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Jen Boynton headshot

The Source of the 19¢ Banana

By Jen Boynton

Trader Joe's shoppers are probably familiar with the store's incredible deal on bananas- 19¢ apiece for conventionally grown and 29¢ for organic. I've thrown many a bunch in my cart, happy to get a low price for such a healthy and tasty snack. Have you ever stopped to think about how that banana got to the store and how they can possibly be so cheap? I admit, I hadn't really, until I took a trip to Costa Rica (sponsored by Dole) to check out their banana and pineapple plantations and shipping operations. It's nothing short of astounding.

Dole is the #1 producer of bananas for the US and Japan with 34% and 32% of the market share, respectively. They've got 9% of the market in Europe. Worldwide they sold approximately 153 million boxes of them in 2010. Those bananas come from Honduras, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala and Peru, growing on approximately 32,000 acres of company-owned farms and around 71,500 acres of independent producers’ farms. 2-3% of the bananas sold are organic. (See Dole's 2010 Annual Report for more info)

Believe it or not, from the fields to the packing, almost every component of getting those bananas ready is done by hand. How can it possibly be so cheap? And what's the environmental impact?

All Hands on Deck
As you can see from the video above, the preparation of bananas for shipment is a very hands-on affair. Each touch of a banana will result in a bruise when the fruit ripens, so great efforts are made to reduce the number of touches.

Despite all the human attention to the fruit, it's incredibly cheap, which means that wages are very low. A banana plantation must be located in a place where wages are extremely low to be anywhere near cost competitive.

Dole's Costa Rican plantation workers are paid, on average, 46% above the national minimum wage of $10.31/day. Though unions are available (and 37% of Dole's workforce worldwide belong to collective bargaining agreements), most employees in Costa Rica choose belong to Solidarismo, a social organization that is one part credit union, one part Lions Club, with a dash of union thrown in (except for the ever-important right to strike). [ed. note: Solidarismo is explored in detail here.]

Despite these outlets for worker protection, Dole currently has 11 labor cases pending in Costa Rica under the national insurance program, according to Dole's 10-K.

At the end of the day, Dole did appear to be a pretty good place to work, at least considering the alternatives. A (female, Costa Rican) translator on the trip asked the banana packagers what they thought about their jobs and heard that the working conditions had improved a great deal in the past several years and the worker was very happy with her job. Everywhere we went, people smiled at us.

Environmental Impact
Every kilogram (kg) of banana produced results in 1.48 kg of global warming emissions, (at least to deliver the bananas to Norway, which is a bit further than they might go otherwise, but the study was commissioned by the Norwegian Research Council) and requires .19 square meters of land. But water is where bananas have their biggest impact, with 860 liters required to produce 1 kilogram of banana, according to the Water Footprinting Network.

On the Farm
The company's Costa Rican operations are leading the way to make GHG reductions and efficiency improvements, due to Costa Rica's commitment to become carbon neutral by 2021 and general support for environmental programs which protect the gorgeous natural landscape of the country.

On banana plantations, Dole uses precision agriculture and control-released fertilizers to reduce the GHG emissions by hectare by 45%.

Shipped Direct to You
Dole has a vertically integrated supply chain, which means it can both conduct carbon footprinting exercises and manage their emissions much more easily than a company that contracts out for shipping.

Dole's analysis showed that there were efficiency gains to be made almost everywhere along the supply chain. They held driving seminars with their truck drivers to teach them about conservative driving, which resulted in a 10% reduction in fuel consumption. Where they could, they switched to rail transport, which resulted in a decrease of 34% in emissions from farm to shipyard transport.

Given the short life for fresh fruit, bananas enter refrigeration shortly after being picked. The company has also made great strides to reduce leaks in the refrigerated shipping containers, resulting in both cost and energy savings as well as huge reductions in global warming potential:

The company is also engaged in Costa Rica's National Forestry Fund, a program to pay owners of rainforested land for not clear-cutting it.

Water Savings Strategies
Water is a key component of the environmental impact puzzle.

75% of water used worldwide is for agriculture, and nearly 66% of that is lost through evaporation and inefficient irrigation. That's a big deal in Costa Rica, where 80% of the electricity comes from GHG-free hydro electric power. If the rivers dry up, the country will need to source more carbon-intensive power, which will make it more difficult to reach it's 2021 goal of carbon neutrality.

Water savings are where Dole can really distinguish itself on the banana front. Traditionally, bananas are soaked in water when they reach the packing plant, in order to remove the latex that keeps them protected during the growing process. In the video above, you'll notice very little water being used. That's because the New Millenium Plant on the Rio Frio Banana Farm, simply dips the bananas in water, stores them upside down overnight and the latex rolls off on its own. The new system has resulted in a 90% water savings for the plant over traditional banana packaging facilities.

The facility has 1,600 hectares, about 13% of Costa Rica's banana plantation land. Right now, the facility is the only one utilizing the water savings scheme, but plans are in place to expand it to other plantations.

So there's your 19¢ banana in a nutshell. I've got a lot more news to report from the trip, including a visit to Doles's organic pineapple plantation and some reflections on the stakeholder engagement component of the trip.

Jen Boynton headshot

Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

Read more stories by Jen Boynton