The banana is a perennial plant that replaces itself. Bananas do not grow from a seed but from a bulb or rhizome. The time between planting a banana plant and the harvest of the banana bunch is from 9 to 12 months. The flower appears in the sixth or seventh month. Bananas are available throughout the year - they do not have a growing 'season'.
Bananas are grown in tropical regions where the average temperature is 80° F (27° C) and the yearly rainfall is between 78 and 98 inches. They require moist soil with good drainage. In fact, most bananas exported are grown within 30 degrees either side of the equator.
Plantations are predominant in Latin America and they require huge investment in infrastructure and technology for transport, irrigation, drainage and packing facilities. Smallholder production is less capital intensive and more labour intensive. This system is present mainly in the Eastern Caribbean because, due to topographical factors, it is not possible to use the plantation system.
Banana growing is, in general, labour intensive, involving clearing of jungle growth, propping of the plants to counter bending from the weight of the growing fruit, and irrigation in some regions. As well as an intensive use of pesticides, the conventional production process involves covering banana bunches with polyethylene bags to protect them from wind, attacks of insects or birds and to maintain optimum temperatures.
Harvesting and ripening
After nine months, the bananas are harvested while still green. At the packhouse they are inspected and sorted for export. Buyers of fruit in the UK want unbruised bananas and so very high standards are set. If the bananas do not meet these standards they are usually sold locally at a much lower price.
They are then transported to ports to be packed in refrigerated ships called reefers (bananas take between six and twelve days to get to the UK/Europe). They are transported at a temperature of 13.3°C in order to increase their shelf life, and require careful handling in order to prevent damage. Humidity, ventilation and temperature conditions are carefully monitored in order to maintain quality. When the bananas arrive at their destination
port they are first sent to ripening rooms (aprocess involving ethylene gas) and then sent to the shops.
Dessert banana production for export (around 15 million tonnes per year) is of huge economic importance for many countries in the South. It relies on intensive monocultures, which are sustained by using massive quantities of toxic chemicals which are hazardous to both workers and the environment. This industrial-scale production also results in problematic waste management issues. Research led by CIRAD (International Agricultural Research for Development Centre) demonstrates that significant agrochemical reduction can be achieved while maintaining good levels of productivity and quality. Organic systems are increasingly being viewed as a viable and important alternative to conventional production in some regions.
The World Banana Forum (WBF) brings together a wide range of industry players to identify both what sustainable
production could look like and how it could be worked towards collectively - click here for more.
See also Oxfam’s illustrated guide which describes the process state by state from growing, cutting, labelling, sorting and shipping.
CIRAD - International Agricultural Research for Development Centre
See the video below, 'From Plant to Box' by Jan Nimmo, filmed on the 'Eco Turismo' plantation on the outskirts of Siquirres, Costa Rica. The film follows the process of getting bananas from the plantation where they are grown to the packing plant where they are processed and prepared for export.
Photos: Ana, El Guabo, Ecuador (Fairtrade Foundation)
Guidom Plantation, Dom. Republic 2011 (by Eduardo Abracos)