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Banana problems: A virus and European buyers

“If the situation doesn’t change, there is no future for banana production,” says Marike de Peña, a producer of organic bananas in the Dominican Republic.

I thought I knew what this story would be about: the threat posed to world banana production by TR4 Fusarium wilt, the disease that imperils a great part of the world banana industry, much as another strain of the same disease destroyed the Gros Michel variety in the 1950s. The TR4 attacks the Cavendish variety, which is immune to the previous strains and dominates the world market.

But I was wrong. De Peña is talking about the threat from European banana buyers.

“The prices they’re paying per box of bananas does not cover production costs of conventional production, much less sustainable production,” she contends.

De Peña is president of the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Small Banana Producers. But the problem isn’t limited to small producers.

In the middle of January, the Ecuadorian Banana Cluster, one of the world’s largest producers, convened industry representatives from Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Guatemala, and Honduras to address the issue.

“We are in a crisis, in a tremendous crisis,” said Juan José Pons, coordinator of the Ecuadorian Banana Cluster. “We’re all affected in the same way. We all have to defend production.”

The basic issue will be familiar to many in the produce industry: prices are set by the buyers, not by the producers.

“There are German chains that buy between 30 and 35 million boxes of banana each year,” said Pons. “Do you know the power of pressure that they have in affecting the price?”

“The price cannot be set in Europe. The price should be set by the producers,” de Peña stresses.

The European Union nations purchase 4.6 million metric tons (mt) of bananas per year, while producing only 600,000 mt.

Another source of pressure is demand by the European consumer, who wants a perfect, attractive, yellow banana, without any defects. On the other end are EU green policies with strict standards on pesticide and fungicide levels.

As a solution, the Latin American and Caribbean nations suggest implementing the calculations of the Fair Trade organization, which reckons production costs in each nation.

“Below those levels, social, economic, and environmental sustainability is affected,” says de Peña.

Koen Van Troos, of Belgian Fair Trade, has another suggestion: a series of “Banana Talks” along the lines of Cocoa Talks initiated by the EU in January 2020 to deal with similar issues in cacao production.

My first hunch wasn’t entirely mistaken, though. The banana crisis has been intensified by TR4 Fusarium, which has reduced production in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. The subject will be a major topic at the Fruit Logistica convention, to be held in Berlin in April.

There is some hope along the Fusarium front. Australian researchers have been pursuing a TR4-resistant banana over the past decade. Australia, like Philippines, China, Indonesia, the Middle East, Africa, has been hit with the virus.

Gene editing techniques are showing promise: in 2017, researchers developed one Cavendish line with complete resistance to TR4, with three others showing robust resistance.

Like most produce sectors, the banana industry is in a constant struggle to produce a reliable, high-quality supply while overcoming strong market pressures.

“If the situation doesn’t change, there is no future for banana production,” says Marike de Peña, a producer of organic bananas in the Dominican Republic.

I thought I knew what this story would be about: the threat posed to world banana production by TR4 Fusarium wilt, the disease that imperils a great part of the world banana industry, much as another strain of the same disease destroyed the Gros Michel variety in the 1950s. The TR4 attacks the Cavendish variety, which is immune to the previous strains and dominates the world market.

But I was wrong. De Peña is talking about the threat from European banana buyers.

“The prices they’re paying per box of bananas does not cover production costs of conventional production, much less sustainable production,” she contends.

De Peña is president of the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Small Banana Producers. But the problem isn’t limited to small producers.

In the middle of January, the Ecuadorian Banana Cluster, one of the world’s largest producers, convened industry representatives from Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Guatemala, and Honduras to address the issue.

“We are in a crisis, in a tremendous crisis,” said Juan José Pons, coordinator of the Ecuadorian Banana Cluster. “We’re all affected in the same way. We all have to defend production.”

The basic issue will be familiar to many in the produce industry: prices are set by the buyers, not by the producers.

“There are German chains that buy between 30 and 35 million boxes of banana each year,” said Pons. “Do you know the power of pressure that they have in affecting the price?”

“The price cannot be set in Europe. The price should be set by the producers,” de Peña stresses.

The European Union nations purchase 4.6 million metric tons (mt) of bananas per year, while producing only 600,000 mt.

Another source of pressure is demand by the European consumer, who wants a perfect, attractive, yellow banana, without any defects. On the other end are EU green policies with strict standards on pesticide and fungicide levels.

As a solution, the Latin American and Caribbean nations suggest implementing the calculations of the Fair Trade organization, which reckons production costs in each nation.

“Below those levels, social, economic, and environmental sustainability is affected,” says de Peña.

Koen Van Troos, of Belgian Fair Trade, has another suggestion: a series of “Banana Talks” along the lines of Cocoa Talks initiated by the EU in January 2020 to deal with similar issues in cacao production.

My first hunch wasn’t entirely mistaken, though. The banana crisis has been intensified by TR4 Fusarium, which has reduced production in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. The subject will be a major topic at the Fruit Logistica convention, to be held in Berlin in April.

There is some hope along the Fusarium front. Australian researchers have been pursuing a TR4-resistant banana over the past decade. Australia, like Philippines, China, Indonesia, the Middle East, Africa, has been hit with the virus.

Gene editing techniques are showing promise: in 2017, researchers developed one Cavendish line with complete resistance to TR4, with three others showing robust resistance.

Like most produce sectors, the banana industry is in a constant struggle to produce a reliable, high-quality supply while overcoming strong market pressures.

Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.