Rethinking The Banana

Rethinking The Banana

In recent years, bananas have edged out apples as the most consumed fruit in the United States The average American consumes 25-30 pounds of bananas per year, which amounts to roughly 100 bananas. In fact, with bananas being such a consumer staple, there has been a hidden price war over the cost of bananas at many local grocery stores. Many of us hardly get a few items onto our shopping list each trip before bananas make the lineup. So many in fact, that grocery retailers have notice the profound power behind having the cheapest bananas on the block. This article explains specifically the way this has been happening in the Chicagoland area.

What’s the Big Deal?

Environmental Degradation

If sustainability means something that can be sustained over time, consuming bananas at such a rapid pace for Americans makes very little sense. There are no commercial producers of bananas in North America. This means that all 6.4 billion pounds of bananas consumed in the United States alone must be refrigerated and transported extremely far distances just to reach our grocery store shelves. Although grabbing that banana when heading out the door may seem convenient, the process to get a single banana to your hand is anything but and there is a much bigger price that we pay. This quote from an article published by Pacific Lutheran University states:

“The average shipment of bananas is approximately 250,000 40-pound boxes, which totals around ten million pounds of banana.2 This means that the United States consumes roughly 640 loaded with bananas per year. That’s 640 refrigerated cargo vessels traveling back and forth between mostly Latin American countries and the United States yearly. Because these ships can run on bunker fuel, the leftovers from the refining of crude oil, it is extremely cheap for the companies to transport the bananas. Unfortunately this cheap transportation (and the cheap bananas that we all consume) is in fact incredibly expensive when you consider the ecological cost of the fuel consumption. A single container cargo vessel creates more than 2,000 times the pollution of a diesel truck.3 Multiply the number of ships by 642 and add the pollution created by the refrigeration, and that’s over one million trucks driving thousands of miles just to transport bananas. Every time you as a consumer purchase a banana, you support the industries that cause this pollution.

Assuming these cargo shipments arrive on a coast, those numbers don’t even factor in the additional infrastructure and pollution required to stock the shelves of your local Chicagoland grocery store, let alone thousands of other markets. The word “cheap” may apply to our bank accounts but the environmental toll comes at quite a cost!

Social Impact

In addition to the environmental impact the banana industry is having through the cost of refrigerating and shipping bananas extremely far distances, another huge factor is the cost to the plantation workers. Here are 3 things to consider:

  1. The average banana worker in Central America makes $1.20 per day. Because there is little regulation in the banana industry, large companies can sell bananas at a very low price. This means that for every bushel of bananas we purchase, only pennies go back to the hardworking laborers and most is put in the pockets of these large companies.
  2. In addition to the extremely low wages these workers earn, they are subject to working conditions that are downright dangerous. Bananas are often grown in developing countries where people are unable to find other employment options to feed their families. Unfortunately, these families are so desperate for money that they succumb to these horrendous working conditions. Workers are constantly handling dangerous chemicals with no protection and are surrounded by poisonous chemicals during frequent aerial fumigations. Results of these toxic chemical exposures has been hundreds of cases of men becoming sterile and children being born with serious birth deformities. In fact, the chemicals that these workers are regularly exposed to are banned in the US because they have been found to result in cancer and death.
  3. These large corporations that run the banana industry also have close ties with local and national governments in these countries leaving any attempts from laborers to create fair wages or working condition to be stifled. Workers are left powerless; stop working and they can’t support their families, keep working and their health is severely compromised.

We can blame the Chiquita’s and DelMonte’s of the world, or even our grocery retailers, but they too are just pieces of a very complex puzzle. What moves the pieces are the dollars of consumers. Every dollar you and I spend pays the grocer, which pays the trucker, which pays the cargo shipper, which pays the banana execs, which throw pennies at the feet of those who play the biggest role and simultaneously the biggest price in giving us our delicious, convenient snack on the go. Bananas are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the horrific environmental and social impact of the food and products we consume on a daily basis.

Is it worth it?

That’s the question you have to ask yourself just as we are asking ourselves. We are far from perfect and in fact have bananas sitting on our kitchen counter as I type this. However, the more our family considers the social and environmental impact of the food and products we consume, the more we are compelled to change our habits. Our goal is to do more based on conviction, and less based on convenience.

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