Food For Thought: For a more fruitful future for the banana we need social, economic and environmental sustainability in its production and trade
Blog post World Banana Forum 7-10th November 2017, Geneva
Last month, a record number of people from over 40 countries gathered in Geneva (Switzerland) for the Third Global Conference of the World Banana Forum (WBF). The WBF, founded in 2009, is an organisation with multiple stakeholders in the banana industry and meets every couple years to discuss the challenges and opportunities in the sustainable production of bananas.
At the recent conference, the room was filled with people from across the banana supply chain: small producers, worker’s unions, retailers, importers, exporters, consumer organisations, research institutions and government representatives. Just to put that in perspective: I sat near an organic banana farmer from the Philippines and just across the aisle from the CEO of Chiquita – the largest multinational banana corporation.
The two-day conference, with two side events, covered a set of themes based on the four main challenges facing one of the world’s most important crop:
• labour rights and gender equity
• the threat of the fungal disease Tropical Race 4
• climate change
• monoculture production
Day one explored a range of topics from the rights of people at work to challenges and opportunities for international collaboration in the sustainable production of bananas in the context of a changing climate. The key messages from the discussions were the need for stricter health and safety measures for workers at the banana farms. Banning the extensive use of agrochemicals (pesticides, fungicides, fertilisers, etc.) on large-scale banana farms in the developing world was also brought up. Often agrochemicals banned in the developed world continue to be used by workers in the developing world and concern was voiced by several representatives from Latin America and South East Asia.
Climate change was the main feature in part two of the panel discussion. The banana sector was discussed both as a contributor to climate change in terms of its water and carbon footprint but the sector also possesses an inherent vulnerability to climate change, especially in light of the recent hurricanes in the Caribbean. The banana sector needs to move towards “climate-smart agriculture” was the case presented by Jan ’t Lam from The Rainforest Alliance. In the face of a changing climate, the climate-smart agriculture approach has adaption and resilience as its core principles, to build sustainable livelihoods and food security.
Day one was succinctly summarised by Inge Van den Bergh, scientist and coordinator of ProMusa, an organisation dedicated to knowledge exchange of bananas: “The future of sustainable banana production must integrate social, economic and environmental sustainability.”
Day two focused on a fairer distribution of value and the management of risk of Tropical Race 4 (TR4). TR4 is a fungal disease and is already confirmed in over ten countries, predominately in Southeast Asia but also in parts of the Middle East and South East Africa. Two representatives from India, the largest banana producing country in the world, once considered at high risk, now confirmed multiple cases of Tropical Race 4 on their banana farms. Top research scientists suggest that TR4, which naturally occurs in our soils across the globe are now causing widespread losses, as a result of poor soil health linked to overuse of fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides. “TR4 is a symptom of our impoverished soils,” remarks Thierry Lescot, an agronomist at Cirad, a research centre providing scientific and technical support to stakeholders in the banana sector. This sentiment was echoed by Koronado Apuzen, Executive Director, Farmcoop in the Philippines, who said “if we heal the soil, the soil will heal the bananas”. There was also mention of creating disease-resistant varieties, which has received recent media attention. However, these scientists stress that this is no “silver bullet” to eradicating the disease, as an integrated collaborative approach is needed.
The panel discussion on the fairer distribution of value along the banana supply chain included members of trade unions, farming cooperatives and retailers. A key issue highlighted was the cheap pricing of bananas or so-called “race to the bottom” amongst the retailers. This retailer price war has direct impact lower down the supply chain for the producers and workers. Currently, retailers have a third of the value share for a box of bananas, compared to the workforce and producers at 6% and 17% respectively. This restricts their ability to produce bananas sustainably and invest in sustainable practices whilst maintaining worker’s rights. This is particularly the case for small-scale producers. “There is no level playing field for small producers competing in the global market, which favours low price high volume”, said Kozel Peters, Coordinator, Windward Islands Farmers' Association.
Several representatives from retailers such as Tesco responded saying that they are working with producers and workers to achieve fair trade and sustainable production of bananas. The issue of consumers was also raised by the retailers who are concerned about consumer pressure for cheap prices and their ability to remain competitive. This highlights the need for cooperation across the supply chain but also with consumers to achieve fair pricing on bananas.
The last day of the conference was dedicated to how we tackle the issue with Tropical Race 4 in each of the major banana producing regions: Latin America and Caribbean, Asia and Africa and Middle East.
I attended a meeting with Latin American and Caribbean stakeholders. Currently the largest banana exporting region, it is not affected by Tropical Race 4, but it is at risk. We discussed and debated about what should be the priorities moving forward: should the focus be on surveillance and early detection systems, strengthening education and training programmes, or building international collaboration? The outcomes from the meeting indicated that education and training about how TR4 spreads was urgently needed for farm workers.
I came away from this conference feeling well-informed about the challenges facing the banana sector but also aware of the opportunities to carve a better more fruitful future for the world’s favourite fruit. For a sustainable banana sector to overcome major challenges, it must harmonise social, economic and environmental sustainability, and we all have a role to play in this.
Sara is passionate about people and plants! In between her plant ecology research at Oxford Brookes and Imperial College London, she worked in primary schools, where she ran gardening and science clubs. She enjoys sharing her love of science and the natural world with others. In her spare time she enjoys nature photography, yoga and knitting. Sara hopes this documentary will inspire people to make small meaningful changes to help create a more sustainable future for people and the planet.