for National Geographic News
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."
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.
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