The misadventure of a banana considered artistic, gobbled up by an artist and photographed by a sick woman brought to the forefront this fruit which is the most consumed in the world, tasty, very nutritious and cheap. Produced in the countries of the South, where it provides food and employment, the banana is prized in the North, where it represents the basic food product which is most widely sold.
“The banana is the fruit of globalisation in all its splendour,” analyses Denis Lœillet, researcher at Cirad (Centre for International Cooperation in Agronomic Research), with both its good and bad aspects. Very nutritious, it is available all year round and easy to transport, but it also presents biological weaknesses which made it devastating for the environment and the rights of workers.”
Banana trees are very productive herbaceous plants (up to 100 tons per hectare, compared with 7 for wheat and 40 for potatoes) and the banana is the 4th most eaten food by humans on the planet after wheat, rice and milk products. However, underneath its robust exterior, this plant represents genetic weaknesses which make it very prone to diseases. Its fruit does not carry seeds, multiplying is carried out by cuttings, a variation on cloning, which reproduces rigorously identical plants. In the field, all the plants resemble each other and the infection of a single plant risks spreading the infection to all the others.
“This fragility pushes certain growers to have recourse to practices which have little respect for the environment, due to massive use of pesticides and fertilizer”, continues Denis Loeillet. The biological fragility of the banana is further reinforced by choices made by growers. Although there are about 1,200 varieties cultivated bananas in existence, one single one of these, the Cavendish, represents more than half of the total production (69.5 m tons in 2016, out of a total of 136 m tons). “It is the only variety involved in international commerce. In the producing countries, entire valleys are given over to it, and this has been the case for decades. This monoculture causes not only an exhaustion of ecosystems, but it requires many means to combat diseases. In Guatemala, the most problematic country, the plantations consume 70 to 80 kg of non-natural additives per hectare annually.” “In Costa Rica, the plants are sprayed aerially with sulphur every 5 days”, confirms Alistair Smith, founder of Banana Link. This country cultivated its ecological status, boasts of its efforts at reforestation, but authorised at the same time the use of pesticides of frightening toxicity which destroy its protected zones. The coral reef, which used to attract tourists, disappeared totally 20 years ago.”
The countries which have converted to banana production cannot, however, easily abandon this culture which brings them a certain degree of social peace. “The plantations keep in work one person per hectare throughout the year, it’s a level of employment which is unique in agricultural areas,” continued this militant. “To abandon the banana would leave entire regions stricken by mass unemployment. All the more so because the plantations leave the soil so poisoned by pesticide residues that it is no longer possible to cultivate healthy crops there.”
The ravages of Chlordecone
In the Caribbean, both Guadeloupe and Martinique, two French departments, were however forced to profoundly review their system of operation. It required all the energy of the French authorities, the inventiveness of agronomic research centres and generous European subsidies to rethink radically the model of banana cultivation. Originally, there was the devastation caused by chlordecone, an organochlorine pesticide used from 1970 to 1993 to destroy charançons, very tough insects which are parasites of banana trees. Over a period of 20 years of use, this pesticide, which takes 7 centuries to degrade, totally saturated the soil of the plantations. It then migrated to adjacent land, contaminating on the way the cultivation of sweet potatoes and yams, before finally reaching rivers and sea shores where it decimated some of the fauna, including prawn farming.
About 300 tons of this pesticide have been spread over the two islands, poisoning the water and the soil but also the ecosystems and even the blood of humans. The Antilles have today the highest rate of prostate cancer. “I was working there when people began to realise the extent of the disaster,” remembers Sebastien Zanoletti, in charge of the Union of Banana Producers. “It was like an electric shock.”
The people of the Antilles were all the more indignant because the American authorities who forbad its use from 1976 onwards whereas France waited until 1993 to ban it knew the toxicity of chlordecone. In the face of what was revealed to be a true State scandal, the French authorities have imposed a complete reversal from this model of production with a total move to agro ecology. “It was necessary to save this strategic economic sector,” continues Sebastien Zanoletti. “With 10,000 workers, the banana plantations represent the second biggest employer on the islands after tourism. The plantations have therefore been urged to restore the health of their soil by leaving land lying fallow, then replanting plants without any use of chemicals. The grass which grows between the plants is simply cropped to attract birds, frogs and ants who are predators of charançons and their eggs.”
