Commodity Chain Analysis – Banana
The late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century trends towards the continuing integration of the world economy have attracted the attention of geographers who seek to assess the impacts that globalization processes have at various geographic scales.1 The banana has a rich history of globalization, and for this reason, this essay will explore the commodity chain that shows the trajectory that the banana takes in order to be produced in the Caribbean, Latin America and elsewhere, then transported through the sea, next entering grocery stores throughout the world and finally consumed in the homes of millions.
Commodity chain analyses allow modern day geographers to understand the process in which a resource is gathered, transformed, and distributed as a commodity to consumers. This understanding is critical in the defetishization of commodities and the appreciation of the relationships of those that have created them. Commodity chain analyses are also fundamental in showing the inseparable role of geography within these processes of commodity production.
Perhaps more than any other agricultural product the banana reflects the colonial, neo-colonial, economic nationalism and contemporary stages of the evolution of the world economy.2 The banana was introduced to the North Americas in the late 1800’s because of the invention of the refrigerated ship.3 The influence of technology is evident even in these early stages of banana globalization. Since then, the banana has remained popular worldwide but has faced its share of problems. Between 1993-2001, there were disputes between America and the European Union (EU) due to a complex problem involving banana licensing. The stages of production, transportation and consumption all create a complex and important story to the most consumed fruit worldwide because its history intertwines with political and social trends. Production
Although bananas are produced in more than 123 countries worldwide, the bulk of banana production is concentrated to ten countries that account for 63% of the total; half of these countries harvest bananas as a locally produced staple for domestic use, but the other half produce them majorly as an export crop. Tables 2.1 and 2.2 show the contrast between the countries producing, and the countries consuming bananas.
The contrasting percentages of exported bananas is also an fascinating portion of these tables, for example, India is by far the leading producer, but does not export any of their crop. Taken together, the tables and the map of banana production creates an image that makes it easy to see that the global south is the main producer of the banana, but do not have an equal representation when it comes to consumption.4 This global difference between the north and south is not a new idea to geographers as it highlights the inequalities of these two areas. The actual production of the banana is a very involved process. James Wiley points this out by arguing that “it is virtually impossible for independent farmers, operating alone, to exercise sufficient control to ensure the eventual timely delivery to the global fruit market.”
This is how he argues the “Banana Empire” was created, and for this reason it is easy to see how globalization fits perfectly with the banana trade.5 A typical plantation features miles of irrigation ditches and overhead pulley systems to carry fruit from plant to packing with minimum bruising. Packing sheds have also been technologically advanced to allow bananas to ripen during transport rather than prior, to create a longer shelf life. Additionally, labour has always been a great challenge to the banana empire.
Historically, the workforce began to realize the violations of their rights around the time of the great depression in the United States. The popularization of unionization was common and many labourers challenged the empire to create a union for the workers worldwide. The workers of the banana industry average the age of fifty-five, and the workforce is predominantly dominated my men, meaning that they have lives and families to support which adds to the severity of the labour issue. By 1993, the Banana Empire ceased to exist due to Panama Disease, ongoing labour issues, the rise of new competition and the increased assertiveness of host country governments all contributed to the growing intricacy of the industry.
Nowadays, the modern banana farmer has been exposed to many pesticides, which have led to adverse health conditions for the majority of workers but working conditions and wages are on the rise currently. The introduction of fair trade bananas in 2004 was fundamental in bettering the working conditions for farmers and labourers. Chiquita, the oldest banana transnational in Latin America was the primary target of banana worker rights and environmental activists until 2001. The company has since teamed up with the Rainforest Alliance to roll out the Alliance’s standards to its banana farms in Latin America.
