijing to Berlin, Moscow to Minneapolis.

By sticking to this single variety, the banana industry ensures that all the bananas in a shipment ripen at the same rate, creating huge economies of scale. The Cavendish is the fruit equivalent of a fast-food hamburger: efficient to produce, uniform in quality and universally affordable.

Wow, that took up a lot of space. Anyways, there you have it. It’s cheap, healthy and pretty delicious, but the way bananas make it to the US and the way these companies treat their workers is abhorrent. I will be the first to tell you that I won’t stop buying them–it’s a vital part of my daily breakfast of Greek yogurt, banana and tree bark…no wait, I mean Grapenuts. I’ll have to do some more investigating to see if the organic ones are any different–I would happily spend $1/lb. if it meant the money was going to a more worthwhile cause…in this case, not treating workers like total dogshit.

You can see Dan Koeppel’s original NY Times Article, “Yes, We Will Have No Bananas” here. His book is Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World. It’s available from Amazon, and I highly recommend it!


2 Responses leave one →
  1. bob permalink
    March 7, 2011

    I occasionally buy organic bananas, the price differential isn’t that great, but they are generally branded with the same multinational corporation label as the non-organic kind. It’s possible that there’s something equivalent to “fair trade” bananas out there, I just don’t know. Also, at least from the perspective of food safety (though there are certainly other reasons to buy organic from the perspective of worker health and soil health), I’ve read that bananas are among the kinds of produce for which it is least important to eat organic.

  2. bob permalink
    March 7, 2011

    12 most important to eat organic, at least in this site’s opinion:

    15 foods likely to have the least pesticide residue:

    Banana in neither list

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