The next stage of the conversion of the banana of the Antilles is to aim for the bio label, difficult to obtain because of lack of manure on the islands. “The agronomists have therefore developed a new variety, a little banana, very sugary and tasty, which is resistant to cercosporiose, a mushroom.” The first fruits will be ready for the market very soon and this variety aimed to replace the Cavendish progressively.
A market in a state of dramatic change
The conversion of the Antilles to agro ecology is putting up a good show today. “It is important to demonstrate that it is possible to produce commercially acceptable bananas with few additives. The research work is now measuring the importance of this food in terms of food security and the necessity to review agricultural practices which are certainly not sustainable. The future of the banana and the survival of the 400 m people depend on agro ecology which needs to adapt practices in all regions of the world”, states Alistair Smith. “We have available all the technological solutions”, confirms Denis Loeillet, “Putting them into practice depends on political and commercial choices and the awareness of western consumers.”
The production of the banana is essentially aimed at the markets of the North which demand fruit of a consistent size and also cheap. “These markets”, underlines the researcher, “are in a state of full expansion, with a million extra tons sold between 2013 and 2018. At the same time, there is a current continual lowering of price. The situation is not tenable. The time is coming when it will be necessary to convince people to pay a little bit more and to buy only from producers who are taking part in ecological transition.”
A product prized by FairTrade
“The banana represents the top product of fair trade in terms of weight”, specifies Charles Snoeck, of FairTrade Belgium, “and the second too in terms of income, after coffee.” The certification ‘FairTrade’ aims to improve the life of producers by guaranteeing a minimal price which is variable according to each country (the bananas of Peru, the most sold in Belgium, are bought at 12 dollars for a box of 18.14 kilos). In 2017, 650,000 tons of bananas produced in 16 countries by 10,000 small producers and 11,000 labourers have thus been labelled FairTrade. In Belgium, the 14,000 tons of FairTrade bananas eaten each year are also called bio.
Eaten most in the South
The banana is eaten for the most part (85%) in the 70 countries, which produce it. The two main producers are India and China, with respectively 29 and 31 m tons in 2016. These countries consume all the bananas they produce. The top producer by inhabitant is Rwanda with 250 kilos per person per year. The Rwandans produce different varieties to be consumed cooked, raw or even fermented, served in alcoholic drinks.
Belgium is the second most important European importer of bananas and the 5th globally after the USA, China, Russia and Germany. The Belgians do not consume all the bananas they import (1.2 m tons in 2017). The majority are redirected to the rest of Europe. But this passing trade in fruit brings a profit to the Belgian public treasury which pockets 250 euros in customs tax for every ton disembarked from a Latin-American country. This financial manna planned by commercial agreements signed in Geneva in 2009 will however be reduced to a third as from next year, as the tax changes from 250 to 75 Euros.
Belgium stores the top world collection of banana tree cuttings, installed at Leuven in the laboratory of Tropical Phytotechnology of KUL which keeps 1, 536 different varieties. The incredible collection at KUL is linked to Belgian-African history and the expertise acquired by the university in in-vitro culture. Scientific interest is the key: to conserve these cuttings in a northern country and protect them from tropical diseases. Conserved by a technique of cryogenisation at -196℃, these plants are brought to life again when needed to be then multiplied in sterile test tubes on a nutritious substrata.
In its 30 years of existence, the laboratory has supplied cuttings to universities, research centres and associations of producers in more than 109 countries. Its greatest achievement was in 1994, when it sent 70,000 plants in 24 varieties to the Tanzanian camps of Rwandan and Burundian refugees. That allowed cultivators to reproduce 6 m plants which have contributed to the feeding of half a million people.