Peeling back the banana industry to look at the conditions faced by farmers reveals some tough conditions that make it, well, bananas to think it’s sustainable.
The bananas we get here in New Zealand are mostly grown in tropical regions by small-scale family farms and plantation workers, and are a staple food in developing countries. In fact, bananas are also the fifth most-traded agricultural commodity in the world – after cereals, sugar, coffee and cocoa – and the industry is worth billions of dollars.
In the banana industry, production, profits, and market access are highly concentrated. Five corporations control around 80 percent of the sales on the banana import market worldwide.
Meanwhile, farmers have seen the dollar value of each box of bananas sold in New Zealand remain static, while their costs have risen by 75 percent. Not surprisingly, farmers have found themselves looking for ways to save money, with serious negative social and environmental consequences. Carcinogenic pesticides may be cheaper to use than less hazardous alternatives; farmers may not be able to afford protective equipment – exposing themselves and their workers to the chemicals; producers may opt for more environmentally damaging farming practices if they are cheaper than working sustainably; and workers may face the suppression of their rights or exploitation.
Fairtrade prices and the Premium helped Marles invest in her own estate, increase her productivity, and now she can occasionally hire workers to help her weed the plantation so she doesn’t have to use herbicides.
Protecting the environment and making her land sustainable are high priorities for Marles, who uses natural compost from trees nearby to fertilise her plants, and invested in a new, fuel-efficient motor that consumes much less petrol than her old one.
Since working with Fairtrade, Marles has gone from producing 35 boxes of bananas a week to 80, so she’s gone from being barely able to survive to planning for her future.
It’s a pattern Fairtrade is working to replicate in a number of banana-growing countries, but consumer demand and purchasing power is what makes it possible.
Look for the Fairtrade Mark next time you’re shopping for bananas, and put a banana-shaped smile on the faces of farmers in developing countries.