Unpeeling the facts behind the banana industry in New Zealand
Words Natalie Cyra
New Zealanders consume on average 18-20 kilos of bananas per person every year. Collectively that amounts to a staggering 81,000 metric tonnes of the yellow goodness. The banana is the world’s most heavily traded fruit, with more than $25 billion spent on them around the globe annually. But just how much do we know about the journey our bananas take from farm to fruit bowl? And what, or more importantly who, are we supporting with our purchases?
Sixty-five per cent of bananas that arrive in New Zealand come from farms in Ecuador, and about 30 per cent from the Philippines (with the rest coming from other countries including Panama and Mexico). Seven per cent of all bananas for sale in New Zealand are certified Fairtrade, and if you’re buying them you’re helping to make a difference to banana growers.
In a world where more and more companies, products and services are loosely claiming to come from ethical, fair and sustainable origins (a concept dubbed “fair washing”), it’s important to understand exactly what Fairtrade means, and what it stands for.
Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand business development manager Pravin Sawmy says buying Fairtrade bananas – or any Fairtrade product, in fact – supports the empowerment of farmers and workers to ensure they are getting a fair say in how their organisations are run.
The Fairtrade Mark is an independent label indicating that a product has met internationally agreed social, economic and environmental standards set by Fairtrade International. It shows that a product has been certified, and Fairtrade ingredients in the product have been independently audited throughout the supply chain of farmers, traders and manufacturers. There is no government regulation around the use of the term fair trade and no oversight for terms such as ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’ if companies choose to brand their products that way. All of which makes it tough for consumers trying to make a difference with their shopping. “Unfortunately there are a lot of misleading or unsubstantiated claims in the marketplace, but the Fairtrade Mark makes it easier for consumers to know their money is going towards fair wages and decent working conditions,” Sawmy says.
“Fairtrade looks at the three pillars of sustainability – environmental, economic and social elements. Ensuring that we have standards around the environment, requirements around social impact and democratic organisation of the cooperative, workers’ rights and trade unions. All of these are embodied in what Fairtrade stands for.”
Fairtrade ensures banana growers, when they are selling their fruit on Fairtrade terms, are getting at least the Fairtrade minimum price, which covers the cost of sustainable production, if not the market price if it is higher.
The other key component of Fairtrade is the Fairtrade Premium, an additional sum of money farmers receive on top of the price of goods. For bananas this amount is approximately NZD$1.50 per 18kg box. It ensures the farmers can reinvest in their farms and communities in ways they see fit.
There are currently 50 New Zealand businesses that use the Fairtrade certification. The majority of these are coffee and chocolate products, closely followed by bananas, a growing category.
Improving worker and environmental conditions
As consumers we can still opt to do something in a better way, and pay a slightly higher price to make big improvements to the way a product is grown or produced, including limiting the use of carcinogenic pesticides.
“There’s lots of aerial spraying on banana plantations and often the workers are not given the right health and safety equipment to protect them. There is supposed to be a designated break period between spraying and when farmers go back into the field, and often that’s not happening. Sometimes workers are in the field when it’s being sprayed, so it’s really bad. With all the pesticide use and the way that plantations are set up, there’s a lot of environmental degradation going on,” says Sawmy.
Fairtrade environmental standards have a list of banned chemicals that can’t be used in production, and the organisation is encouraging banana farmers to move towards more natural solutions as well as implementing measures to protect waterways and biodiversity. Currently more than 50 per cent of all Fairtrade bananas in the world are organic.
Workers’ rights are often suppressed too. The NZ Banana Report (The Big Squeeze 2017) highlights that less than one per cent of the Ecuadorian workforce is unionised and while there is a government minimum price in Ecuador, research found that the Fairtrade price is between 20-60 per cent higher.
“Fairtrade is committed to supporting workers’ rights, ensuring safe working conditions, training in safe practice, and the use of protective equipment. Companies are required to increase wages annually and consult with worker representatives in doing so. Fairtrade is also working to establish living wage benchmarks and to implement the use of these in plantations,” he says. “At this end it’s about educating people about why they need to pay a little bit more and what that means.”