Banana experts hold landmark meeting at FAO

Ecuador: bananas for sale at an indigenous market in the small town of Guamote, 3000m above sea level

Consumer influence on the export banana industry was the subject of a landmark meeting at FAO headquarters on 22 to 24 March. Nineteen experts, including officials from non-governmental organizations, small-scale banana producers, and environmental consultants, discussed ways in which consumer influence can push the industry to improve its environmental and social performance. The aim of the meeting was to promote collaboration among diverse actors who share a common goal - to increase environmental and social sustainability in the export banana industry.

This kind of meeting is new for FAO. "This is the first time that FAO has held a whole meeting on the subject of environmental and social certification in the banana sector," said FAO Commodity Specialist Pascal Liu, one of the meeting's coordinators.

This vital first step towards collaboration also marked a breakthrough for many of the experts present. Danish environmental consultant Rolf Belling said: "FAO's contribution has been crucial in providing the neutral ground for us to meet on."

Colombia: a small boy rides a donkey bearing bananas and fuelwood

The world's fourth most important food crop

In terms of gross value of production, bananas are the world's fourth most important food crop, after rice, wheat and maize. Bananas are both a staple food and an export commodity. The export market alone is worth nearly US$5 billion a year, providing a significant source of employment and income for several developing countries.

Latin American and Caribbean countries produce the bulk of internationally traded bananas - about 10 million tonnes out of the global total of 12 million tonnes. Hundreds of thousands of people in rural areas are directly employed by the banana industry in the region, and those people in turn support other industries and workers who gain indirectly from the banana industry. 

Concerns about environmental impact of banana farms

About 80 percent of export banana production takes place on large plantations using intensive farming methods that rely heavily on chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Over the last decade, consumers have become increasingly aware of and concerned about the environmental damage caused by such intensive agriculture and the agrochemicals that it depends on. These concerns often focus particularly on banana plantations, because many of them are in areas that environmental groups have classed as "biodiversity hotspots" - meaning that they are exceptionally rich in biodiversity.

At the same time, other pressure groups have spotlighted the poor working conditions on many of the world's banana plantations. Certification schemes such as those created by the Better Banana Project of the Rainforest Alliance and the Fairtrade Labelling Organization (FLO) have set out to reduce the 'environmental footprint' of the banana farms, push for workers' rights and educate consumers about the 'ethical and environmental contents' of the bananas that they buy.

"Banana buyers are confused as to what is available"

Different groups have taken different approaches, and banana buyers in many developed countries now face a relatively wide range of choices when they buy their favourite yellow fruit - organic bananas, "fairtrade" bananas, "ecofriendly" bananas. "Banana buyers are frankly confused as to what is available," said organic agricultural expert Bo Van Elzakker of the Netherlands.

Experts at the FAO meeting stressed that clearing up retailer and consumer confusion about the differences between the certification schemes is key to their success as individual schemes and to the achievement of their common goal - promoting environmental and social responsibility in the banana industry.

"There is a place for everyone," said Mr Van Elzakker. "We support each others' schemes and have come together under the FAO roof to explore synergies and complementarities between the schemes. They respond individually to specific needs but share a common goal."

Several options for sharing information were discussed at the meeting, including pooling research on issues such as health and safety for farm workers, joint training sessions for inspectors and exchanging information on best production practices. "We have also talked about the idea of a manual or Web-site," said Harriet Lamb of FLO. Plans were made to publish a brochure outlining the different certification schemes in operation.

Keeping smallholders in the banana business

One of the core aims of FLO is to give market access to "disadvantaged" small producers and workers who might otherwise be losing the struggle to compete with well-capitalized large plantations.

"Bananas are an ideal crop for smallholders," said Wilberforce Emmanuel, a small-scale banana grower from St. Vincent in the Caribbean. "Banana is a crop that can be introduced and established very quickly. Within a minimum time you can start producing, and you can run for up to 20 years without replanting."

Smallholders who register with a certification scheme such as organic farming or "fairtrade" production commit themselves to a series of improvements in their production methods and farm environments. Because of this, they are able to command premium prices for their produce, and this enables them to keep farming.

FAO shares the objectives of promoting sustainable production methods and enabling small farmers to take advantage of the market-based opportunities provided by growing niche markets for organic and "fairtrade" produce.

"This meeting is not only a timely intervention for the small producers," said Ms Lamb. "It is also timely for the market place. Retailers and importers are asking us about all these different schemes and it's very helpful that we can say we've met under a UN body, we've talked this through and we can see where we all fit."

18 April 2000

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