6 Chiquita prides itself on its recent changes, which have involved revamping the company to promote “The Chiquita Difference”; this includes a philosophy of social responsibility, sustainability, community involvement and food safety.7 These changes arose from the use of political activism by consumers in response to poor workers rights, thus exemplifying the fact that people do realize where their food is coming from and are willing to fight for those who create it. This shows that the process of defetishization has begun for many. Production overall is the most elaborate portion of the banana chain, and involves the most amount of physical labour. Transportation
The transportation of bananas is essential to the entire commodity chain; bananas are picked while they are still green and are given time to ripen in the stores so that they have a longer shelf life, the use of pesticides and hormones to slow this process has been very controversial. For example, a Swedish documentary entitled “Bananas!” highlighted the sterilization of banana workers due to pesticides used by Dole, the second largest banana transnational. Dole attempted a lawsuit against the filmmakers, but later decided that it was in their best interests to drop the allegations.
Dole’s vice president of the time released a statement that would attempt to create peace on the issue, “While the filmmakers continue to show a film that is fundamentally flawed and contains many false statements, we look forward to an open discussion with the filmmakers regarding the content of the film.”8 These types of claims are not uncommon in the banana trade industry. The fair trade movement came about around 1993 and because of the resistance to fair trade these times are known as the “banana wars.” These wars have played a major role in the transportation and marketing of bananas in our modern age. The repercussions from the eight-year stand off between the EU and the USA over banana trade were not only felt by the banana industry, but the entire trade business worldwide. 9 The creation of the WTO in 1995 was crucial in solving the major economic disputes caused by large multinational stakeholders in the Southern Hemisphere.
The influence of these corporations has been vital, but for the most part detrimental, in the local economic situations in the south. For example, in February 1996, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and the United States filed a legal complaint against the European Union’s banana import regime, which had been in force since July 1993, claiming that it unfairly restricted the entry of their bananas to the EU.10 Eventually this led to the US creating sanctions against EU products which further damaged local markets in the southern hemisphere. The price of bananas dropped, and southern nations were receiving a lower percentage of the value of their work then anytime before.
This led to major economic breakdowns, and most workers were unable to support their families. Thankfully, while the EU was able to take advantage of the banana industry for many years, the establishment of international systems such as the WTO has begun to eradicate such problems and has led to a better relationship between producers and buyers. This being said, the banana industry is still very far off from an entirely “fair trade” market system, with only one in four bananas sold being fair-trade.11
Banana transportation has been significantly aided by the creation of refrigerated cargo ships, ventilated boxes and cross-country railways, as these technological advances create nationwide networks that furthered the process of globalization. Globalization has created such change in the world that some argue that the nation-state is non-existent now because all corners of the world are interconnected. The introduction of containerization was crucial in the banana market but also in the entire world trade and currently 90% of world trade merchandise moves through containers. 12 Consumption
With billions of bananas being consumed each year, bananas have become the most eaten fruit in the world.13 In addition to improvements in transportation, handling, and storage of bananas, advertising has had a great deal to do with modern food choices.14 The western consumption of bananas has been popular for over a hundred years ever since the banana was first brought to the Americas in the 1870’s. Bananas began as a luxury item and then grew in popularity amongst the developed nations. They have since gained influence in the realm of food and culture.
Through the development of the banana commodity chain the banana has gained significant unbeatable popularity in Western culture – from Booster Juice to Curious George, it has influenced all ages. Recently, the industry has begun to use bananas for more than eating. For example, EcoPaper has begun to use them in the production of paper. According to their website, 10 million tonnes of waste from the banana industry is used in the making of their paper. This recycling is extremely environmentally friendly, by cutting waste, saving energy, protecting natural resources and reducing pollution. 15 These types of advances are incredibly important in our globalizing world because they create the solutions that will help to work towards slowing our creation of waste and protect our environment for generations to come. Conclusion
From the time the banana is cultivated, to the time that it is consumed, it travels through many walks of life and is able tell the story of the south. Multinational companies realized the potential of this fruit hundreds of years ago and this has caused a trickle down effect in the economy. The banana commodity chain highlights the need for customers to realize that their consumption does insurmountably affect others lives. This defetishization is important to geographers for many reasons, but importantly because it connects the producer with the consumer for all products. By advocating for fair trade and using smarter shopping techniques those in the global north are able to enhance the lives of those in the global south deeply. (1998 words)