I was not expecting a banana plantation to look like the one I saw today. Green plants, twice my size, and big leaves enveloped us and filled the land as far as my eyes could see. We visited Dole’s Banana Division in Costa Rica to learn about the process and the supply chain of the crop. This plantation is located on the Caribbean side of the country which accompanies hot, humid weather and heavy rain. Our guide made a point to emphasize that bananas do not grow on trees but rather herbs; these herbs need Costa Rica’s climate! Banana plants are 90% water and can easily take out 30 liters of water per plant per day. For this reason, the economies of scale to break into the industry are very high; a seeking plantation owner would need about 500 acres of land with a good drainage system, cableway system to transport banana bunches, and an overhead system for support. It is a difficult task to reach Dole’s success.
We have been focusing on coffee for the majority of the trip, so it was certainly eye-opening to observe the banana industry for a day. Although coffee and bananas are both crops, their supply chains are very different. Coffee has a complex, ten-step process to bring it into our supermarkets and homes. It is so extensive, some companies and producers are only responsible for a section of the supply chain, between the growing, milling, roasting, and more. For example, Doka Coffee primarily grows the bean and sells it to other companies before roasting, while Café Britt buys the green bean and roasts it themselves. Bananas, on the other hand, are far less complex, and the supply chain can be broken down into four steps: growing, harvesting, processing and packaging, and exporting. After the bananas are 11 to 14 weeks old, they are harvested and sent to the main factory line to be cleaned, bunched, and packaged. In about 18 days, we see these bananas in Giant Eagle’s produce isle.
As all crop industries do, there are a lot of wastes and byproducts that come with exporting bananas, but Dole takes measures to improve sustainability. Dole must use a lot of plastic to keep customers happy, protect bananas from bruising and pests, and create a microclimate for the crops to grow about one week faster. However, they have an International Standards Organization Certification because Dole recycles 99-100% of the plastic from other industries and aims to limit pesticide use. Rather than using chemicals to avoid pests and rotting, the plantation workers cut off the bottom three bunches and leaves one, single banana at the bottom. Cutting off flowers get rid of insects, but it leaves a path for dirt to get in. The single banana at the bottom absorbs all the toxic elements so the top bananas can have more nutrients. When it comes to the excess water from the production process, the waste gets treated, cleaned, and is used again to wash bananas. Naturally, they also have a lot of reject bananas; Dole takes these bananas and either give it to Gerber for baby food or use it for compost. Dole doesn’t neglect their workers either. Although they get paid $28 per day, they are provided housing and water. Overall, the biggest threats to the company are related to bananas appearance, pest contamination, and rotting, but they have measures to mitigate this risk.
Now, I have witnessed the lives of both coffee and banana plantation workers. If I were to choose, I would rather work in the banana industry processing the fruit. During our day at Dole, I noticed the processing workers were mainly women, compared to the male-dominated field work. In the coffee industry, coffee pickers are paid by the cajuela, or paid by volume. If I have an unproductive day due to fatigue or lack of sleep, I would be paid less and unable to provide for my family. The coffee season, in addition, only lasts for about three months, whereas employees in the banana industry have a stable work schedule; it is all year round, paid by the day, and semi-indoors. Additionally, my attention to detail would be more useful as a production worker, while it could work against me in the coffee fields. I would certainly be too slow and only choose the extremely ripe coffee cherries, producing fewer cajuelas. Altogether, I am extremely grateful and fortunate to have the opportunity to visit Dole and learn about their practices. It truly is bananas!