Before the year 1913, most Americans had never seen a banana. The predecessors of today’s big banana suppliers developed the technology and infrastructure to distribute the delicate fruit thousands of miles. Today, the average American eats 26 pounds of bananas a year — and according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, of all the fruits, bananas are first in production volume and are among the five most consumed fruits on the planet.
In the early 20th century, the global export of bananas transformed communities in the Latin America’s banana belt. Aggressive merchants from abroad bought tracts of land, planted acres of bananas and built transportation networks, creating monopolies that controlled the entire trade and sent virtually all of the profits overseas. Plantation workers and their families typically lived in company-owned houses and the company store was often the only place to purchase food and household supplies, all of which kept more money in the company owners’ hands and left workers with little agency.
Because plantation-grown bananas are susceptible to disease and require more agrochemicals than most agricultural commodities, farmers frequently worked in the field as planes sprayed chemicals. Drinking water was flooded with chemical residue. Poverty and poor health are still prevalent in some banana plantation communities, where five companies control 75 percent of the industry.
From these conditions arose two movements: a push for sustainable farming practices and the formation of collectives or associations of small-scale farmers. Pulling away from multinational corporations controlling the banana trade, farmers exported directly to alternative trade partners in Europe and the U.S., commencing the fair trade movement. While the organic and fair trade movements both provide tools to alleviate environmental damage, fair trade also provides small-scale farmers democratic control of their businesses and direct access to the global market through collective volume.
Today, fair trade products are prevalent in Europe, and a U.S. movement, while small, is growing. Fair trade banana importers are required to pay at or above the fair trade minimum price and an additional community development premium is required for all purchases. Fair trade organic bananas are often the same price as organic bananas. Purchasing fair trade bananas helps ensure that up to 50 percent more money ends up back in the farming community.