Maybe because they are so convenient, requiring no washing or packaging, bananas are among the most consumed fruits in the world. Originating from the island of Southeast Asia, they are now grown in many countries.
While most of us know the yellow Cavendish variety, there are actually over 1,000 cultivars grown world-wide. In addition to the deep green and yellow we’re used to, bananas can also be red or even striped green and white. And if you didn’t know, plantains are also a type of banana, even though they have a very different flavor profile and use in the kitchen.
Bananas are still largely cultivated informally by small farms, making precise figures on global production and trade difficult to obtain. It is estimated that only 15 percent of the total global production is traded in the international market. The rest is consumed locally.
You can see from the graph above that the largest producers in the world are India, China, Indonesia, and Brazil. Of this, 40-50% of global production is Cavendish, the common yellow bananas seen at most grocery stores. You might notice that this figure is significantly higher than what I just wrote is traded internationally. This is because production has recently exploded among the top producers, and this variety makes up a large portion of the market in China and India.
Very few bananas are grown in the United States, although it is currently the third largest consumer in the world. This means that almost all of the bananas in the country are imported. Even though the top global producers are China and India, the US primarily gets bananas from South America. The top importers are Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Ecuador, as seen in the graph above.
Taxonomy & Disease
Bananas became a staple in many tropical cultures partially because they are a non-seasonal crop and available year round. The banana plant is often mistaken for a tree, but it is actually a giant herb with a succulent stem in the middle. Unusual! Because wild types often have hard seeds and little fruit to eat around them, the varieties now cultivated for consumption are seedless. Unfortunately, this has also led to a lack of genetic variety among domesticated bananas, making the plants especially susceptible to various diseases.
One of these diseases is called Fusarium wilt or Panama disease. It’s highly destructive, often leading to death of the plant, and it can’t be controlled by chemical pesticides. It’s been detected for the first time in Latin America just this past July. It was found on a banana plantation in Colombia and the land was put under quarantine. It has caused alarm in the export industry. If it spreads to other countries in South America, there would be a significant disruption, especially into the U.S. market.
Nutrition & Storage
When it comes to nutrition, bananas are high in fiber, potassium, magnesium, manganese, vitamin B6, and vitamin C. They also contain antioxidants, making them a good all-around fruit to include in your diet. They do contain a significant amount of sugar, making it important not to overdo it.
It’s also good to keep in mind not to store bananas in the refrigerator until they are fully ripe. The cold will inhibit them from ripening, especially since they usually arrive at the grocery store green.
Bananas and other fruit are able to ripen after being picked when exposed to a gaseous hormone called ethylene. It’s naturally produced by bananas and other fruit, however the cold shipping temperatures inhibit maturation. After shipping, bananas are put into ripening facilities where they are exposed to artificial ethylene for several days. While convenient, it has been shown that naturally ripened bananas exhibit more desirable sensory characteristics. So as always, if you are looking for the best tasting bananas, look for ones that are shipped a shorter distance.
You might also be wondering whether it’s worth it to buy organic bananas. They have a peel protecting them from the outside environment after all. While there can’t be that much pesticide residue on the fruit itself, there are many more reasons that consumers might seek out organic produce compared to conventional produce. These reasons include improved sustainability, farmworker health, and trade economics.
Organic bananas have a lower carbon footprint when it comes to production than their conventional counterparts. A large driver of emissions is the production and use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, which are significantly reduced with organic agriculture. While organic certification doesn’t have an effect on the processing or shipping of bananas, they do provide a less energy intensive form of growing them.
In addition, banana plantations and pesticide usage have come under fire in recent years, not due to health concerns of consumers, but of the workers. Conventional banana production in Latin America commonly uses at least 33 types of agrochemicals including chlorpyrifos, diazinon, glyfosate, atrazine, and a host of others. Farmworkers are exposed at a much higher concentration than consumers. This can be exacerbated by a lack of proper storage and and training, however many farms use manual labor for pesticide application and spraying. High amounts of exposure can lead to health problems like contact dermititis and pesticide poisonings. 33% of pesticide poisonings in Costa Rica occur in the banana sector, which makes up 5% of the rural population.
Economics and Fair Trade
In addition to sustainability and health, people may choose non-conventional bananas for economic reasons. Organic produce is typically more expensive than their conventional counterparts, and organic banana plantations are also more profitable. This leaves more money for employees and the farms to invest in themselves rather than going to distributors.
It’s been reported that the banana industry has high amounts of employees receiving insufficient wages, underpaid overtime, no sick leave, and no social security. Another certification that consumers may look for when this is a concern is Fair Trade, which focuses on wages and pricing compared to pesticides and fertilizers.
I’ll do a deeper dive into Fair Trade and agricultural economics in a later post. It can be complicated and really is a topic on its own. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed reading about all things bananas. Questions, comments? Post ’em below!