Buying Bananas is Bananas!Posted: September 9, 2015
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?
On the surface, bananas seem the ideal fresh fruit:
- Rarely changes significantly in price – always cheap!
- Ripens effortlessly.
- All my kids liked it.
- 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?