How Green was my Banana?

by Ellen

Or, Fruit Salads and Fossil Fuels

The other day I checked my local Trader Joe’s for fruit I could use in a salad for a potluck dinner.  The grapes were out, having come from Chile (hence part of the Dirty Dozen) and the strawberries weren’t organic (also on the Dirty Dozen list) and had probably been sprayed with methyl bromide — nasty stuff.

My conscience nagged at me as I bought a melon, a pineapple and a papaya, but I needed something for that dinner.  Laying my bounty on the kitchen counter, the naked truth stared me in the face:  I’d purchased only one fruit that could have come from my neck of the woods — in a few more months — and two that were only grown in the tropics.

Feeling extremely guilty, I decided not to share my eco-unfriendly fruit with my fellow green partygoers.  Instead, my family would quietly and privately eat the fruit and I’d do better next time.

Then I spied our bunch of bananas.

Are bananas off-limits, too?  There’s no way we’re going to be able to cultivate those sweet yellow snacks in New England!  (At least not until the earth warms up a few more degrees…)  Yet, they’ve always been a kitchen staple.  Snacks, smoothies, and banana bread are all dependent upon that constant bunch on the kitchen counter.

Rationalizations:

  1. What about all the equatorial economies that depend on banana exports?  If we stop buying bananas, will families in warmer climes go hungry?
  2. What’s the carbon footprint of a banana in the North?  Maybe it’s not so bad.  Bananas are picked long before they are ripe, shipped refrigerated, and ripened in rooms containing ethylene gas upon arrival near their supermarket destinations.
  3. I’ll get to eat bananas the next time I’m in the Amazon!  After all, the most delicious banana I’ve ever eaten was consumed on the roof of a bus in Ecuador, bumping my way through the jungle.  Wait — how will I get there?  It probably uses a lot less fossil fuel to transport thousands of bananas to me then it does for me to fly to them.

Reality:

  1. The vast majority of the world’s bananas are not exported.  Only about one fifth of all bananas leave their countries of origin to travel mostly to the United States,  Europe and Japan.  However, families do depend upon export earnings.  From the United Nations:

The banana industry is a very important source of income, employment and export earnings for major banana exporting countries, mainly developing countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as in Asia and Africa. According to FAO statistics, world banana exports are valued a total of US$5,8 billion in 2006, making them clearly a vital source of earnings to many countries. A strong bond exists between banana-generated income and household food security.¹

2.  Most exported bananas travel long distances to their destinations.  It takes, well,  a boatload of fuel to move them, contributing handily to carbon dioxide emissions.   From Planet Green:

Take into account that getting a single banana to your table uses about 8 pounds of carbon for a four ounce serving or .13 % of your year’s allowance, according to Eat Low Carbon Diet. If you eat a banana every day for a year that would equal nearly 49% of your goal average. In the event that you can’t fight off your banana craving, try buying an organic variety. Then you can at least ensure that your bananas weren’t treated with tons of chemicals and pesticides, which can destroy the stunning tropical eco-systems from which they come. If you eat one every other day, a day or two or week, or sparingly you [c]an see how much you can drop your carbon footprint, just by changing your banana habits!²

3.  Flying uses a lot of fuel and has a gigantic carbon footprint.  It’s best to eat bananas when you’re in a banana-growing country for another reason.

I can buy fewer bananas to help cool the earth a bit.  Coffee and chocolate will be a bit harder.  I haven’t gotten that far on my green journey, but now that I have an inkling of my impact they may become more luxury items.

What worries me most isn’t cutting down on tropical food consumption, but rather that my child’s world is already different from the one I traveled in.  Will he get to see the world the way I have?  I don’t know.  I’ve been lucky enough to walk on several different continents, blissfully unaware of how much air travel pollutes.

I hope that while “going green” makes us more resilient as local economies, it doesn’t also make us more insular.  I suppose there’s always the solar airplane.  And the sailboat.

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Resources:

1)  The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development:  Info Comm: Market Information in the Commodities Area.

2) Can You Be an Environmentalist and Indulge in Tropical Foods?, by Sara Novak: Planet Green, July 16, 2009.

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