That’s the bitter secret of the sweet bananas that may lay in your shopping basket at the moment.
In bananas part I you can read why I write an own article series about bananas, what exactly is a banana and how bananas are „used“. Here I introduce – a bit late – part II of the text series about this amazing fruit.
The differences between different forms of banana cultivation should affect your own consumption! Thus follows: You can influence the supply of bananas with your „concious consumption choice“!
1.How does the cultivation work? A comparison of conventional and ecological plantations
In the first text, you can already find a brief introduction of banana cultivation. Here you find a closer focus on the differences between organic and conventional cultivation.
I can really recommend this web page to get a brief overview beforehand about conventional banana cultivation.
The organic cultivation of bananas works without chemical-synthetic pesticides and fertilizer. That’s especially important concerning bananas, because in conventional farming, they are treated with everywhere with toxic substances: On the soil farmers use pesticides to hinder the growth of weed and nematodes, which damage the root of the bananas.
The bananas themselves are packed from the beginning on in plastic bags which are impregnated with pesticides too.Embed from Getty Images
Moreover, it is still allowed to spread pesticied via plane: In a study made by the „Südwind-Institute“ (2016) 54,9% of the asked conventional ecuadorian farmers said that they notice pesticide applications at least once a week. 74,2% always observe an effect (smell, liquid on their skin,…). The study further reports a the possibility of a connection between symptoms like dizziness, emesis, skin reaction and the quantity of pesticide applications.
Which substances are used by conventional banana farmers?
Here I present the most common active substances.Embed from Getty Images
Thiabendazole: Thiabendazole is a fungizide and conventional farmers use it to fight mould fungus. This substance is commonly used for the waxing of citrus fruits and more and more consumers already refuse to buy oranges, lemons etc. shells contaminated by Thiabendazole. In a study of the “Lebensmittelinstitut Oldenburg” (2005) Thiabendazole was found in 47% of the tested banana samples.
Chlorpyrifos is a highly water pollutant substance (Median for fish: only 0,0043 mg/l!) and acute toxic. A tight protective clothing with gloves and eye protection is necessary to handle this substance (after use the protective equipment has to be thoroughly cleaned).
Imazalil: Imazalil is used against mould fungus (like Thiabendazole). 91% of the tested banana samples showed residues of Imazalil . Imazalil is “potentially cancerogen”, water pollutant and toxic for fish .
Imidacloprid: This insecticide comes from the group of the neonicotinoids . Imidacloprid is highly dangerous for water organisms in the short and long term.
Chlortalonil: Chlortalonil is an active substance of fungicides which has many adverse effects: It is in the long term highly poisonous for water organisms, potentially cancerogen and causes mortal danger when inhalated .
The use of this substances has long-term consequences: Since the 1980ies, workers on conventional banana farms show higher rates of leukaemia, sterility and cancer. They are direct consequences of pesticide contact. Moreover, workers often come down with skin, nerves and lung illnesses.
A lot of these substances have in common their harmful effect on water organisms. In reality, this effects are seen when fish and other marine animals die in front of the coast. For example in Laos, there is a mass death of fish caused by cocktails of the poisonous substances mentioned above (2016). This also happens in Ecuador and Costa Rica.
To avoid the use of this poisonous substances, the only possibility is the purchase of organic bananas! They are not treated with harmful substances. However, sometimes studies find residues of pesticides in organic bananas. These residues are not always caused by fraud: Spill overs from conventional plantations can contaminate organic products.
- Conventional bananas are treated with a cocktail of poisonous substances which restrict life quality of human beings and the environment. 35% of the market price of conventional bananas is only generated through pesticides!
Conventional cultivation is a vicious circle, which is affected by the continuous working against nature: Conventional banana trees grow in huge monocultures, so harmful insects spread easier. The conventional farmer use poisonous pesticides, fungicides, etc. No other plants grow on the soil and so the nutrients are flushed out of it. So the humus is destroyed. What can the farmer do? He uses the next chemical tool and fertilizes the banana trees with synthetic fertilizer.
In this way the soil is completely destroyed and contaminated within 20 years. The “enterprises” go away, grab some other land – the history continues. With this kind of “farming” the rain forest and all his inhabitants suffer!
Why shall we work against nature, if we can work with her?
True organic agriculture has better methods: Through intercropping, different kinds of plants grow on one field and the plants benefit from positive synergies. This concept is even common in the garden. Nutrients stay in the soil and no chemical substances harm humus. In organic culture leaves fall on the ground and plants grow there. This way it is possible to preserve the natural humus layer. Instedad of using chemicals, the farmers pull up weeds.
