While studying in Costa Rica for four months this past spring, I had the opportunity to tour a pineapple plantation and a Dole banana plantation. I was surprised and bemused by what I learned about these two tropical fruits that have become commonplace in American homes.
Pineapples and bananas have a long and political history in Costa Rica and most of Latin America. Much of which is a result of the United Fruit Company’s (known now as Chiquita) grab to gain control of land. They’ve even orchestrated government coups in order to be able to export more fruit north.
Bananas are grown in massive monoculture plantations. A single planting of banana tress consists of hundreds of plants with the exact same genetic makeup; each tree is an identical twin to the one sitting next to it.
The Dole tour guide was a cheerful man who guided us through the plantation and the processing facility. You could tell that informed, environmentally concerned graduate students were not his typical customers; it seemed that middle-aged cruise ship passengers were more his cup of tea. But he still did his best to put on a good show for us with jokes and all. But there were two things that seemed most absurd to me.
The first was the amount of time and resources they put into make sure that the bananas aren’t damaged from the tree to the processing house. Now that doesn’t sound like a bad thing, right? Who would want a broken banana? But this attention to detail isn’t to prevent breakage. Rather it is to make sure that there isn’t a single scratch on the banana because consumers won’t buy bruised bananas. Consumers believe that bruised bananas are bad bananas and they don’t want anything to do with them. The packagers go so far as to put layers of rubber padding and plastic in between each row of the fruit during their short journey from tree to package.
The second shocking tidbit relayed to us by our tour guide was that consumers want straight bananas. Yep you heard me right – supposedly a whole generation of people do not appreciate the banana’s wonderful curved shape and usefulness as a fruit telephone.
Our guide explained to us that people stand in the market and try to pick out the straightest bananas, so the industry is trying to find a way to make all conventionally grown bananas as straight as possible. But the thing is, the shape of a banana has everything to do with how nature created the plant to grow. Most people have never seen a banana on a tree or understand the fascinating complexity that nature has created with that curve.
Instead of working to educate consumers about the fascinating natural phenomenon that makes bananas curved, the industry is quite literally trying to bend nature to fit its focus group findings. This is true within the production of pineapples as well.
There is a misconception that the yellower the fruit, the ripper the pineapple. This has led growers to spray an extra round of chemicals on the pineapples to develop a yellower tint to appeal to consumers who would probably opt for less yellow pineapple if they knew about that extra round of chemicals. Consumer preferences also differ slightly between the U.S. and the U.K., with smaller pineapples being shipped to the U.K. and the larger ones being shipped to the U.S. Neither of these physical attributes has anything to do with the ripeness and flavor of the pineapple.
There are many risks associated with imported foods due to lax environmental and health regulations abroad. The Food and Drug Administration reports that half of foodborne illnesses come from imported food, which is why Food & Water Watch has been fighting for years to ensure Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) so that consumers know where their food is from and are making informed decisions in the grocery store.
So, the next time you’re looking for a fruit snack, do yourself a favor and buy a nice green juicy organic pineapple…Or better yet stop by your local farmers market and buy some wonderful local fruit that is actually in season and hasn’t been shipped thousands of miles to reach your grocery store. Then take that piece of fruit to the library (or the Google) and do some old fashioned research to learn about its attributes, what it needs to grow, the seasons and geography the best support it and then sit a while and appreciate how truly amazing our environment is and why it is so important that we stop trying to “improve” it.
Take action to tell Congress to stop secret trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which could allow for weaker regulations on imported foods putting our health and food safety at risk.