Bananas: a Simpler Supply Chain with its own Challenges

Today we visited a banana plantation owned by Dole. The bananas are grown, harvested, and packaged for export on the plantation. This is possible because of the simpler supply chain of bananas and other tropical fruit when compared with coffee. With coffee, the original supplier must first grow coffee plants and harvest the cherries. In the next step of the supply chain, the cherries are delivered to a mill and processed through a multi step process to ultimately get dry coffee beans. Then, the coffee beans are delivered to a roaster, who roasts the coffee and potentially introduces additives to the coffee before grinding the coffee and packaging it to be delivered to the end user, either directly or through some vendor. The banana supply chain contains fewer and less complex steps. Once the bananas are grown, the bananas are moved to the packaging plant and cut into bunches before being packaged for export to grocery stores around the world. There, the end user will buy their bunch of brigh yellow bananas. In terms of delivery, coffee can be simpler thing to transport since the small round shape of coffee shapes allows it fill any container with ease compared to the curved, bulkier shape of bananas. Also, coffee does not need to be refrigerated while bananas and other tropical fruits do when being transported long distances.

Dole takes sustainability seriously and has taken steps to implement sustainable practices on its plantation. One of their biggest initiatives is the recycling of the plastic bags they use to cover banana bunches while they are hanging from the plants out in the plantation. This mitigates the negative environmental consequences of using such plastic. Additionally, Dole takes certain measures, similar to the coffee plantations we visited, to promote the wellbeing of their workers. Dole pays into the government health and retirement funds of their workers as required by law and provide housing with running water to their workers. Dole also tries to limit the amount of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, artificial fertilizers and other chemicals they use on their plantations. Bananas that do not meet quality control for appearance are either used as fertilizer or sent to Gerber and used to make baby food.  

Growing bananas comes with its own set of challenges. While at the plantation, our tour guide was very serious about how important it was that we disclose if we had visited any location that is known to have a specific type of tropical fungus in the recent past. All bananas grown at the plantation are clones of each other and lack the genetic diversity to protect themselves from a complete wipe out by that particular fungus. We had to wash the bottom of our shoes and step through an iodine solution before we were allowed into the plantation to ensure we weren’t introducing some pathogen to the plantation could destroy the crops. Other risks the banana plants face include the strong winds and rains of Costa Rica’s Caribbean side. Banana plants are connected to the ground and each other with cables to provide support against strong winds, and drainage systems surround the plantation to handle excess rains.

It is difficult to decide if I would rather work at a banana or coffee plantation if I had to. On one hand, bananas are harvested throughout the year and would provide a more reliable income than coffee, which has a more narrow harvesting season when labor is needed. On the other hand, many coffee plantations seem to be a bit more generous with the benefits they offer to workers, although wages are not fixed and paid based on how many cajuelas a worker picks each day. For me at this moment in time, I think I would rather work on a coffee plantation because my shoulders are sunburnt and I can not imagine having to haul a bunch of bananas on my shoulder.

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