Will organic bananas save the whole industry?
Wild bananas are typically green, football shaped and un-edible due to their seeds. Edible bananas, the yellow sweet, seedless kind we find at the grocers are actually mutations. Single freak plants discovered in the wild, in some cases thousands of years ago, alive today only through the ongoing cutting techniques of cultivators. Seedless and sterile mutants, their DNA frozen in time.
Until the 1950's the Gros Michel variety was the most common type of banana found in Canadian supermarkets. Then a soil disease called Panama Wilt appeared, spread worldwide, and almost completely wiped out Gros Michael stocks. At that point growers switched to the smaller, less sweet , fungus-resistant Cavendish variety common today. But now the Cavendish variety is at risk to a new strain of Panama Disease called Race 4 and its again spreading globally.
Conventional exporters are now requiring plantation wide sprayings, some up to 40 times a year and bananas be floated in tanks of sodium hydrochlorite solution before shipping. Many plantations, at the protest of their workers and surrounding communities are resorting to aerial spraying to try to gain some ground on the disease. The most common class of fungicides used, EBDCs (ethylenebisdithiocarbamate), cause skin and respiratory problems in workers and are suspected in causing nerve damage, leukemia and birth defects. Conventional wisdom assumes consumer's risks from EBDCs are low due to the 7 day half-life of the fungicide, so in the 3-4 week time-frame product takes to ship to market, the pesticide will have dissipated to low levels.
Fair Trade Certified bananas are appearing on the market in response to health concerns and the often deplorable conditions workers and their families face. Fair Trade certifications provide consumers another level of confidence in addition to organic, verifying workers and their communities are treated fairly. Dole Organic, Canada's largest Organic Banana supplier is rumored to be making efforts to have all their Organic Plantations Fair Trade Certified in the near future. Until then they will be marketing their Organic Fair Trade products under specialty and private labels.
Farmers must push their crops harder to pay the extra costs. Bananas are heavy feeders, they can readily consume chemical fertilizers, increasing plant density but leaving soil lifeless, depleted of organic matter and associated nutrients. Without actively decaying mater, tropical soil loses its auto-immune capabilities, becoming susceptible to Fusarium Wilts like Panama Disease. A cascade of pests can then ensue including nematodes, weevils, thrips, molds, scabs and mildews leaving a plantation utterly dependant on chemical fertilizers and pesticides to survive. And like with Gros Michel before, again the problem is spreading globally.
Dr. Emile Frison, head of the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBP), warns the world's supply of edible bananas could disappear if drastic action is not taken to stop the worldwide Panama Disease pandemic. He has created a global consortium of scientists to sequence the Banana genome. So far, banana producers are unconvinced that Genetic Engineering is required to save the industry, fearing consumer backlash they have yet to release any new organisms. Co-incidentally, the US government, as part of its 'war of drugs', has been involved in the controversial program of actively spreading Panama Disease through Columbia and other Andean counties in attempt to eradicate the coca plant.
Organic growers are showing soils teeming with life prevent outbreaks of Panama disease. When plant spacing is more moderate, old banana plants are chopped up an re-incorporated, soil health improves, Panama Disease is avoided and banana flavor improves. With proper tillage and sun exposure combined, Pangola grass can control nematodes. So long as consumers are willing to pay the extra price, Organic Plantations should continue to thrive and millions of tons of chemical fertilizers and pesticides will not be released in our environment, genetically modified organism contained in the lab. Perhaps one day, as consumer awareness rises and the resulting values manifested, conventional banana farming techniques will be discarded in favor sustainable, organic, fair trade methods.
Consumers can ensure their bananas are organic by checking the PLU# number on the brand sticker of the bananas. Bananas sold in Canada should be labeled with one of these PLU Codes;
04011 - Conventional
84011 - Genetically Modified
94011 - Organic
Organic Bananas are harvested green, three quarters full or ripe, shipped quickly to the coast where they are cooled to 17°C , packed in boats and shipped to market. Upon arrival the organic bananas, like conventional ones, are placed in ripening chambers and exposed to ethylene gas. Ethylene is a gas many types of fruit naturally produce as part of their ripening process. As fruits ripen they naturally release ethylene as part of a self-reinforcing process that then in turn induces further ripening. This is likely something plants do to ensure they ripen evenly. So by controlling exposure to ethylene grocers keep bananas green and firm for shipping and are able to have them quickly ripen once they reach market. Ethylene is approved for Organic Certification in Canada.
Tips for Bananas.
- Do not put bananas in the fridge. Bananas will stop ripening permanently and turn gray if stored below 17°C.
- To slow the ripening of bananas, remove from bag and place on counter out of direct sunlight.
- To speed ripening of green banana, place them in a bag possibly with another piece of ripe fruit.