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October - November 2008


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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Email: lwcapristo@smcm.edu
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Nature Notes:
Sometimes, You Just Have to Eat a Banana

by Meredith Epstein '08

I have not noticed bananas playing a major role in this presidential election, or in fact in any election. Why should they? They are, quite simply, fruit and are quite unnoticeable in the central issues of security, conomics, or illegal immigration. In the article below, Meredith Epstein meets their “simplicity” head on and, at least by implication, suggests why bananas should enter the debate.
– Kate Chandler, Associate Professor of English


Ah, the banana: that mellow yellow crescent of tropical sweetness. Pan-fried in a bath of butter and brown sugar. Serving as a vessel for mounds of frozen cream, lattices of chocolaty syrup, and a sprinkling of nuts and cherries. Simmered in a deep pot of black beans with a hint of ginger and cocoa. Overripe, mashed into a cellulosic goo, baked with allspice into a warm loaf. Or simply smothered in peanut butter. You really can’t go wrong.

Oh, the banana: the most environmentally destructive human rights infringement in a peel. You would be hard-pressed to find a productive banana tree pushing soil anywhere from Maine to California, yet it is a regular on the American grocery list. It is the most widely cultivated fruit crop in the world, grown in well over 100 countries and ringing up $4 billion annually in export trade. Seventy-two and a half million metric tons of the sunny fruits were produced worldwide in 2005, with India, Brazil, China, Ecuador, and the Philippines rounding out the top five growers. In the United States, bananas are a luxury commodity that we grab for breakfast on-the-go. For millions of people in developing nations who depend on them for daily calorie intake and wage, they are a matter of life or death.

The industrial plantations where most bananas are grown in Latin America, South America, Africa, and Asia are a nightmare. Critical spans of forest are clear-cut to make way for monolithic monocultures of hybrid crops that are doused with petrochemical biocides and fertilizers. Planes sweep over the rows of trees, Banana treehawk-like, dusting both plants and workers with organochlorines. Chemical exposure has been linked to cancer rates that are higher among banana workers than the general population. Lack of genetic diversity in the fields makes the crop extremely susceptible to diseases and bacteria that can wipe out the yields of entire regions. This threatens the livelihoods of both workers and regional consumers.

The banana industry, like most others, is dominated by a handful of multinational corporations—Dole and Chiquita own over half of all banana cultivation in the world. Experts say their plantations are ridden with child labor, disregard for pesticide regulations, and wages below half the legal minimum. Most employment with these companies is through contractors, so workers have no job security, do not receive benefits, cannot form unions, and are often relocated with no say in the matter. In effect, these people become migrant workers on their own land.

In March 2007, on her nationally syndicated public radio show “Democracy Now!,” Amy Goodman discussed a 1998 exposé in the Cincinnati Enquirer that revealed how “…Chiquita exposed entire communities to dangerous U.S.-banned pesticides, forced the eviction of an entire Honduran village at gunpoint and its subsequent bulldozing, suppressed unions, unwittingly allowed the use of Chiquita transport ships to move cocaine internationally, and paid a fortune to U.S. politicians to influence trade policy.” Not such an everyday fruit, now is it?

Equipped with these banana facts, am I morally obligated to give up one of my favorite fruits? I’d say that I eat roughly one banana per week, which means 52 bananas per year. I will probably have consumed well over 1,000 by the time I turn 25! How do I deal with the realization that I may as well be considered an accessory to a crime?

The ultimate purpose of conscientious consumption is to be aware of the complexity of supply chains and to examine the social, economic, moral and environmental consequences of goods all the way from production to consumption to disposal. The difficulty in gaining awareness lies in the sheer extent of that complexity over the entire lifecycle of a product, be it an apple, a steak, or a sedan. Industries devote billions of dollars every year to covering up the pathway of suffering that begins with the cotton seed in the ground and ends not with the shirt on your back but in the landfill where that shirt ends up once you’ve worn it out. Even the “simplest” of goods—a banana—is not simple at all.

Some bananas are obviously better than others. Goodman concludes her show by saying, “That next organic, fair-trade banana you buy just might save a life.” But even if I make sure that the bunch is organic and fair-trade certified, it is still shipped thousands of miles, emitting tons of carbon dioxide. The only justification I can find for purchasing the damn things is this: I love them. I love their slick, sticky meatiness. I love them in pancakes, over cereal, in trail mix, as pudding, covered in chocolate, or just as is. But my love gives no grounds for the plight of the banana worker.

I have become so hyper-conscientious about the smallest shred of consumption that every now and then I wonder if some therapy wouldn’t do me good. I eat, sleep, and drink sustainability— except I do not have time to eat or sleep because of it. The world has evolved into such a tangle of globe-spanning systems that it seems impossible to do absolutely everything right. Environmentalism encompasses every aspect of existence. I am learning to devote my energy to one main struggle because each of our struggles is part of the greater whole. When I’m floundering in it all, maybe I will seek some once-in-a-blue-moon banana therapy.

Joni Mitchell said it right – we are stardust, billion-year-old carbon, we are golden, caught in the devil’s bargain, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden. It’s going to be a long trip. So gather your friends. Pick your fights. Pack your bags. Don’t forget the snacks. Sometimes, if you want a banana, you just have to eat one.