Back home in Pennsylvania, Dole is my family’s favorite banana producer. My mom only ever comes home with Dole bananas after a trip to the grocery store. So, today, when we had to have an extremely early start just to travel to one of the Dole plantations in Costa Rica, I knew it would be well worth it. Learning about the history of Costa Rican bananas as well as the entire process of growing to packaging the final product was enlightening! Bananas seem like a very simple product to produce but they are actually a very labor intensive crop and a lot of long hours go into getting them to the final market.
The supply chains of coffee and bananas are drastically different. The coffee supply chain can have many different parts like the farmer, the processor, the roaster, the distributor/retailer, and there are often a lot of middle men. The banana supply chain, like in the case of Dole, is much more condensed. Dole is the producer, processor, and packager all in one. Dole probably uses a distribution company to transport all of the boxes of bananas so that would be another part of the supply chain. Overall, the coffee supply chain is much more complicated in Costa Rica because the coffee starts on a lot of small farms; most of these small farms don’t have the resources to be vertically integrated (which means being a farmer, processor, roaster, etc. all in one). Due to this lack of resources, an opening is created for other companies along the supply chain and so every additional company makes it more complicated. The Banana supply chain is less complicated because Dole has the resources, as a large corporation, to be vertically integrated.
As one of the largest coffee producers in Costa Rica, Dole has a few different sustainability initiatives. First, all of the water used when the bananas are washed is taken to a part of the plant where they treat it and remove all of the organic materials and the banana sap. Then, they either reuse the water for another round of washing or they treat the water to be able to return it to a local river. Second, the plastic bags that cover each bunch of bananas while they continue to grow, are all sent to a recycling plant. At the plantation we visited today, they recycle around 99% of the plastic used. Another important initiative is staying certified by the International Standards Organization (ISO); in order to do this, they have to follow a set of very strict rules set by the ISO. One of these rules is limiting and/or eliminating the use of pesticides. Dole does this by “Integrated Pest Management” which, in the case of Dole, is the use of pheromones to remove the pests instead of pesticides.
One of the major threats faced by plantations like Dole is disease. Banana plants are typically all cloned from a single plant. This is really beneficial if that plant is very resistant to a specific disease because all of the clones will also be resistant. However, if the plant is susceptible to a certain disease, it is much more likely that all of the clones could get it as well. If your entire plantation consists of clones from a single “parent” plant, it could be disastrous if a disease is contracted.
If I was a plantation worker, I would prefer to work on a banana plantation for a few reasons. Banana plantations are operation year-round whereas coffee plantations have a very short window of employment for the coffee pickers so the banana plantation is a more stable job. Also, the banana plantations are required, by law, to pay a tax on every dollar they pay their employees and this money goes towards benefits like medical and social security. To the best of my knowledge, coffee plantations are not required to pay any sort of tax for benefits for their workers. When you try and compare the two industries side-by-side, I think the banana industry seems a little better in terms of what the employee gets out of it. Today, I was surprised by all of the labor that goes into banana production, because I thought it was really simple; but, on the next trip to the grocery store, I’ll appreciate all of the hard wok that went into delivering a perfect bunch of bananas to Pennsylvania.