As an adjective, banana describes a bicycle seat, a slug, a type of country, and a favorite ice cream dessert. It's the most popular fruit in the world and the fourth most important food crop after rice, wheat, and maize.
With a history tied to colonial exploitation, union busting, presidential influence peddling, and environmental degradation, it's obvious the banana is much more than a topping for breakfast cereal or a nutritious snack food. The banana has been at the center of a controversial World Trade Organization ruling and just last month the world's top banana producer (Chiquita Brands International) appeared to teeter on the brink of bankruptcy even as it filed a half-billion dollar lawsuit against the European Union.
Bananas are the most important export fruit around the globe, a market worth nearly $5 billion a year. Most of these 14 million tons of bananas come from Latin America, where in the past they were produced on giant plantations without care for people or the environment. A lack of social security, dangers from at least eight poisonous pesticides, and the violence of plantation owners against union activists were part of the daily routine on banana plantations.
Three US transnational corporations dominate world trade in bananas. The largest producer and distributor is Chiquita, followed closely by Dole Foods and Del Monte. Between them they produce and control up to 70 percent of world exports.
Lately, the trio has been polishing their corporate images. First, Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc. announced in January 1999 that its Costa Rican banana operations had received the ISO 14001 environmental management systems certificates from Bureau Veritas Quality International (BVQI). According to a report in Ethical Consumer, during 1997 in Costa Rica, half of all work-related accidents occurred on banana plantations -- mostly due to pesticide poisoning.
"Environmental stewardship is extremely important to us, and we feel strongly about environmental responsibility, especially in the fresh produce industry," said Mohammad Abu-Ghazaleh, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Fresh Del Monte. "This accomplishment is only the beginning of Fresh Del Monte's efforts to build world class environment, social, and quality management system throughout its operations."
Then Chiquita acknowledged last November its participation in the Better Banana Project, an environmental and social certification program monitored by the Rainforest Alliance. Over the past eight years, Chiquita spent nearly $20 million to meet project standards, company officials said.
"When the Better Banana Project first started in the early 1990s, there were clear problems with deforestation, over-reliance on pesticides, poor working conditions and waste management," said Chris Wille, director of the Better Banana Project. Plastic that resembles dry cleaning bags are used to prevent bugs from invading the harvested banana bunches. The plastic waste, along with bananas that don't meet market standards, are thrown into "big mountains of garbage" that surround banana farms. For every ton of bananas shipped, two tons of waste was being left behind.
Then on January 4, Dole Foods declared it would begin selling organic bananas under the Dole name, tapping into the $6 billion organic products market. Although at present only a fraction of the world's bananas are organically produced, that figure is growing at 25 percent a year and, with increasing consumer awareness of organic issues, it seems set to grow exponentially in years to come.
Each of these three companies, however, has a shady past. A 1998 PBS Frontline program accused Chiquita's then-President Carl Lindner of making a $500,000 donation to the Democrats in order to influence the US administration to fight the EU's banana import regime in the WTO court. When The Cincinnati Enquirer published a series of articles in May 1998 questioning Chiquita's business practices, Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International swiftly complained. A month later, the Enquirer renounced the series, fired lead reporter Michael Gallagher, and apologized to Chiquita. On January 23 this year, it was revealed the Enquirer's owner -- Gannett Co. Inc. -- paid Chiquita $14 million in an out-of-court settlement stemming from the expose.
During the 1990's Del Monte was linked to violence against banana workers in Guatemala and accused of union busting. Banana workers in the banana plantations in Central America were being paid as little as 63 cents an hour or $28 a week. Some had been affected by chemicals in packing plants, making them sick, and giving them sores. Workers in the field were subjected to aerial fumigation of the crops without protective clothing. The foul-smelling chemicals -- reported to be chlorophrifos that attacks the nervous system -- made them feel nauseous, causing nosebleeds, sore eyes, and breathing difficulties.
Dole had a dispute with the National Federation of Labour in the Philippines during the 1990's when the NFL accused Dole of forcing cooperatives and local suppliers to sell their produce at a loss.
Since many European countries had colonial empires in Africa, the Caribbean, or Pacific regions, most European bananas were imported from former colonies under a complex system of quotas and licenses. A complaint was launched by the US to the court of the WTO on behalf of its banana producing transnationals, who wanted greater access to the world's largest market -- the EU. The WTO ruled the EU's import regime was discriminating unfairly. The EU then decided to allow bananas into the EU on a first come first served basis until the year 2006 when a new tariff regime would kick in. Dole supported the new regulation.
But it wasn't good enough for Chiquita, which claimed European import quotas cost the company $1.5 billion. Chiquita decided to flex its muscles in a different court, filing a lawsuit January 25th in the Court of First Instance of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. Chiquita demands $525 million (564 million euros) in damages from the European Commission, and asks the right to demand future damages if the problems aren't corrected to the company's satisfaction. Earlier in January, the financially struggling company halted some of its debt payments amid rumors of bankruptcy.
While Chiquita controls about 20 percent of the EU's 15-nation market, that share is half of what it was when the rules were first introduced in 1993, company executives said. The U.S. government has vigorously supported Chiquita, accusing the EU of restricting free trade by unfairly protecting its producers and importers and pushing up prices for consumers. European officials counter that the Americans seek to bully small Caribbean and African producers out of business by pushing the interests of giant conglomerates that have cut costs by riding roughshod over workers' rights and environmental concerns.
The Chiquita/Rainforest Alliance certification has received a warm welcome from the Food Alliance, which promotes the expanded use of sustainable agriculture practices. "This is great news and it sends an exciting and positive message to other large food companies that they can be recognized and rewarded for their environmental stewardship," said Food Alliance executive director Deborah Kane.
The Rodale Institute, a group that promotes environmental and human health through better food production, echoed that sentiment. "I think Chiquita has made a really good statement about corporate environmental and social responsibility," said company president Anthony Rodale. "The partnership between Chiquita and the Rainforest Alliance is a great example of a nonprofit and a for-profit working together," he added.
Good company or bad company? Peeling a banana today can be a slippery slope. When all a person wants is a banana split, a banana cream pie, or simply a between meal snack, it shouldn't be so hard to decide who to give one's business. It's enough to drive a person, well, bananas.
Information to Action: Help Bring Fair Trade Bananas to America
The average American eats 27 pounds of bananas a year. Ask your local supermarkets to carry fair trade bananas, which are grown with much higher environmental and labor standards than normal bananas (fair trade bananas have been imported into Europe for decades but are only starting to make their way to America). To learn how to get involved, contact the Food Alliance, a Portland-based fair trade organization.
For background information, the New Internationalist magazine compiled an informative, clear page of banana facts as part of their October 1999 issue.
The big three banana producers all have company web sites: www.chiquita.com, www.dole.com and www.delmonte.com.
Michael Jessen is the owner of Toenail Environmental Services, a consulting firm specializing in helping companies and communities profit from environmental leadership. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at email@example.com.