By Amy Lautamo
They sit on almost every kitchen counter in America, they were once given out to immigrants coming through Ellis Island, they make a delicious bread, and they are an integral part of one of the most classic jokes in comedy. Bananas are the American fruit, in fact according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans eat more bananas every year than any other fresh fruit, and yet they do not come from the U.S. The vast majority of the bananas consumed in the U.S. come from the tropics, so how have they become such an integral part of American society? Bananas, like cell phones, or lipstick, or the latest diet pills, are a product that has been sold to the American public as a symbol of health and prosperity. In diving into the history of this yellow fruit and analyzing it through the lenses of political economy and environmental ethics, this paper uncovers the truth behind the peel of America’s favorite fruit.
Bananas originated in Eastern Asia and Australia. The bananas the U.S. cannot get enough of is a sweet banana hybrid called Musa Xparadisiaca, a Cavendish variety. Most bananas are grown in the equatorial region specifically in Costa Rica, the Philippines, Colombia, and Ecuador which is the top producer with over 33% of the global banana export. (Robbins) Bananas are grown in a few places in the U.S. such as Hawaii, Florida and Southern California, but the vast majority come from abroad. The banana herb produces fruit all year round making it a vital food source in may developing country and a valuable plant in general. It is also the only fruit that develops a better taste, texture, aroma, and color when it is picked unripe and left to ripen after harvest, say in transport to markets in the U.S. Bananas will also speed the ripening process of other fruits around it due to a ripening hormone released from its seeds. These characteristics make bananas an irresistible temptation to salesmen around the world. (Preston)
One of these salesmen was Samuel Zemurray, a poor Jewish Immigrant in the U.S. who made his fortune in the banana industry and can really be credited for making bananas the cultural institution they have come to be in the U.S. Zemurray paid a visit to the Boston Fruit Company and discovered that huge amounts of bananas were being thrown away because they were too ripe to survive the trip to market. He bought these bananas for next to nothing and traveled across the country by railroad, selling them to markets near the rails straight from the boxcars. He quickly made his fortune and became a major player in the banana and exotic fruit industry. (Johnson) Zemurray was heavily involved in bribing politicians and others involved in the fruit industry in Central America, and can be credited with much of the environmental and social destruction wrecked by the banana industry in his effort to ensure bananas became a cheap and easily accessed fruit in the United States. (Johnson) He attempted to counteract this destruction late in his life by putting his fortune toward philanthropic efforts in Central America as well as the U.S., but many would say his efforts were far too little far too late.
The real man behind the banana industry we know today was Minor Keith. Keith started building railroads throughout Costa Rica in 1871, a project that would kill thousands, including his two brothers before its completion. (Johnson) Keith planned plantations all along these railroads for easy access and high profits. He ended up marrying the Costa Rican president’s daughter and became known as the Uncrowned King of Central America. After his railroads were completed, Keith founded the Boston Fruit Company that would later fund Zemurray’s fortune. The Boston Fruit Company joined the United Fruit Company in 1899, which later became the largest fruit company in the world. Keith and his company controlled the dictator of Guatemala for a time, basically enslaving the people of Guatemala on their banana plantations giving birth to the term “Banana Republic” and setting the standard for the fruit industry around the globe. (Lawrence) Today, UFCO is owned by Chiquita, and much of the corruption continues.
Everyone in America has most likely seen Miss Chiquita, Chiquita’s company mascot dancing on a fruit label or posing in a flamenco style dress, hat, and earrings. She appeared in her first commercial in 1944 as a dancing banana, airing in the U.S. 367 times a day. (Johnson) In 1987 Oscar Grillo, the writer of Pink Panther, transformed her into the woman seen across the U.S. and the globe today. Despite their cheerful image in the U.S., Chiquita has been embroiled in some shady dealings. They were accused of supporting paramilitary soldiers who killed or tortured the relatives of Chiquita plantation workers. Basically, they have been accused multiple times of funding terrorist groups in Colombia and other countries in which they have plantations. (Lawrence) In short, the bananas on the shelves in Ray’s, Safeway, and countless other stores across the nation come from a long history of corruption and exploitation.
