"Green" Banana Farming Gains Industry Appeal

Stefan Lovgren in Guácimo, Costa Rica
for National Geographic News
May 6, 2008
From splits and smoothies to breads and pies, bananas have become an international food staple.

But growing this "fruit of wise men," as it was dubbed by famed botanist Carl Linnaeus, has become one of the worst activities for environmental health.

Vast acres of rain forest are cut down worldwide to create plantations, while workers spray tons of herbicides and pesticides to keep weeds, fungi, and root-nibbling pests away from the disease-prone banana plants.

That's why, when Costa Rica's EARTH University acquired lands in 1989 that included a sprawling banana plantation, the school's eco-consultants told officials to ditch the farm.

Instead the innovative agricultural school decided to grow a banana that's better for the planet. (Related: "Remote University Cultivating World's 'Green' Leaders" [April 22, 2008].)

Today EARTH's 600-acre (243-hectare) farm is the oldest working banana plantation in Costa Rica, selling its wares exclusively to the Whole Foods Market chain, which has more than 270 stores in the U.S. and the U.K.

Banana sales provide 7 percent of the university's revenue, helping to pay tuition for the many students who come from poor backgrounds in developing countries.

And the green practices implemented at the school are reshaping the global banana industry, university officials say.

"EARTH has introduced a more environmentally friendly way of producing bananas," said Luis Quiróz, manager of the school's banana plantation. "Now everyone is changing."

Banana Bags

Most of the world's bananas are grown in Central and South American lowlands, and sales from Costa Rica have been rising steadily.

Last year the Central American country exported more than 113 million boxes of bananas, each containing about 40 pounds (18 kilograms) of fruit.

EARTH grows only a fraction of that total, shipping about half a million boxes of bananas to Whole Foods each year.

But officials say that the green measures pioneered at the school are steadily being adopted by other growers.

For example, standard banana plantations tie plastic bags around budding bunches to protect the fruit from scarring and to keep out unwanted pests.

Discarded, pesticide-covered bags often wind up clogging rivers and watersheds, so EARTH began a plastic-bag recycling program. (Watch a video of Edward Norton describing the environmental impact of plastic bags.)

"When we started [recycling bags] people laughed at us and said it couldn't be done," said Panfilo Tabora, an EARTH professor who heads an organic teaching farm on campus.

Today almost all banana growers in Costa Rica have adopted bag-recycling programs. The Dole Food Company, one of the largest banana producers in the country, annually recycles about 1,900 tons of plastic.

Dole also recently signed an agreement with the Costa Rican government to produce a carbon-neutral supply chain for bananas and pineapples grown there.

"We are determined to take the lead in sustainable and environmentally friendly [fruit] production and distribution methods," said Marty Ordman, vice president of marketing for Dole based in Westlake Village, California.

Road to Organic

The school is now working on producing completely organic bananas in the near future.

But a major challenge is black sigatoka, an airborne fungus that shrinks the fruit and can eventually kill the plant.

For now only powerful fungicides can fully combat the disease.

The worm-like nematode Radopholus similes is another serious problem for banana growers. The organism attacks the roots of banana plants and causes them to suffer from malnutrition.

So EARTH's organic farmers developed fertilizers that include "effective microorganisms"—benign bacteria, yeasts, and fungi that crowd out nematodes and minimize disease.

"Something like 40 percent of banana-growing areas in Central and South America and even Asia are now using the techniques we have developed here," EARTH's Tabora said.

In addition to the environmental consequences, using pesticides and herbicides is a burden to plantation laborers, who reportedly suffer from sterility, cancers, and other conditions after years of exposure.

Michael Besancon is president of the Southern Pacific division of Whole Foods Market based in Sherman Oaks, California.

He said the overall goal for the banana-producing business should be achieving sustainability, which means not just reducing chemical use but also providing good wages and working conditions for the farmers.

"If you reduce the amount of pesticides that go into [the watershed] then you have done a really good thing," Besancon said.

"But as we have evolved our thinking as an industry, the issue of sustainability has become the definition—whether or not something is sustainable from an economic and social as well as an environmental standpoint."

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