What's in a
Scientists, farmers and everyday consumers contend with the future and sustainability of the world’s most beloved fruit.
W: Mary Clay Kline
P: Sam MacDonald
The chirp of cicadas charmed Alaina Buschman into the lush, green canopy that surrounded her. Leaves crunched under her boots, and she walked cautiously, hoping to avoid the snakes that camped underneath the brush. She looked up at the towering plants surrounding her.
“Aqui!” she called to Marlon Martínez, her coworker, who rushed over with a long handled machete.
And soon, crash! A banana plant landed at their feet. Martínez threw the stalk of about 60 yellow-green bananas over his shoulder and carted it to a ripening chamber. In about two weeks, those bananas will be served for breakfast at the University of Georgia Costa Rica campus.
Buschman, a sustainable agriculture intern at UGACR, and Martínez, the farm manager, know the tiny organic farm they oversee is nothing compared to the hundred-acre commercial banana plantations on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. They like it that way, but the world’s most popular fruit demands more attention than small-scale operations can give. According to CORBANA, Costa Rica’s National Banana Corporation, Costa Rica exported over 2 million tons of bananas in 2016. Bananas are Costa Rica’s most profitable edible export, and the small Central American country is one of the main exporters of the
In Costa Rica as in most countries, bananas are sold cheaply in grocery stores and fruit markets. Bunches of the snackable fruit are snatched from shelves and tossed into smoothies or children’s lunchboxes, or they’re left on countertops to become spotty, sweet and perfect for banana bread.
A Controversial Past
Banana plants do not just grow on farms. They blend into the background, popping up in rainforests, parking lots and city centers. However, bananas are not native to Costa Rica, despite having grown there en masse for more than a century. The immense industry is the product of one man, Minor Cooper Keith, and his treacherous designated project, constructing a railroad from San José to the Caribbean coast. The government couldn’t give him enough money to complete the project, so to make ends meet, Keith planted bananas along the railroad’s path.
“And it turns out that this planting of bananas expanded and expanded, and he shipped and shipped, and all of a sudden his business was just booming. And it’s an incredible surge into the future, you might say,” said Clyde Stephens, a retired banana researcher who worked for Chiquita, formerly United Fruit Company, for more than 30 years. “He planted bananas along his railroad tracks, because his railroad tracks were completed up to the shoreline around Limón, so he could get ships in there and get bananas on them. And so the business just boomed. It exploded. And the rest is history.”
Left: Banana plants grow closely together on plantations. Right: Bananas are harvested while still green. Once they turn yellow, they become a desirable food source for animals of all sorts, not just humans.
Vida Magazine | Sam MacDonald
"[They thought] ‘When we die off one plantation, we’ll just chop down the rainforest and move on to new soil and last there for five or 10 years until they die off, and then we’ll just keep moving."
About 1,000 banana varieties are grown globally. However, the bananas found in most grocery stores are Cavendish bananas, which are pale yellow, mildly sweet and grown by the millions. The Cavendish does not have a seed, so to “plant” the banana in new areas, scientists must make clones of existing plants. Therefore, there is no genetic diversity in the most largely produced banana variety in the world.
Some people within the banana industry are concerned about the future of the Cavendish banana. Before the Cavendish was widely grown, people ate the Gros Michel, a supposedly more flavorful but less fruitful banana plant. The Gros Michel was wiped out by a soil-borne fungal disease in the first half of the twentieth century. Now, another disease called Tropical race 4 has eliminated the Cavendish banana in Southeast Asia, and the disease appears to be spreading west. For now, however, there seem to be no plans to abandon Cavendish production.
This resistance to replacing the Cavendish may be an example of history repeating itself. Stephens recanted the Gros Michel’s downfall, which coincided with companies’ acquisitions of massive banana plantations, speaking about the thought process of the people in charge of banana production.
“[They thought] ‘When we die off one plantation, we’ll just chop down the rainforest and move on to new soil and last there for five or 10 years until they die off, and then we’ll just keep moving,’” Stephens said. “And that’s the reason the UFC had acquired such huge, vast areas of banana land in all these countries, so they’d have a new place to run to, to keep staying in business.”
To some who are invested in the future of agriculture, the banana is a microcosm of the effects of monoculture.
"So for some people it’s a symbol of livelihood, and they’re able to make a living doing it."
“It’s a very limited amount [of plants] that we eat from, and agriculture keeps narrowing the genetic pool, which is beneficial when you’re running a farm and you want to streamline things, but not beneficial in the ecosystem and nature and how it works in the long run,” Buschman said. “It’s not natural to just have large monocultures, and it proposes a lot of problems in the ecosystem by not having that diversity.”
But plenty of people have come to depend on that banana monoculture. Jackie Turner is developing a documentary about Costa Rican banana production called “Bananageddon.” The film will focus on both the issue of banana biodiversity as well as the well-beings of the people working on industrial banana plantations.
According to CORBANA, the National Banana Corporation, 76 percent of residents in the Caribbean province of Limón work in banana production. Turner attested the banana embodies countless meanings, but for many, the significance is subsistence.
“I met one mother on a plantation who, she puts stickers on bananas, and she raises three kids and is able to send them to school, and they’re getting a far better education than she or her parents did,” Turner said. “So for some people it’s a symbol of livelihood, and they’re able to make a living doing it.”
Small, sustainable operations like the one at UGACR demonstrate a different kind of livelihood. The cafeteria food on the campus is an amalgam of food grown onsite as well as bounties from local growers’ backyard plots. UGACR seeks sustainability through community.
Some hold out hope that the commercial banana industry will seek a similar sort of sustainability.
Mauricio Blandino is a manager for Biodiversity Partnership Mesoamerica. Blandino said in order for sustainable banana consumption to continue, consumers should demand transparency from banana producers.
“There’s a lot of certifications needed down the road, but also I think the monitoring and transparency and traceability systems, they should play an important role in terms of telling the truth,” Blandino said. “Because there’s a lot of greenwashing right now with a lot of fields and eco labels out there. So there’s a challenge, and you have to demonstrate a real sustainable product on a supermarket shelf.”
Awareness is what Turner wishes to achieve with “Bananageddon.”
“You have to be motivated to try and figure out where those products are coming from, and for some people that seems probably quite exhausting, and so as scientists and as activists we have to try and bring attention to that issue,” Turner said.
For consumers who hope to use their dollar to make a difference, this awareness involves avoiding conventionally cultivated bananas, or at least considering bananas’ contentious history before purchasing a bunch. But for Buschman, conscientiousness is enjoying a banana she had a hand in harvesting.