Bananas are under threat having their own pandemic. Can you help them fight back?

The BBC recently highlighted that bananas – like humans – are facing a pandemic.  Theirs is caused by Tropical Race 4 (TR4), a disease that affects bananas.

Living in a COVID-19 world showed us that addressing a pandemic requires a joined-up approach and decisive interventions. That’s because all our individual actions influence our shared future. The same applies to food. When one of the world’s most popular foods, the banana, faces a pandemic, every one of us across the global food and supply chain has an important part to play. Firstly, we should become aware of the threat and secondly, we should act.

Bananas are a rich source of Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, Manganese, Potassium, dietary fibers, and protein. They are also used in a wide variety of food products such as breakfast cereals, ice cream, and other desserts apart from raw consumption. In fact, Bananas, including dessert banana, plantain, and cooking banana, are the eighth most important food crop in the world, and the fourth most important in the least developed countries. In 2019  20.2 million tons of bananas were exported and around 9.2 million tons of Rainforest Alliance Certified™ bananas were produced. Between 2013 and 2015 the UK imported an average of around 1.15 million tonnes of bananas a year, more than any European country other than Germany and Belgium.

The world’s leading exporter is Ecuador, followed by the Philippines, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Colombia but the largest importers of bananas are the European Union and the United States. The European Union gets its bananas mainly from Ecuador, Costa Rica and Colombia, with each providing about 20 percent of the imports. The US imports its bananas primarily from Ecuador and Guatemala.

With a global banana industry under siege from the disease known as TR4 and the climate crisis, climate-smart farming methods have become more important than ever. Banana farmers are fighting changing weather patterns caused by the climate crisis. Higher temperatures, drought and unpredictable rainfall mean that sometimes there can be too much water and sometimes⁠ too little. In addition, low-lying banana farms are very vulnerable to storms and floods.

These changing conditions present huge challenges to farmers who depend on specific weather conditions to grow their crops and can also lead to the spread of pests and diseases to new regions, damaging and sometimes destroying crops. According to a new report The State of Agricultural Commodity Markets, 2020, Sustainability certification schemes can promote responsible trade, inclusion, non‑discrimination, and environmentally friendly farm practices. They also can ensure occupational safety, ban child labour, and encourage investments.

Leonie Haakshorst, Sector Lead Banana & Fruit at the Rainforest Alliance says:

“Banana farmers are at the front lines of the climate crisis. Because bananas are the world’s most popular fruit, their production is often linked to high pesticide use, low prices and wages, and violations of workers’ rights. The Rainforest Alliance started its banana certification program nearly 30 years ago, pioneering more sustainable production in this challenging sector. We focus on helping farmers practice profitable, more climate-smart agriculture with respect for nature, workers, and communities. Together with many allies – from farmers to retailers and other stakeholders in the sector, we are working on raising the bar for more sustainable banana production”.

The Rainforest Alliance is promoting climate-smart agriculture techniques and training farmers in applying them.  By applying climate-smart farming methods farmers can better adapt to the effects of the climate crisis, build resilience, and protect their income.  Examples of the climate-smart methods used on banana farms include: planting vegetative barriers and buffer zones (for example, planting a buffer of trees and bushes along streams and rivers prevents erosion and contamination from crop runoff) water-efficient systems for irrigation and packing of plants (it is becoming more and more common that farms collect and store water in order to use it for irrigation later) better use of fertilizers (by giving a preference to organic fertilizers rather than chemicals as well as optimizing quantities and application methods)

 

What can consumers do? 

Only by collective action will we ensure our best loved foods remain part of our staple diet in the future. Next time you buy delicious bananas have a think about how they were produced and ask your retailer which certifications they carry. You can support better farming by buying certified bananas, for instance by the Rainforest Alliance.

 

What can companies and governments do?

The responsibility for sustainable transformation cannot fall on farmers’ shoulders alone. Given the low market price for bananas, the costs of investing in sustainability are often higher than most farmers can afford. To drive deep-rooted, systemic change at a global scale, companies and governments need to take a leading role. The new Rainforest Alliance 2020 Certification Program helps them do that, putting a strong emphasis on the shared responsibility in this journey.