Moreover, pests do not find that much nourishment on an intercropping plantation. Intercropping even hinders the growth of the black tsigatoka fungus which is one of the most severe banana pests.
III. Zero Waste
Zero Waste is connected with bananas in many ways. Here I talk about the (not organic) waste which results from the plantation and from the transport.
-Waste from plantations
Besides way too high quality standards which mean lots of fruits being sorted out because of size or colour the cultivation itself also causes non-organic waste: Think of pesticide canisters and fertilizer packaging. Organis agriculture should contribute to put this waste aside.Embed from Getty Images
However a speciality concerning bananas is that plastic bags are put around the fruits from the beginning when they are still on the banana tree! These bags are treated with poisonous substances from the inside. This “protects the banana from shell injuries and fungal attacs. So the banana ripens all the time in this extremely non-natural way. Because of the pesticide use, the plastic bags are so poisonous after the pesticide treatment, that they correctly have to be disposed as hazardous waste!
Unfortunately I couldn’t find reliable information whether organic bananas are completely grown without these plastic bags or not.
-waste because of transport
For the long transport, bananas are packed in big cartons. The interior of these cartons is laid out with plastic bags. When unpacking such a carton you feel the liquid inside of the plastic bags which surrounds the banana the whole transport. This causes a lot of waste.
As an alternative I mention here a pilot project of the Swiss supermarket enterprise Migros: For a banana project in cooperation with the WWF this company uses reusable plastic boxes for the transport of bananas. This saves more than one million cartons per year.
In earlier times when I still went shopping at the supermarket I often pulled the stickers from the bananas off and sticked them at the supermarket checkout. Everyone who shops at the supermarket sees the annoying stickers: Not only on bananas, but also an Avocados, apples, citrus fruits, zucchini,… Often the stickers are sticked on every single banana.
Often consumers are unsure whether they can still eat the part of the fruit where the sticker was on or not. In every sense, the stickers produce a lot of waste and do not rot!
However, there are alternatives: It is possible to mark all fruits and vegetables with laser. Some companies have already started to mark their fruits this way.
And you can purchase fruits and vegetables without stickers at the farmer’s market. Usually you don’t find stickers there – either the whole market stall only sells certified organic products or not.
-plastic film which is sticked at the cut surface of the banana bush
At the cut surface of a banana bush I often notice a plastic film. I only recognised this plastic film on bananas in supermarkets. So you can avoid this waste when you buy bananas on the farmers market or in selected organic shops.
Most of the bananas lay unpacked in their shelves even in the supermarket. So you can take them home with you in your own bag to avoid the use of the thin throw-away plastic bags which you can find in supermarkets.
-banana skin and the banana treeEmbed from Getty Images
Above: banana skin on the compost? Maybe this is not a good idea
Because of the extensive use of pesticides conventional banana plants are too contaminated to rot on the compost! So even you as a single consumer should not throw conventional banana skin on your compost or in the countryside. You never know how many and which pesticide residues are on the banana shell. Only the shells of organic bananas can be thrown on the compost.
Problematically banana skins respectively bananas which do not fit the criteria are used as food for animals. So these animals may receive residues of pesticides. 30-40% of the harvest is fed to animals.
- Bananas produce a lot of waste even in their cultivation and a lot of waste has its origin in places which we as customers cannot see on first sight. The best means to prevent this is the direct dialogue and the purchase of products which are as regional and as unprocessed as possible. The more regional products like fruits and vegetables are, the less waste they cause! Thus I can recommend organic bananas from the Canary Islands.
The study of the institute “Südwind” mentioned above proves that there are no big differences between conventional and organic farmers concerning size, weight, etc. But you can distinguish organic farmers when you look at their education: They have higher-level school leaving qualifications.
Organic farmers are aware of the dangers of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc. whereas most of the conventional farmers don’t know enough about it.
Organic farmers need this additional know-how because they have to understand how the circular systems in nature really work and how they can work with them in a meaningful way. Their work is more intense, physically and mentally, but it is much more sustainable and healthier for human beings and nature.
We as consumers shall remunerate this work with a fair price. That’s the next point.
2. What does Fair Trade mean concerning bananas?
Business as usual in developing countries: The work on banana farms is hard and poorly paid. Often workers do not sign any labor contracts, use pesticides without any protective equipment and are not allowed to organise themselves in a labor union.
