Making Bananas Sustainable

The Rainforest Alliance has worked with plantations, small farms, and companies to forge a sustainable path for the banana industry, once notorious for environmental destruction and worker abuse.

Standing on a platform overlooking a Rainforest Alliance Certified™ banana farm in Costa Rica, all you see is green. The wide leaves of the banana plant stretch for miles into the distance, waving gently in the heavy, humid breeze. Powdery purple banana flowers and bunches of green bananas hang down from the plants. Springy groundcover carpets the space in between the rows of banana plants. In the haze of the tropical afternoon, the whole farm is a deep, almost iridescent green.

The through-and-through emerald hue of this certified farm is a stark contrast to other banana farms. On conventional farms, groundcover is considered the mark of a lazy farmer, one who couldn’t be bothered to kill the weeds in between his banana plants. Typically, conventional farms use regular applications of harsh herbicides to kill weeds and all other groundcover, leaving the earth bare.

Heavy agrochemical use and soil exposure are just two of many destructive practices on conventional banana farms. For nearly 100 years, banana farms in Latin America were infamous for their disregard for their workers and the surrounding environment. Throughout the 20th century, expansion was the name of the game in the banana industry, with little concern for how such growth would impact the landscape and its people. Waterways were clogged with the plastic bags used to protect developing bananas—or worse, the bags were burned. Heavy loads of agrochemicals washed into rivers, streams, and eventually, the ocean, killing coral reefs and poisoning marine life. Plantations often denied workers the right to organize and kept wages shamefully low. Companies cleared forests to make way for vast fields of banana plants.

Decades of worker abuse and environmental destruction from intensive banana farming was one of the main reasons the Rainforest Alliance formed. In the 1990s, we began to work with scientists, local NGO partners, communities, and farmers to transform the destructive industry by establishing the first standard for responsible banana production. And while the industry as a whole has improved its farming practices, conventional farms continue to place yield above all else in order to meet the world’s voracious appetite for that perfect, sweet fruit.

On Rainforest Alliance Certified banana farms, yields are also a priority—but factors such as worker well-being and the health of soil, nearby forests, and waterways are considered equally important—and essential to the long-term sustainability of any operation. That springy green groundcover on the Rainforest Alliance Certified farm in Costa Rica, for example, may seem insignificant, but in fact it’s a proven, climate-smart method to prevent soil erosion during heavy rains and hold moisture in the ground during droughts. Although maintaining groundcover means farm works have to pull noxious weeds by hand, this initial investment in labor pays long-term dividends to the farmers by decreasing herbicide use and its associated costs. Cutting down on herbicide use also reduces agricultural runoff in local waterways. Perhaps most importantly to farmers, taking care of the soil in this way boosts the productivity and longevity of banana plants, thereby reducing farm renovation costs. Most conventional banana farms replace their plants every few years to keep farm productivity stable, but this Rainforest Alliance Certified farm hasn’t had to replace its plants in 30 years. As a result the production on the farm remains consistent year after year.

Climate-smart farming practices like these are becoming increasingly important throughout the tropics, where global warming has led to higher temperatures, desertification, and erratic rainfall—something consumers in the export markets of North America and Europe don’t necessarily consider when buying a bunch at the store.

The Harvest Cycle

Back on the farm in Costa Rica, workers move through the field, tending to the plants. Clustered at the base of most banana plants, at all stages, are groups of baby banana plants popping up from the stem of the mother plant. Workers choose one daughter banana plant to grow and eventually succeed the mother plant. In nine months, a mother banana plant will bear fruit—just like a woman, as farmers like to joke. A pinkish purple flower the size of two fists will appear at the top of the banana’s “trunk” (really a sheath of leaves tightly packed together). As the flower descends, its petals peel back to reveal layers of tiny “hands,” clusters of bananas. Workers are careful not to let the fruit grow too big, or harvest it too early—harvesters carry a caliper around the farm to make sure only fruits that fall into a narrow size range are harvested for export.

Measuring bananas with a caliper


At harvest time, workers slice through the thick stem of the fruit before cutting the plant down.

Slicing the stem of the banana plant


The worker wields his machete like a sushi chef, swiftly slicing the stem into segments before spreading the pieces into a shallow ditch in between the rows of bananas plants, where they will eventually break down and return organic matter into the earth. This is another climate-smart practice, one that is not generally practiced on conventional banana farms. Using organic fertilizer, either by leaving green matter to decompose into the soil or through applying compost, is a central tenet of the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) standard, which is used for Rainforest Alliance certification, and a way to cut farm costs while keeping the soil moist and fertile.

Crisscrossing the banana fields is an ingenious transport system—simple metal arches with a central rib. Hooks dangle from this central rib, from which workers hang freshly-harvested bunches. When all the hooks are full, the workers strap on something that looks like a hernia belt and pull the bunches back to the central washing and packing plant. On the Rainforest Alliance Certified farm, the sustainability manager pointed out that on typical farms, this transport system holds twenty-five bunches or more at a time, but their transport system could only hold twenty bunches. This way, the workers pull more but lighter loads, instead of straining themselves to pull fewer, heavier loads. This saves the workers extra effort, and prevents injuries on the farm—a protective measure to protect the long-term health of workers.

Banana transport system
Photo credit: Lisa Giunta - Ecuador Eco-Trip

With incredible speed, workers (mostly women) at the central packing plant separate the bananas for export from those destined for the local market or other products, such as baby food. Bananas for export get flipped into waist-high tubs, where they’re washed free of residue from the field. The leftover water runs through three grates, filtering out any particles or chunks of banana. This is a special measure Rainforest Alliance Certified farms take to ensure only clean water gets returned to the fields.

Workers washing bananas
Photo credit: Rob Goodier

After three washings, the bananas are lifted onto conveyer belts, air-dried, stickered, and packed into boxes. At the Rainforest Alliance Certified banana farm in Costa Rica, those blue plastic bags that covered the bunches in the field are also brought to the central packing plant, where they are recycled into plastic straps that help the boxes keep their shape during the long journey to your local grocery store. From there, the green bananas, protected by their thick skins, are shipped up big conveyer belts, into trucks, then onto cargo planes, to big port cities where they’re distributed to retail locations.

From the farm to the grocery store shelves, the banana supply chain is long and complex. Rainforest Alliance Certified bananas are the end product of the long chain of responsible actions taken by farmers, companies, retailers, and finally, consumers, as described above. Taken individually, these deviations from the conventional way of doing things may not seem significant. But the sum total of these everyday actions is the transformation of an industry that has historically wrought myriad forms of destruction. Climate resilience, fertile soil, cleaner streams and rivers, increased productivity, and lower costs for farmers are just some of the benefits of the Rainforest Alliance way.

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