By Rae Hills
The banana is a popular, nutritious, and ridiculously cheap option when it comes to fruit. It originated in Southeast Asia and is now primarily produced in Brazil and India (“All About Bananas”). Like most of the food that is mass-produced today, it has a long, complicated, and somewhat depressing history. This paper will first briefly explain that history, and then delve into economic and political problems in Banana Republics, such as low wages for workers and the general exploitation of Central American countries by the U.S. It will also include a section explaining the environmental damage that banana monoculture has caused throughout the past and present, and touch on potential problems it could cause in the future.
A Short History of Bananas
According to the USDA, bananas are consistently among the most popularly consumed fruits in the U.S. An article by Daniel Stone in National Geographic states that this popularity is a direct result of a phenomenon dating back to the first time we got our hands on them in 1876, at the Centennial International Exhibition celebrating the country’s hundredth birthday. Of course, the banana had been around in one form or another for thousands of years before this, but wasn’t traded much until the fourteenth century, and didn’t arrive in the west until this point in time (“All About Bananas”). Stone explains that the concept of eating an “exotic” fruit, and likely the concept of globalization in general, was so appealing to Americans at the time that the demand for them drove a drastic spike in production and caused the beginning of the problem that later came to be known as Banana Republics.
The demand for bananas continued to grow and in 1885, the United Fruit Company started buying land in Central America to produce more bananas (Stone 2016b). The most popular species of banana at the time was susceptible to a fungus called the Panama disease, so the UFC bought this land to mass-produce only one species of banana, the Cavendish species, which inevitably caused an overall loss of biodiversity (Coates p. 418) (Striffler and Moberg). A more obvious problem with this purchase from the start was the mass deforestation that occurred in the 1890s as a result of the production, primarily in Latin America and the Caribbean (Coates p. 418). However, as the UFC bought more and more land, political issues arising around the fruit became more noticeable as well.
The Central American countries now tasked with banana production were essentially trapped by the U.S., as more land was purchased and more workers were brought in, until in the 1900s the term Banana Republic arose to describe the mess the U.S. had made of countries like Honduras and Guatemala. In the 1950s, the UFC owned about three quarters of Guatemala’s arable land, and about half of Guatemala’s entire economy depended on their trade of bananas. The government there depended on the trade so much that the UFC had control of the government there at multiple points; there were attempts by leaders to free the countries from the U.S.’s power, but to this day, the UFC produces the second most bananas in the world under the new brand name Chiquita (Stone 2016b) (“All About Bananas”).
Politics and Ethics Surrounding Banana Republics
Starting in 1951, a socialistic leader named Jacobo Árbenz began a movement to give the laborers in Guatemala fair wages, taxing the United Fruit Company in the process (Stone). The U.S.’s response to this was brutal in many ways: Firstly, in 1954, President Eisenhower approved a complete coup in Guatemala, led by the Central Intelligence agency, and intentionally kept it a secret as much as he could. Daniel Stone writes that after this coup ended, former leader Jacobo Árbenz was “taken to the airport, stripped to his underwear, paraded before cameras, and exiled to Mexico.” In his place, the CIA installed a new president who would essentially keep this U.S. in power and prevent further progress of Guatemalan independence (Stone 2016b).
Guatemala descended into a state of civil war for the following thirty six years, keeping the UFC, now called Chiquita, in power and still producing bananas for the U.S. and other “developed” countries (Stone 2016b). Following this chaos, a period of time commonly referred to as the banana wars began, and is still in place to this day. In the 1990s this issue was at its worst; many countries (primarily Britain, the U.S., and the countries producing the bananas) disagreed over the best way to produce cheap bananas, disagreed over tariffs, import licenses, and the value of free trade (Cohen). For this reason export laws surrounding the fruit are complicated and ever-changing, but one truth remains. Most workers in the banana industry are underpaid and overworked on large plantations, and unionizing is commonly made impossible by leading companies (“All About Bananas”). Plantation work does not offer much in the way of job security, wages are higher for men than women, accidents causing physical harm are often ignored, and child labor has been reported frequently (Cohen). In Ecuador, Columbia, and Peru, small banana farms with more ethical labor conditions exist, but like many small farms are subject to unstable income compared to transnational companies, depending on demand (“All About Bananas”) (Robbins et. al p. 110).