Looking at the banana industry under the lense of political economy provides a deeper insight into the connection between the social and environmental crises we see in this story and the economy. Environmentally, the banana industry is a travesty. Bananas are grown most often in monocultures created by clear cutting the rainforest. These monocultures are the most pesticide intensive of all tropical plants. Herbicides are sprayed over the ground, nematocides are applied directly to the roots of the plants, and the bunches of fruit are covered in blue plastic bags filled with chlorpyrifos, a neurotoxic pesticide, to protect them from pests and disease. (Perrier) Chemicals must be applied 40 times a year and because bananas demand lots of irrigation and are grown on slopes, 60-85% of all fertilizer is lost through leaching and/or runoff. Post harvest, a fungicide is applied to prevent crown rot during their journey to the top banana consumers: The U.S. and Europe. (Perrier) The chemicals used on the plantation have also been proven to cause sterilization and other complications in plantation workers. The decrease in tree cover in the rainforest can be directly connected to the influx of people seeking greater profit from the forest lands through clear cutting and agricultural practices like banana monocultures. Bananas have become the fifth largest agricultural commodity in the world trade and Americans eat on average, twenty-eight pounds of bananas per person, per year. (Perrier) The roots of the exploitation of banana plantation workers and the devastation of equatorial environments can be directly tied to the banana industry within the global economy.
From an environmental ethics standpoint, the banana industry is also problematic. The variety of banana consumed in the U.S. and Europe primarily is, as mentioned earlier, is the Cavendish variety. The first variety introduced however, was the Gros Michel (Jones). The Gros Michel was supposedly tastier than the Cavendish variety, but sadly it died out when it was wiped from the commercial market by the Panama Disease prior to the 1960’s. The Panama Disease is a soil fungus that attacks the plant’s roots and moves up the trunk and leaves with the dispersal of water producing a gummy substance along the way that blocks the flow of water and nutrients. (Jones) The Cavendish was introduced later as a variety resistant to this soil fungus, but now the industry is facing a stronger strain of the disease called Tropical Race 4. Researchers have estimated that the Cavendish will no longer be available outside tropical areas within twenty years. (Jones) Such diseases are an issue in environmentally destructive monocultures that foster the spread of disease. The genetic diversity of bananas in general has been struggling due to the rapid increase in production of sweet bananas, as well as the overall destruction of genetic diversity in tropical rainforests due to deforestation for banana plantations. It leads to questions of first world privilege, exploiting the ecosystems, as well as the people, of far away nations in order to maintain a steady supply of perfect yellow Chiquita bananas all year round.
Many of the products on the shelves of grocery stores in America and countries across Europe have been accepted as natural parts of first world diets and society, when in reality these item have been developed and advertised and sold to the public in ways that make them seem necessary and integral to the Western way of life. Bananas have become an accepted addition to countertops across America, but the system that gets them there is anything but acceptable. The best banana bread in the world does not justify the environmental devastation that accompanies the monoculture plantation agricultural system and the social side effects of this exploitive international industry. Taking care to consume organically produced and ethically sourced products of all kinds is important in order to minimize the suffering of many for the luxury of the few.
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Jones, Clarence F. and Paul C. Morrison. “Evolution of the Banana Industry of Costa Rica.”
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Lawrence, Anne T. and James Weber. Business and Society: Stakeholders, Ethics, Public Policy.
15th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2017. Print.
Perrier, Xavier. “Multidisciplinary perspectives on banana domestication.” Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 108 (2011): 11311-11318. Online.
Preston, David A. “Changes in the Economic Geography of Banana Production in Ecuador.”
Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 37 (1965): 77-90. Online.
Robbins, Paul, John Hintz, and Sarah A. Moore. Environment and Society: A Critical
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