Bananas: The Case For Buying Organic

Natural Foods Merchandiser
July 1997

Yes We Have No (Conventional) Bananas:
The Case For Buying Organic

by Mark Mulcahy

A few months ago, I read an excerpt of Wendell Berry's book What Are People For? In it, Berry argues that eating is a political act. The choices we make when buying food make a direct impact on the rest of the world. I believe that "voting with the dollar" is one of the reasons an increasing number of customers shop at natural foods stores.

This should be especially true in the case of conventionally grown and organically grown bananas. Even though they are not grown domestically, bananas are the top selling fruit in the United States. More than 170 million 40-pound boxes of bananas were sold in the United States last year.

Bananas are treated with special care so as not to inflict even the slightest bruise or scar. Unfortunately, bananas scar easily. Point scar, one type of blemish, occurs when the tips of one banana touch another. Other types of scarring are caused by pests, sunburn and stains from plant sap. However, consumers expect their bananas to be perfect looking, blemish-free and most important, inexpensive.

How do conventional growers deliver such bananas? In order to achieve the perfect banana, workers on Central American commercial plantations are often subjected to a toxic soup of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. To control worms and prevent uprooting losses, farmers apply nematocides. One of the most commonly used nematocide is Aldicarb, a chemical that takes only .9 mg per pound of human weight to be lethal. On hot days, after spreading the red granules on the ground, workers often complain of a terrible smell that causes dizziness and vomiting.

During ripening on the tree, bananas are covered in blue plastic. The plastic is infused with an insecticide called Chorpyrifos, a chemical the World Health Organization calls hazardous. When workers open the bags to check the bananas, dust particles fly everywhere and workers are subject to inhaling the chemical.

Safety devices such as full-body coveralls, rubber gloves and boots, and respirators are not always supplied or used. Workers must provide their own protection and often do so inadequately. For example, rather than using replaceable charcoal filter respirators, workers often use simple foam masks that actually absorb the chemicals. This may cause the worker to inhale even more toxins.

Health conditions and workplace security on the plantations are dismal, resulting in frequent injuries to workers in addition to the allergic, pulmonary, and cancerous ailments they contract from constant exposure to pesticides.

Workers in packing plants are also exposed to large amounts of pesticides. Freshly harvested bananas are placed in large water tanks to wash off the chemicals. Many workers who handle the bananas in these tanks find their fingernails become discolored and in some instances, actually fall off.

Workers have also become sterile from exposure to DBCP, a pesticide whose effects on the reproductive systems of female workers and mutagenic effects on their children is only beginning to be investigated.

The lack of safety regulations can be directly blamed on the large corporations that control the small landowners and farmers. The corporations, through contracts that work to their benefit, also have avoided giving the workers livable wages and, in effect, denied them decent living conditions. In the last four years, banana workers' wages in Costa Rica have gone from $250 a month to $187 a month, with an increase in their workload from 12 to 18 hours a day.

And what about the consumer? Conventionally grown bananas can contain a high level of pesticide residue, causing a health risk to consumers.

At this time, the Mexican-American Fruit Co. (MexAm), with a sales office in National City, Calif., is the primary grower of organic bananas. The company is based in the heart of the banana-growing region of Mexico, and has pest and disease problems, but chooses to deal with them by different means than used by conventional growers. To control nematodes, MexAm uses flood irrigation, which, while causing some soil erosion, is preferable to nematocides. To control black sigatoka, a disease that causes leaves to wither, it uses a garlic spray. Commercial growers use 14 to 25 applications of fungicides per year to control black sigatoka.

MexAm fertilizes with chicken manure at a rate of 10 tons per acre as opposed to heavy doses of chemical fertilizers used by commercial growers. Machetes, not herbicides, are used to control weeds. And plastic bags are used for ripening bananas but without the toxic pesticides. To control stem rot, the bananas are put through a boric acid bath, which is a much safer alternative than the fungicides used by commercial growers.

The next time you pick up a banana, think about what route it took to get to you and the difference you make by making the organic choice.

Mark Mulcahy is the produce manager of Good Nature
Grocery in Walnut Creek, Calif., and a produce
consultant for small to medium natural products stores.

Thanks to Liz Bourret of Veritable Vegetable and Adam Kirshners
from Pesticide Action Network for information used in this article.


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