The effects of a system referred to as the “market response model” are clearly visible in this situation, the search for new sources and increased output allowing for more supply and lower prices, but also more exploitation and in this case, more environmental damage (Robbins et. al 34). While this specific problematic market has slightly diversified since the early 2000s (in 2002, five leading companies produced 70% of bananas, and in 2019, four produced 40%), the same species of banana is still produced in large quantities in only a few countries (“All About Bananas). Something I was surprised to learn from BananaLink’s “All About Bananas,” a British NGO referenced many times in this article and a valuable source of information for the topic, is that only 15-20% of bananas are traded internationally. The website explains that the world’s two largest producers, Brazil and India, export almost no bananas and the fruit instead provides income (although the wages may be unfair) and food security relatively locally. So, while many factors of banana growth contribute to environmental problems like climate change (more details on that in the following section) it’s comforting to know that at least the transport of bananas likely isn’t as damaging as some other internationally traded goods.
Environmental Effects of Banana Monoculture
Unfortunately, transport is not the only part of production that can cause damage to the environment. In her article “Global Issues for Breakfast,” Rebecca Cohen writes that bananas are “a very ecologically demanding species.” The land deforested for banana plantations is clearcut, and because banana plants do not drop their leaves and many harmful chemicals (over 400 types) are used, the soil conditions drop quickly and producers abandon their damaged land to restart the cycle (Cohen). The pesticides used also cause more soil erosion which can easily lead to flooding, and are harmful to the ecosystem of the area and can drive entire species away (Cohen). Additionally, according to the World Wildlife Fund, there is no other agricultural sector that produces as much waste as the banana industry does in their use of plastic for storage and transport of the fruit, regardless of the fact that not much of it is exported (Cohen).
The Future of Bananas
There is another pressing issue that the chemical-ridden monoculture of the banana causes, and it stems from the fact mentioned earlier in this essay that the common banana is all the same cloned species, the Cavendish banana. In his article “Imagining the Banana of the Future,” Daniel Stone writes that “trying to limit the spread of biological material from infecting a cloned species can be like trying to stop a wildfire with a few dozen spray bottles.” This essentially means that any disease that can wipe out one plantation, even one plant, is capable of wiping out the entire Cavendish species. If this can’t be prevented, it could be detrimental to entire economies. The most ridiculous piece of this flawed system is that the most commonly discussed solution to this future problem is to find an alternative species and conduct exactly the same cloning and monoculture, similarly to in the 1960s when the Cavendish species was first popularized (Stone 2016a).
While this essay’s aim was primarily to explain what seems like a uniquely dark history of a banana, I believe it also shows how little we know about our food in general, and how much damage one little fruit can do. This is one of the biggest negatives of globalization. Monoculture and the exploitation of poorer countries for land and labor seem to produce some of the biggest problems in the modern world, and are present and visible in infinitely more ways than I could mention in a few pages about a single food. We have a very small window to fix this before climate change is rumored to be irreversible, a daunting task, particularly with the choices the current people in power make. My hope is that we will see the error of our ways while we can, and that new technology will aid us in a return to all around more sustainable systems, and many, many different species of bananas.
“All About Bananas: Producers, Where They're Grown & Why They Matter.” Banana Link, www.bananalink.org.uk/all-about-bananas/.
Coates, Peter. “Emerging from the Wilderness (or, from Redwoods to Bananas): Recent Environmental History in the United States and the Rest of the Americas.” Environment and History, vol. 10, no. 4, 2004, pp. 407–438. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20723504. Accessed 17 Dec. 2020.
Cohen, Rebecca. “Global Issues for Breakfast: The Banana Industry and Its Problems FAQ (Cohen Mix).” SCQ, 15 June 2009, www.scq.ubc.ca/global-issues-for-breakfast-the-banana-industry-and-its-problems-faq-cohen-mix/.
Robbins, Paul, et al. Environment and Society: a Critical Introduction. 2nd ed., John Wiley Et Sons, Inc, 2014.
Stone, Daniel. “Imagining the Banana of the Future.” National Geographic, 12 Aug. 2016, www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/food/the-plate/2016/08/imagining-the-banana-of-the-future/.
Stone, Daniel. “Why Are Bananas So Cheap?” National Geographic, 10 Aug. 2016, www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/food/the-plate/2016/08/bananas-are-so-cool/.
Striffler, Steve, and Mark Moberg. Banana Wars: Power, Production, and History in the Americas. 2003, onlinelibrary-wiley-com.ezproxy.humboldt.edu/doi/epdf/10.1525/cag.2003.25.2.63.