Monoculture and high input production
Most bananas exported to Europe are grown on large-scale plantations in Latin America, and increasingly, in Africa. Banana plantations are monocultures – where only one type of crop is grown. 97% of internationally traded bananas come from one single variety, the Cavendish. This lack of genetic variety makes plants highly susceptible to pests, fungi and diseases, and therefore large quantities of insecticides and other pesticides are applied to the crops. In fact, bananas are sprayed with more pesticides compared to other tropical fruit because of the fruit's thick peel. Most plantation owners will spend more money on agrochemicals than on paying their workers.
As the pests and diseases adapt, ever stronger, more harmful pesticides need to be applied. Fertilisers and pesticides can have a devastating impact on the environment, such as polluting water channels and leading to eutrophication, resulting in the destruction of aquatic life, including coral reefs. Carelessly stored chemicals can also seep into the soil and water courses, leading to soil erosion and water pollution.
Key environmental problems include:
- contamination of water courses
- massive levels of waste
- soil erosion
- increased risk of flooding
- deforestation and destruction of habitats
- destruction of soil fertility, resulting in high fertiliser use.
Impacts on workers and their communities
Polluted water is used for drinking, cooking and washing. Agrochemicals are applied by hand and aerially sprayed. It is estimated that 85% of chemicals sprayed by plane fail to land on the crop, instead saturating the whole area, including workers, their homes and food. Laws prohibiting workers from being in the fields when spraying takes place are routinely violated in some countries. For example, it still occurs in Ecuador despite extensive media coverage about the impact of aerial spraying on the Los Rios province.
For plantation workers and local people, the health impacts of extensive agrochemical use are numerous, ranging from depression and respiratory problems to cancer, miscarriages and birth defects. Tens of thousands of workers left sterile by the use of a nematicide, DBCP, in Nicaragua and Costa Rica in the 1970s are still seeking justice in the US courts from the multinationals involved.
The Ethical Consumer have produced a shopping guide to bananas which includes:
- ethical and environmental ratings for 17 banana brands
- an investigation into low wages in the banana industry
- the role of supermarkets in keeping wages low
- banana import wars
- the use of pesticides
- interview with long-standing banana campaigner
Photos: Aerial Spraying, 2013
Banana worker applying chemicals, 2006