The world’s most exported fruit is the cause of much human suffering. The so-called supermarket price wars in Europe have driven down the cost of bananas to the detriment of the workers, suppliers, communities and environment where they are produced: a stark reminder, say many, of the ‘imbalance of power’ in the global food chain, with us insatiable consumers in the north exploiting producers in the south in practice that is both unacceptable and unsustainable.
Bananas are under threat from a new strain of panama disease – called TR4. We’ve been here before. The first strain of panama disease, TR1, wiped out completely the Gros Michel banana variety back in the 1950s. Since the 1990s the new strain of the disease has spread to over 20 countries from Asia to Australia, the Middle East, Africa and more recently Latin America – that’s significant because this is where the vast majority of the Cavendish variety of bananas are produced. Globally, the Cavendish banana accounts for nearly 50 percent of global production and is the one we see on our supermarket shelves here in Europe.
In this podcast, Juan José Pons, coordinator of the Ecuadorian Banana Cluster, an organisation which has long been negotiating for fairer prices for its members to ensure the sustainability of the industry explains the challenges for producers on the ground. Consumers and retailers in the West he lamented are “trying to buy a Rolls Royce for the price of a Chinese car.”
A spokesperson from Aldi, singled out by the Ecuadorian Banana Cluster for its attempts to want to offer the “cheapest bananas on the market”, said: “We recognise that the payment of wages that enable a decent standard of living is an important step towards creating a sustainable banana supply chain. We only work with suppliers who comply with our responsible sourcing requirements and share our vision for a sustainable banana supply chain. Industry collaboration is also vital, which is why we are members of the World Banana Forum’s ‘Cost of Sustainable Production’ Working Group and other initiatives working to support growers.”
The refusal among retailers to accept higher costs in value chains is a problem identified by certification organisation FairTrade, which works to get better prices, safe working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers.
Another organisation working for fair and sustainable banana trade is UK-based Banana Link. Paul Lievens, its Policy & Communications Coordinator, complains that producers aren’t adequately protected against the imbalance in bargaining power that the supermarkets benefit from simply because the scale at which they’re buying means that they’ve got greater power to dictate terms. He thinks solutions are a combination of market intervention and consumer education.
Lievens adds that the TR4 disease further exposes the folly of monocropping, which is stymying the development of new disease-resistant varieties.
In agreement is Nicolas Roux, the senior scientist and Banana Program Leader at Bioversity International in France, which is looking into exploiting wild banana varieties – possibly via new unconventional techniques such as genetic transformation -- in order to find a solution to the so-called banana pandemic.