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Food for Thought: The Slippery Story of the Banana

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By Sari Kamin
HRN Staffer

Bananas: We know them as fruit that goes well in our morning cereal and a vehicle for ice cream sundaes, but when you pull back the peel did you know that the banana is also a tool for human rights victories and community sustainability?

Bananas can generally be found in every corner store across the U.S., but within this country the plants are nowhere to be found. They are the cheapest fruit available in America, but one of the most arduous to import. Bananas have only been available to the U.S. since the late 19th century, but they are consumed as much as apples and oranges combined. Strangely enough, they are a giant herb and a genetic clone that come from a plant that is constantly reproducing itself. How B-A-N-A-N-A-S is that?

We expect bananas to be perfectly curved, sweet and yellow. This is a phenomenon we take for granted, but the process is quite complex. Banana farmers face the threat of fungal disease and hindrances from weather. In order to protect the bananas as they grow, every banana bunch is covered in a plastic bag. For conventional bananas, the bags are implanted with pesticides to fight off insects. Once harvested, cut, processed, washed and packed, the bananas go through a long export process that begins with a 9-11 day trip by boat in specialized refrigerated boxes set at 58 degrees. Once they arrive in the U.S., they are transferred to ripening rooms where the temperature and humidity are slowly raised. Ethanol gas is released to achieve optimum ripeness. All this and they are still less than 99 cents a pound. It is a true example of "man over nature," says Nicole Vitello, Banana Coordinator at Equal Exchange.

Nicole spoke with Executive Director of Heritage Radio Network, Erin Fairbanks, on Erin's show, "The Farm Report." Nicole's employer, Equal Exchange, has created international trade models that empower the farmers they work with, strengthens communities, and supports the environment. This partnership gives consumers in the U.S. an opportunity to purchase goods that have not been tainted by chemicals or corporate greed. Nicole said pursuing Fair Trade bananas has been especially challenging, "Banana companies were the original multinationals," she explained. Today around "75 percent of banana production in the world is controlled by only five multinationals."

The struggle that banana farmers face working for the multinational companies is that they are price takers, not price makers -- wages are determined by the corporations regardless of the growing price of bananas. Traditionally, workers rights have been of low priority for the companies. Health care, decent wages and farmer-consumer relationships have been sacrificed in place of production and price reductions. The tight grip that the Central and South American governments have placed on banana production have inspired many historical events, including a massacre of banana workers in Columbia in 1928 and a coup d'état of the Guatemalan government in 1954.

Recently, the Peruvian government took over a large area in the North of the country and distributed it to small independent farmers. The climate there is very dry and well suited for organic farming. These small farmers decided to join together and start a co-op in order to enter the market. This is where Equal Exchange was able to get involved. Equal Exchange was able to create a Fair Trade partnership with the farmers so that they could sell their bananas directly to the United States without having to work for a multinational. Farmers who produce Fair Trade certified bananas are guaranteed a minimum price to cover the costs of sustainable production and a social premium of $1 per box of bananas to invest in health care or other projects in their communities.

According to Vitello, the Fair Trade seal provides, "a tool to link producers with importing companies and eventually consumers and also open the line of trade to have securities." The transition for farmers to become independent has not been without strife. Still, Equal Exchange and their partners continue to persevere. They have given us more than enough to think about and proved that when it comes to consumer choice, a banana is no longer just a banana. Buying a Fair Trade banana is more that just an easy breakfast -- it is a contribution towards community sustainability, fair wages and environmental health. It is a cheap, accessible way to support small farmers who have made the choice to defy the conventions of the multinationals and give consumers the option to purchase sustainable fruit.

To listen to the interview with Erin Fairbanks and Nicole Vitello, click here.
To check out the more than 30 live food programs a week, click on HeritageRadioNetwork.Org

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