Organic farming leads to ecological sustainability, fair trading conditions lead to social sustainability. For this purpose farmers get a price which is always above the world market niveau and it never falls below a certain benchmark. Fairtrade labelled farmers get premia to collaboratively finance projects like schools and pensions. The working conditions on the plantations are improved and farmers are allowed to be a member of labor unions.
However, Fair Trade is not a synonyme for organic! For full-featured sustainability both, Fair Trade and organic farming are needed!
Which labels are reliable and what do they mean?
Above: A public label for “certified organic agriculture” and the official Fairtrade label are both together a reliable indicator for ecological and social sustainable produced products.
Concerning bananas from the Canary Islands, a public label for “certified organic agriculture” is ok as well because of the stricter working conditions (in comparison with developing countries). It would be the best if you can get in touch with the banana farmer to ensure that you really get ecological and social sustainable bananas. This is not so easy to realise, but e.g. on the Canary Islands you can visit banana plantations.
Do not rely on company intern organic labels! They might be not as strict as public labels, they highlight certain aspects and veil others. The Migros e.g. promises that until the end of 2017 all the bananas will be cultivated in a sustainable way. On the website of the company you can find a catalogue of seven topics. It covers a broad spectrum, ecosystems/biodiversity, waste management, social aspects of banana plantations. But when we come to the point “integrated crop protection” it says: We need a responsible and thus preferably reduced use of pesticides. This is, however, not an exactly defined objective and it is far away from consequent organic agriculture.
The EU-organic label is also wildly criticised. But as we can read in the catalogue, it is more accurately formulated:
Article 12g) “the prevention of damage caused by pests, diseases and weeds shall rely primarily on the protection by natural enemies, the choice of species and varieties, crop rotation, cultivation techniques and thermal processes;
- h) in the case of an established threat to a crop, plant protection products may only be used if they have been authorised for use in organic production under Article 16;…“
This meand that farmers can only use a defined list of means to protect their crop. Some farmers associations e.g. Demeter have even stricter guidelines. Thus it is also meaningful to watch out for this label on the products – if you buy food in the European Union, you find the EU-certified organic label on all the organic products anyway.
But not in every country and every supermarket you can find bananas with the certified organic and with the fairtrade label. And some people even argue:“ Why should I buy bananas? There are enough local fruits!“ Does it make sense to totally relinquish bananas?
Should you still buy bananas?
My grandfather has never eaten a banana in his life. Nevertheless he was happy with the apples, pears, quinces and all the other fruits which grew in his village.
Even when you buy certified organic and fair trade bananas: They cause CO2 emissions due to the long transport with huge container ships. Moreover, the cooled transport at a temperature of only 12°C and the after-ripening in warm halls cause additional expenditure of energy.
But in comparison with the purchase of conventional bananas, you can reduce the impacts on the environments. And in middle Europe we do not have any groceries that are comparable with the taste of bananas!
An aspect that carries weight is the cultivation of bananas: I do not want to pay for fruits which passed their whole life in a plastic jacket. This plastic waste is evitable and I see it as unhygienic when fruits ripen under plastic and not in fresh air.
You can only decide for yourself if you still want to buy bananas or not. I recommend to buy a smaller amount of certified organic and fairtrade labelled bananas.
Usually I only eat bananas which I found in the containers of supermarkets (see above) . If I buy bananas, I go to the farmers market to a market stall that only sells certified organic bananas from the Canary Islands. For me the transport way from the Canary Islands to Austria is acceptable and the taste of these little fruits is simply delicious!
Do you buy bananas? If so, do you watch out for certain characteristics? I am looking forward to your comment respectively if you share my article!Embed from Getty Images
A third part follows soon. In the next chapter I will address food waste concerning bananas and our possibilities to prevent it. Tasty recipes and cooking ideas for the use of all bananas are included!
 Wismer, T. Novel Insecticides. Clinical Veterinary Toxicology; Plumlee, K. H., Ed.; Mosby: St. Louis, MO, 2004; pp 184-185.
Tomlin, C. D. S. The Pesticide Manual, A World Compendium, 14th ed.; British Crop Protection Council: Surry, England, 2006; pp 598-599.
 Food waste will be adressed further in chapter 3
unfortunately there is no information in this source whether the bananas in the plastic box are packed in plastic bags or not.
 I could not find out anything about the function of this plastic film. It might be used to prevent the cut surface from fungus. Then it is probably even soaked with fungicides.
I have no doubts that these guidelines can improve the situation of farmers, however they leave loopholes for pesticides etc.
 My point of view: I do not give any money tot he supermarkets, I only take their „waste“. So I do not foster further banana imports, but I can prevent some food waste.