Saturday, March 10, 2012

Will Never Look at Bananas in a Supermarket the Same Way Again

Last year, a few friends, my wife and I spent March 16 to March 27 in Costa Rica as first time visitors. More specifically, we stayed on the Caribbean Atlantic Coast resort town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca and frequented the close by area. We had a lot of fun with the touristy stuff, from partying in Puerto Viejo to snorkeling, hiking to a waterfall and so much more.

After all is said and done, though, the not so obvious environmental and social irresponsibility of international banana conglomerates will stay with me the most. Everyone in our little travel group all agreed that we couldn't look at a banana in the supermarket the same way again.

I can’t claim naïveté to this type of issue. Intellectually, I know the food industry, world-wide, doesn't have a very good history of caring about the small farmer, the community where they grow food or how they affect the world while getting food to the supermarket shelf. Corporations' main goal is to increase profits for themselves and their shareholders in an amoral fashion, non-shareholders and non-humans be damned.

Exposure to confirming concrete experience makes intellectual fact all the more real, including:

  • Seeing vast banana plantations
  • Hearing from a resident of Costa Rican (albeit an immigrant in the tourist industry) about how mass production of bananas affects the people and environment
  • Hearing about the "packaging" of bananas once they hit the supermarket shelf
Probably the most instructive example of this American detachment from the corporate supermarket sourcing of our food comes from Jon Stewart on the Daily Show making fun of skinned bananas wrapped in plastic wrap at the supermarket. Imagine my surprise when our tour guide notified us this plastic-wrapped banana is organic and better for the environment while the banana in its own skin is very likely not!

Bananas are one of Costa Rica's major sources of income, tourism being the biggest and coffee competing with bananas. Unlike coffee, though, the banana industry started in the hands of a United States businessman and stayed in control of the US. Minor Keith, while building the first railroad from the US to Central America/Costa Rica, planted bananas alongside the tracks to provide his workers with an easy source for food. Introducing the bananas to the US, he also found a welcoming market for the tropical fruit.

Fast forward to the present, it's a long way from Costa Rica to the US. Our flight from Chicago to San Jose, Costa Rica, with a quick layover in Miami took a total of five hours. Add onto that time (or extrapolation of time taken to ship non-humans and non-pets), the time it takes to ship bananas from major shipping warehouses or population centers like Chicago, New York, LA, Boston or some small town supermarket.

Most foods, if not properly prepped or treated, will not last the trip, especially not bananas. If anything, lower temperatures will cause too many of them to ripen too quickly. Not enough profit for no frills shipment. Just look at what happens when you put bananas into the refrigerator or freezer.

Form of shipment that exerts least amount of cognitive load is to spray the bananas with pesticides and preservatives, pick and load them earliest possible chance then ship them up to the US quick as possible. Most people, if not all, understand that transporting bananas all that distance doesn't help with the rapid climate change issue we hear about everyday.

Most efficient way to ship organic bananas and not grate on consumer patience is to skin them then vacuum seal them into a tight plastic wrapping. Vacuum seal preserves the profit margin from the elements. Removing the natural skin before wrapping in plastic makes for a better looking product and reduces how much unwrapping the consumer has to do to protect profit margin from consumer irritation and desire for aesthetic pleasure. Who thought plastic vacuum sealing a piece of natural fruit would be the way to go?

Off the cuff facts we heard from the Costa Rican resident in the tourist industry include the following:
  • Native Ticos working at banana plantations picking the bananas make the equivalent of $1 to $2 an hour
  • Banana industry and plantations monopolized by Chiquita and Dole
  • These US-based corporations have no problem crop dusting the banana plantations with pesticides that are illegal in the US, which leak into sources of water and cause all types of health issues for the native population

As if paying native workers substandard wages and exposing them to harmful chemicals wasn't enough, the banana industry took land and repurposed it to something radically different, banana plantations. A particular case sticks in my mind: kilometers of space from a highway to the border of Panama in the southwestern area where we stayed to the border of Panama had started as a river valley where Ticos fished.

The pictures posted show the banana plantation in question from the highway all the way south to Panama.

These pictures don't do justice to the amount of land in question, similar to how no matter how much knowing injustice with intellect doesn't mean understanding. Pictures, themselves, just can't capture the fullness and depth of reality.

A map might provide a little more perspective to how many people were displaced by the market demand for bananas and the kind of drastic change to nature that greed and ignorance can cause:

View Larger Map

As much as I had intellectually known that big multinational corporations don't look out for the common good of communities where materials are sourced, this trip to Costa Rica struck the truth of the matter to my core. Worse than my darkest imagination, social and environmental injustice is real, and part of it is in Costa Rica.

I wish i had this raw perspective before going and hope other people have this real understanding without having to travel long distances. People should still travel to expand their perspective, understanding and resolve. The fact that this kind of expansion has to have negative connotations just makes me a sad.

This experience of mine in Costa Rica makes me proud to participate in a local, fair trade food co-op, Edible Alchemy. The 2-hour commute there and back feels minimal to bring further social and environmental justice to our world. It feels good to
  • Keep money in the local economy
  • Reduce pollution and the environmental impact of food reaching my belly
  • Support community rather than dollar-to-dollar interactions, both between me and the co-op and other members and between the co-op and their food sources
  • Encourage multi-culture agriculture practices rather than monoculture (our particular co-op switches up the produce and fruit that gets distributed based on what's available)
  • Help reduce farmer industry dependence on government subsidies, thus minimizing artificial manipulations of markets that causes further dependence on government subsidies and tax payer dollars
  • Encourage organic, low-impact agricultural methods reducing health and environmental impacts
  • Reduce unjust attacks on small farmers by big corporations through patent law to destroy competition
  • Reduce humanity's attempt to gain totalitarian control of biodiversity, which could risk the existence of life as we know it or even the chance of life surviving some type of natural disaster
  • Increase social and environmental justice in foreign lands by encouraging fair trade during times of the year that Midwesterners can't get proper nutrition from local sources
  • And amazing enough, saving on bulk items. Economy of scale doesn’t seem to benefit customers of Whole Foods and other commercial storefronts, but they do at Edible Alchemy

And that's all that I can think of right now! I bet there are plenty more benefits to myself and the world that I can't think of off the top of my head. I look forward to participating and seeing how much the world changes.

They have a saying in Costa Rica: Pura vida. It pretty much means, "It's cool. It's all good." Sadly the state of world agriculture markets suck. With co-ops like Edible Alchemy fighting the good fight, someday we'll be able to say the world agriculture markets are pura vida.

Links to Banana Sources that Help Me Feel Less Guilty:
Links of Interest: