Thursday, September 15, 2011

Is it Ethical to Eat Bananas?

This is one in a series of posts designed to make you think critically about our food economy and the way industrialized food has changed our diets and palates in America. I ain't tryin to hate, but to educate. Hyperlinked text are sources.

Where do bananas come from? 
No really, where? Michigan? North Carolina? Florida? No matter which supermarket you step into in the US, you can always find a pile of bananas for a cheap price. They're a staple of many of our diets and the saviors of runners everywhere. But where do they come from?

The answer: Latin America, well over 2,000 miles away, depending on where you live in the US. Bananas need a tropical climate and rich soil to grow, and the most common place for bananas to be grown is in the middle of the rainforest.
From our stance in the comparatively frozen North, we eat over 28lbs of bananas per person per year. Consider first, the amount of rainforest space it takes to produce that many bananas. Unfortunately, massive plantations by Dole and Chiquita have downed over 50,000 hectacres of rainforest, just in Costa Rica alone. Combined with the effects of monoculture (depletion of the soil by constant farming of just one crop) and the extreme use of pesticides (208 chemicals at 44kg/hectacre), we are rapidly destroying one of the most beautiful places on earth, just for our eating pleasure.

Unfortunately, the environmental destruction of a banana does not stop there. How much fuel does it cost to fly a plane one way from Costa Rica to the US? Once the bananas make it to the US, how much trucking fuel is used up transporting these imported fruits across the nation? It's no secret that we are running out of fossil fuels, but it might be surprising to hear that all of the transportation costs for these companies are tax deductible, ie: tax dollars are paying to have our bananas shipped to us from a hemisphere away.

The carbon footprint of a banana is astronomical, and something I feel a little shocked to have been supporting by eating my 28lbs of bananas per American per year.

Why are bananas so cheap?

A few weeks ago I was at the grocery store and I was astounded to see bananas on sale for 19 cents/lb, while local Michigan apples (presumably more in season and shipped less) were going for 80 cents/lb. How are bananas, clearly not very cheap to produce or transport, some of the lowest-cost foods in the produce section?
The answer, lies in the poor treatment of workers. Like the meatpacking industry, the growers of bananas are far underpaid and exposed to horrid working conditions. Many fall ill in the presence of the extreme levels of pesticides, and there are even a few cases of men becoming infertile due to pesticide exposure.

Another horrifying figure is that while banana exports constitute up to 41% of a Central American country's exports, the country only retains 11.5% of the retail value profits, with the other 88.5% of profits being given to foreign companies--aka Dole and Chiquita. In short, the US is exploiting these countries for their banana exports. 

What can you do about it?

All of these numbers are indeed scary. I want to mention that in no way am I judging or trying to represent as a purist; I love bananas just as much as the next American (exhibit A). But how can we best exercise our buying power to keep both the health of the Earth and the banana workers in mind?

  • Stop buying bananas-- this is obvious, but a quick way to limit your consumption and support of these companies
  • Look for bananas under the Rainforest Farms or Rainforest Alliance brands. They'll usually have a sticker with a frog or a rainbow on it. These bananas will likely cost more, but came from an environmentally and ethically sound background
  • Buy local fruits-- although bananas aren't native to Michigan, apples, peaches, grapes and berries are. Choose local!

In light of all of these facts, what do you think? Is it ethical to eat bananas?


  1. I LOVE bananas. I've never actually thought about the impact and carbon footprint a banana makes and yet I eat them frequently. I try to buy as much local produce and meat as I can but for whatever reason, I hadn't thought about where bananas are sourced from in years. Of course they're not local to Colorado!

    Do you know where the Rainbow bananas are sold? I would guess a Whole Foods type of store?

  2. Great post! It was my link of the day a few days ago but I haven't had time to comment until now. I didn't know about all this stuff, and since bananas have a skin never really bothered to buy organic. Thanks for spreading the know-how :)

  3. I'm not partial to bananas but my husband and daughter are crazy for them. This info is good and very important to know if our world and the well being of others is important to us!! I love banana's to make vegan icecream and love sharing the fact with others that they don't have to count on dairy to enjoy a delicious frozen treat so I had better share this info with others as well:)) Thanks for the great information!!


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