By Carolyn Twesten, Weaver Street Market Produce Merchandiser
This is Part 1 of a two-part story.
This June I had the amazing opportunity travel to Ecuador to participate in Equal Exchange’s 2018 Ecuadorian Banana Delegation. Together with employees of two other food co-ops, a major produce distributor, a nonprofit that promotes fair trade, and Equal Exchange’s banana team, I traveled to the small town of El Guabo, Ecuador, to visit the cooperative of small-scale banana producers that Equal Exchange purchases from. This was a unique chance for every part of the banana supply chain to be together in one place to learn from one another. And learn we did!
Before I go on, let’s set the background a little. Bananas are the #1 most consumed fruit in the United States. They are one of the cheapest commodities that consumers purchase, despite the fact that they don’t grow anywhere on this continent (for production at least), require intensive production, and travel anywhere from 1 to 3 weeks to arrive on the shelves of your local grocery store. How can that be?
A 2016 National Geographic article sums it up well with the statement: “[Bananas are] the product of 150 years of engineering by governments, corporations, and militaries to fuel abundant production and ever-increasing demand.” The article goes on to say that the US consumer was introduced to the banana at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia. The fruit was such a hit that less than a decade later, demand was so great that companies like the Boston Fruit Company started buying up land in Central America for banana production, offering those governments the prospect of money for roads and infrastructure, plus thousands of jobs.
The popularity of bananas in the United States continued to grow until soon the entire economies of some of these Central American countries depended on the export of bananas. Between cheap land and cost of production, low wages paid to workers, plus little regulation in Central America, corporations like United Fruit (which later became Chiquita) kept their profits high and retail prices for grocers low. The continuously growing demand for the banana coupled with huge profits fueled the fruit corporations’ desire to maintain that status quo. This economic exploitation lead to the coining of the term “banana republic,” as many executives of American corporations took government positions in order to ensure the governments continued their friendly business relationships with the fruit industry.
Bananas Today: Fair Trade Options
Today, some of these practices have changed but many have not. Conventional banana producers (that is, farmers who own their land) get paid from $6 US per forty-pound box of bananas down to as little as $3 or less. Plantation workers (on giant banana farms owned by the banana corporations) are paid little and generally have no access to health care, especially as worker attempts to unionize are suppressed, often with violence. Pesticide use is high, causing environmental degradation and health complications related to pesticide exposure among workers. Exploitation of the land and people in these growing regions persists, while banana corporations make more profits and bananas stay cheap for the consumer.
In the 1990s, however, the Fair Trade movement came to the banana industry in an attempt to address some of the issues such as worker pay and treatment, pesticide exposure, and lack of healthcare, among others. Fair trade criteria require that the producer be paid a minimum price per case of bananas, which is calculated to cover the cost of production plus a margin to cover basic needs. A fair trade “premium” is also added that goes to fund projects in the community such as providing healthcare, supporting schools, investing in farm and community infrastructure, and more.
Working with Equal Exchange
Equal Exchange started in 1986 as an employee-owned fair trade coffee importer with the mission to transform trade into a system that benefits both farmers and consumers. Over the years they expanded their imports to include tea, chocolate, and finally, bananas and avocados. In 2006 Equal Exchange came together with several farmer co-ops to create Oke USA, the first 100% fair trade fruit company in the United States. Due to the history of trade abuses in the banana industry, coupled with the fact that bananas are such a huge commodity, Oke USA felt that delving into fair trade banana importing had huge opportunities for positive social and economic impact.
For small-scale banana growers to export their fruit and have a fighting chance at competing in the market, they must organize as a cooperative. There are many reasons for organizing, but the most compelling reason is scale. Bananas are a volume business, and without enough volume a grower or group of growers cannot economically ship bananas overseas. A single shipping container of bananas holds about 1000 boxes of bananas, about the same amount that a one-hectare farm produces in an entire year.
Some of the co-op farms are less than one hectare (about 2.5 acres) of land. Because of this, many growers must combine their crop to produce enough bananas to fill a container. The beauty in this is that these many small growers OWN their land, and OWN their business. They have a vested interest in the health of their land and their communities. They are empowered to make their own decisions to affect change for their businesses and their families. This is powerful in countries where basic needs are so often not met.
Oke USA purchases Ecuadorian and Peruvian bananas, both from small grower cooperatives. Since 2015, Weaver Street Market has sold bananas sourced 100 percent from Oke USA!
Stay tuned for Part 2, where Carolyn will share her experiences in Ecuador, plus more photos!