Banana plants are often mistaken for trees or palms - they are actually herbs. The banana is a perennial plant that replaces itself. Bananas do not grow from a seed but from a bulb or rhizome, and it takes 9 to 12 months from sowing a banana bulb to harvesting the fruit. The banana flower appears in the sixth or seventh month. Unlike other fruit like apples which have a growing season, bananas are available all year round.
Banana plants thrive in tropical regions where the average temperature is 80° F (27° C) and the yearly rainfall is between 78 and 98 inches. Most bananas exported are grown within 30 degrees either side of the equator. The plants need rich, dark and fertile soils with steady moisture in the air and ground and good drainage.
Banana plantations are predominantly found in Latin America. They require huge investment in infrastructure and technology for transport, irrigation, drainage and packing facilities. On the other hand, in the Eastern Caribbean, farmers tend to use smallholder production. This system is less capital intensive and more labour intensive, and is present because the physical features of the area mean it is not possible to use the plantation system.
Growing bananas is, in general, labour intensive. It involves clearing jungle growth, propping of the plants to counter bending from the weight of the growing fruit, and irrigation in some regions. As well as an intensive use of pesticides, the conventional production process involves covering banana bunches with polyethylene bags to protect them from wind, insect and bird attacks, and to maintain optimum temperatures.
Harvesting and ripening
After nine months, the bananas are harvested while still green. At the packhouse they are inspected and sorted for export. Buyers of fruit in the UK want unbruised bananas and so very high standards are set. If the bananas do not meet these standards they are usually sold locally at a much lower price.
The fruit is then transported to ports to be packed in refrigerated ships called reefers (bananas take between six and twelve days to get to the UK/Europe). In order to increase shelf life, they are transported at a temperature of 13.3°C, and require careful handling in order to prevent damage. Humidity, ventilation and temperature conditions are also carefully monitored in order to maintain quality.
When the bananas arrive at their destination port they are first sent to ripening rooms (a process involving ethylene gas) and then sent to the shops. Dessert banana production for export (around 15 million tonnes per year) is of huge economic importance for many countries in the Global South. However, it also causes huge environmental issues. For example, banana production relies on intensive monocultures, which are sustained by using massive quantities of toxic chemicals, which are hazardous to both workers and the environment. The use of unsafe chemicals like pesticide can pose serious health problems for workers. In 2011, workers in Latin America won a lawsuit against large corporations who used Nemogon in plantations despite the fact the chemical was banned in 1977. Industrial-scale production also results in problematic waste management issues. Research led by CIRAD (International Agricultural Research for Development Centre) found that significant agrochemical reduction can be achieved while maintaining good levels of productivity and quality.
Organic systems are increasingly being viewed as a viable and important alternative to conventional production in some regions. The World Banana Forum (WBF) brings together a wide range of industry players to identify both what sustainable production could look like and how it could be worked towards collectively - click here for more.
See also Oxfam’s illustrated guide which describes the process state by state from growing, cutting, labelling, sorting and shipping.
CIRAD - International Agricultural Research for Development Centre
See the video below, 'From Plant to Box' by Jan Nimmo, filmed on the 'Eco Turismo' plantation on the outskirts of Siquirres, Costa Rica. The film follows the process of getting bananas from the plantation where they are grown to the packing plant where they are processed and prepared for export.
Photos: Ana, El Guabo, Ecuador (Fairtrade Foundation)
Banana worker, Ghana