One of my New Years Resolutions is to give up bananas for a whole year.
For those of you who know me well, you will know that giving up bananas is akin to someone giving up cigarettes and nicotine. I need my morning banana; it has become a satisfying, replenishing, fruity ritual. Without it, I feel empty.
Admittedly, there have been desperate times when I have actually approached Hotel Managers or Catering Staff to enquire as to why their breakfast buffet does not stock bananas. I mean, for gods sake, they supply Nespresso coffee and gluten-free rice cakes, why not the scrumptious yellow superfruit?! These conversations have often led to what size banana is suitable for a filling breakfast meal, whether my need for bananas is part of a ‘special diet’, and if not, am I willing to pay a charge for the banana.
Until now, I had not even thought of anything but the joys of eating bananas. This all changed a few weeks ago.
I was staying at a friend’s house, and of course I brought along a banana. While she did not see the consumption first-hand, her partner found the banana skin in the bin the next morning, and promptly reported this: “She brought a banana into the house”, said in a manner similar to if someone spotted me bringing a bag of live, diseased and slightly-balding rats into their home.
My friend and I had a ‘little chat’.
Eating a banana a day is a ‘special diet’, in the sense that it is not natural or ordinary to do so. They do not grow in the UK, they are not seasonal all year round, and the notion of relying on the same food item 365 days of the year is arguably not supportive of my internal digestive system nor the diversity and sustainability of our food and agricultural system.
This talk got me thinking: I work in sustainable food and agriculture, yet my own personal desires have created a psychological and consumer norm around bananas which mean that I am blind to the environmental, ethical and health side effects of my daily choice.
Same conclusions could be said of other foods: chicken or pork at dinner, toast and tea, sugar… Once they become ‘ordinary’, we forget (or at least choose to forget) the economic, geographical and agricultural landscapes behind it.
To give you an indication of the costs of banana production and consumption, I shall provide a few facts:
- We rely on a banana monoculture: More than 95% of bananas we see are Cavendish variety, a variety that replaced the blighted Gros Michel variety in the 1970s.
- This sidelines the diversity of banana varieties in the world, including the red banana, plantain, baby banana, and manzano banana.
- Monocultures create a huge ‘economies of scale’, with centralised production and distribution units taking over trade through smaller scale, independent banana farmers.
- The banana trade wars commenced, with the Cavendish ‘dollar banana’ taking precedence over less profitable varieties. As the banana became a global commodity, Striffler and Moberg showed how the benefits and value from bananas shifted away from the farmers and subsistence economies in Latin America to the transnational corporations and supermarkets in Europe and the US.
“Although bananas may only look like a fruit, they represent a wide variety of environmental, economic, social, and political problems. The banana trade symbolizes economic imperialism, injustices in the global trade market, and the globalization of the agricultural economy. Bananas are also number four on the list of staple crops in the world and one of the biggest profit makers in supermarkets, making them critical for economic and global food security. As one of the first tropical fruits to be exported, bananas were a cheap way to bring “the tropics” to North America and Europe. Bananas have become such a common, inexpensive grocery item that we often forget where they come from and how they got here.”
- The true cost of banana production is not reflected: Economies of scale mean that bananas are incredibly cheap to produce, but the retail price does not reflect costs such as labour, intensive land use, transportation, environmental degradation…Buying Fairtrade may be one way to tackle this, but it still sidelines the fact that the banana trade is controlled by powerful retail and business rather than the farmers themselves.
- Despite profits, the Cavendish is at risk of being wiped out too. The Tropical Race 4 Disease is sweeping across Latin America, and researchers say there is no other ‘commercially viable’ banana to replace the Cavendish monoculture.
- This takes more power away from farmers, whose livelihoods will be lost from the Tropical Race 4 disease, and more power into the hands of ‘philanthrocapitalist’ business and retail.For example, the Bill Gates Foundation is financing the development of a genetically-modified ‘super banana’, fortified with vitamins and minerals. Similar to the Golden Rice ‘super crop’, this supposed solution ignores issues of ownership, profits, and why people are relying on one food for nutrition in the first place.
- Speaking of nutrition, you would have to eat eight bananas a day to get your daily dose of potassium. It might just be a better option to consume potassium supplements or not just rely on bananas for potassium. Other potassium-rich foods include dates, beans, spinach, raisins, potatoes…
With all this in mind, I hastily hid another ‘back up’ banana, shoving it into the depths of my rucksack. The force of the shove caused it to bruise slightly, releasing aromatic juices from the skin and covering my fingertips. Contaminated and panicked, I made a brash decision: I would promise my friend that, for the whole of 2016, I would give up bananas.
That was that.
Now, on the 30th December, I am sat at my desk just trying to think of what a banana-less life will be like. It will be like losing a yellow limb, a piece of my heart. To comfort myself, I want to reach for a banana.
But instead, I have reached for a seasonal potato. Almost the same colour, just as nutritious. So satisfying. So sustainable.