In Search of an Ethical Banana

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Walk into your nearest Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s store and you may find that the purportedly environmentally and socially conscious chains are selling Chiquita bananas. Why is this surprising? Two concerns come to mind, one specific to Chiquita and the other a more general concern about large-scale banana production.

In 2007, Chiquita pled guilty to the charge of giving funds and other forms of assistance to paramilitary and rebel groups in Columbia from 1997-2004. One of the groups was recognized by the U.S. as a terrorist group in September 2001 — three years before Chiquita stopped its payments. In that case, Chiquita agreed to pay a $25 million, but they aren’t out of the woods yet: Columbian families represented by ERI and other counsel are still filing suit against the corporation for the deaths of relatives killed by Chiquita funded terrorists.

A second concern is the use of harmful pesticides on large banana plantations that stretch from Central to South America. In order to ensure that bananas reach the U.S. blemish free and perfect looking, large commercial growers spray their plantations with one of the highest pesticide loads compared to other tropical crops. The banana’s thick peel protects consumers from these pesticides, but they nonetheless pose serious risks to the workers and villagers where the crops are grown.

One of the most publicized cases concerned Dibromochloropropane (DBCP), a pesticide widely used on commercial plantations in the 1970s. In the 1990s thousands of male plantation workers filed suits against Dole, Dow Chemical, Shell and others, alleging that their proximity to the pesticide caused them to suffer from sterilization and other severe health problems. In other cases, workers have experienced allergic, pulmonary, and cancerous ailments from their exposure to the pesticides. These cases have yielded mixed results, ranging from successful settlements to dismissals, amid allegations of fraud, and several cases are still ongoing. DBCP is no longer in widespread use, but use of other pesticides on banana plantations remains rampant.

So, in light of these widespread problems with banana production, what is a consumer to do? The lazy answer is to say you should buy “organic” and “fair trade” bananas, but we all know these labels are neither standardized nor regulated enough to put a conscious consumer’s mind at ease.

Fortunately, not all hope is to be lost – both Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s carry promising alternatives. Whole Foods stores often carry alternatives bearing either “Earth Bananas” or “Whole Trade Certified” stickers. Earth University, the nonprofit organization responsible for producing these bananas, trains farmers to use environmentally and socially sustainable practices. Trader Joe’s also carries alternatives to commercially grown bananas, which can be found with an organic label and only cost about ten cents more than the conventional brand. Turbana is one brand of organic produce that can be found at Trader Joe’s, and was the first major company to offer Fair Trade Certified bananas in North America. Despite the ambiguity of “fair trade” and “organic” labels, if you’re shopping at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, these options are your best bet for bananas that were grown in environmentally and socially acceptable conditions.

This post was written by Colleen Cowgill.

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