Buying Bananas is Bananas!

We used to buy pounds and pounds of bananas each week. As most of my family knows, as they’ve been subject to my little rants about it, we no longer do this. Why?

64233-banana

On the surface, bananas seem the ideal fresh fruit:

  1. Rarely changes significantly in price – always cheap!
  2. Ripens effortlessly.
  3. All my kids liked it.
  4. Decent nutritional value, particularly extra potassium for muscle cramping and workout recovery.

Here’s the catch. Bananas aren’t in our bio-region. Not even remotely. The incredibly low price of bananas hides the fact that these are a tropical delicacy shipped in from very far away. It’s incredible – in the original disbelief sense of the word – that energy is so cheap and pollution considered so inconsequential that a tropical fruit shipped (to northern states) a minimum of 1,500 miles has become a staple of the American diet.

Okay, it’s one thing for the standard American consumer to buy bananas. After all, reasons #1-4 are pretty damn compelling if you don’t look deeper. But it especially irks me when smart frugal people proclaim bananas as the ultimate frugal food. Are you not capable of seeing the immense hidden/externalized costs?

What got me going originally on my anti-banana crusade was this article in Ars Technica from a couple years ago. Until then I’d never really been aware of the environmental cost of banana production in their home countries. Pesticide loads for any monoculture will be high, but the tropics is a particularly bad place for them. Not only is disease and pest pressure higher, but rains wash and leach pesticides away faster, widening the impacted zone around plantations to an incredible degree. Tropical soils, despite the abundance of life, are naturally poor. Clearing the native cover to plant monocultures depletes soil at an alarming rate.

Many will argue that developing countries need export crops to support their economy. Yes and no. The trouble has become that the same multinationals who product the export crops import heavily subsidized US grain products that have destroyed many small, local farms. In a heavily globalized world, a tropical climate cannot sustainably compete at farming to scale. Widespread clearing of rainforests leads to poor, heavily leached soils. Unless you live in the region, tropical foods should remain (at best) an occasional treat.

Organic bananas are a thing. Anyone who’s investigated the organic label for themselves knows that it tells you nothing about the total pesticide load, either in residue form on the crop (of marginal concern since you should wash produce anyways), or in overuse on the farms themselves (the real reason you should be concerned about pesticide use). Worse, many organic-approved pesticides have broader environmental impact. In the specific case of bananas where fungal disease pressure is high, organic bananas are probably even worse for their home countries since organic fungicides must be applied regularly as a preventative measure, not after disease emergence.

“Fair trade” bananas are also a thing. In this case, bananas become less bad but they’re still bad. In no way could you make the case these should be a staple fruit in temperate climates. A high-volume import crop still carries the immense environmental cost of a multi-thousand mile transportation chain, even if it’s more sustainably-produced in its home country. Small imports like coffee or spices still have the same issue, but in my case I justify it because 1) price per pound is much higher, promising better returns for the farmers; 2) I’m consuming far, far less of these and so the import cost is closer to marginal.

Do you buy bananas? Would you consider re-evaluating that habit? Or have you found the evidence not as compelling as I have?

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13 Comments on “Buying Bananas is Bananas!”

  1. Only a couple dozen a week. Okay, okay, I will add banana consumption to my list of things to worry about. But it will be hopeless if I can’t get buy in from Mr. FP–he eats one every day (he was pretty upset yesterday when we had run out and I told him to eat an apple instead) and if they are around, the boys will want them, too. I’ll see what I can do, chief!

  2. David says:

    I used to eat 2 a day, one as a smoothie base, another whole. I missed them terribly at first but not much anymore. I’m finding I really like the change of seasons and looking forward to new things. Winter is harder but I’m trying to run my budget so we’re able to preserve tons of local things. We’ve eaten or preserved 80 pounds of apples in just the past week.

  3. I don’t eat bananas. There is a good documentary on the issues with growing bananas, all of which you mentioned. Additionally, in the Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan talks about how bananas, as we know and consume them, wouldn’t grow without human involvement. If you noticed, they don’t have seeds to reproduce naturally. While nutritionally, a banana is better than a twinkie, it still may not be the optimum fruit for consumption.

    And I agree that sometimes the frugal people need to consider the external costs that they aren’t paying now, but will pay later when our environmental and social damage has become too much to bear.

  4. jeannette says:

    The question of if I should eat bananas has been a tough one for me because I love them (I love avocados too and I suspect the same logic should apply to them). When some friends came home from a trip to the tropics and told me about the nastiness of pesticide use on banana plantations we switched to organic ones (I can’t find fair trade ones near by). I didn’t realize organic ones were bad to and yes it makes no sense to be importing a fruit when so many good local options exist. Now I just need to figure out how to make a creamy smoothie out of what grows in the neighborhood.

    • David says:

      Yeah, bananas do make a very good smoothie base. I definitely make far fewer smoothies without them in my diet.

      Every palate is different, but what I’ve used for replacements are applesauce, thick yoghurt, or strawberries (either fresh or thawed from frozen). If you’re using lots of greens, I think strawberries are the most compatible taste-wise.

  5. JayP says:

    Interesting, and I guess I never thought about it. On the other hand I’d probably never eat anything if I scrutinized it enough. Produce comes from far away as Asia, nuts from overseas, etc. When I was a kid we had seasons for various fruits and vegetables, now most grocery stores look 100% the same year round. Something always seems wrong with that to me. The California fruit is mostly grown in areas without a sustainable water source. Kudos to you and your clan for making the most of local coops and gardening.

  6. mspym says:

    It took me a while to get my head around the fact that in Australia, all sorts of tropical fruit are not exotic and expensive treats but grow abundantly and locally. Which is one way of saying I still eat bananas because they are grown in Queensland, along with pineapples and mangoes and avocados etc et.
    Meanwhile you can’t get a feijoa for love or money and they don’t grow tamarillos. Swings and roundabouts.

  7. Ann says:

    I agree. I get bananas under two circumstances. The first, I travel a lot with my job and not necessarily to high end places. In order to find fruit to eat, oftentimes the only choices I will encounter during the day are bananas at the hotel breakfast and juice at the hotel breakfast. I eat one then. There is also the time in the spring when preserved fruit runs out and it isn’t yet time for local fruit. I use that period to go wild with tropical fruits, grapefruit, pineapple, mangoes and yes, bananas. They are all from far away, but for now, that is my exception. When there are peaches, raspberries, plums pears, etc. available local ripe and delicious, I think people are bananas to buy bananas!

    • David says:

      Ann, thanks for the comment! Yeah, maybe I’ll relent and treat the family to bananas in the winter as a treat – kind of like how Christmas citrus used to be a huge deal in the north just a hundred years ago.

      But I’ll needle you – if your preserved fruit runs out in spring, preserve more of it! 😉

  8. less4success says:

    I’m switching to apples in my (brownbag, of course) lunch from now on, thanks to you 🙂

    Where do you get your potassium these days?

    • David says:

      Potassium is in a ton of foods. I’m not particularly concerned with deficiency. I also use sea salt in all our cooking, so that probably helps with many trace minerals.

      If I was specifically worried about potassium, potatoes pack 2x the K of bananas and they’re easy to source locally about 9 months out of the year. (Early summer the storage potatoes really want to break dormancy and have turned sweet, and new potatoes only start appearing 2-3 months later.

      Local apple season is my favorite time of year. We’ve already eaten/processed 6 bushels of apples (~240 pounds) and I’ll be getting 2.5 more tomorrow when we go picking with my sister and her kids and then tag-team canning afterwards.


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