Economics

Where Do America's Bananas Come From?

Tracing the origins of bananas imported into the US reveal an absolute market dominance by neighboring Latin America.

Bananas have many benefits that place them among the most popular fruits in the United States. In fact, they outsell oranges and apples combined. In North America, bananas have been sold since the 1800s, even though the variety popular at that time isn’t the one normally enjoyed still today. In 1890, a bad disease affected the banana-growing regions of the Caribbean and Latin America, and disrupted almost every major banana farm in that time. In the early 1900s, research began with an aim of developing disease resistant bananas, which led to the development of the “Cavendish” banana variety which is most popularly sold in grocery stores today. Bananas are mostly grown on very large plantations with their workers living on-site. One major goal of the US government in the late 19th and early 20th Century was for the country to grow its bananas on a large scale for domestic consumption as well as export. This was seen as an area to gain ground in global trade, as bananas are an important part of the American diet, and the US is known to be among the world’s biggest importers of bananas. Most American bananas are produced in the tropics and are shipped for long distances before reaching the country’s markets.

With bananas being among the fruits most commonly consumed in the world, a fruit that in many of these countries has few limits on its growing season, governments from the producing countries have strived to find measures to further boost production and enhance their economies. This includes better means of preventing diseases affecting the crops, such as “Panama Disease”, and ensuring proper care for the workers on the many banana plantations. The US itself only produces 0.008 million metric tons of bananas each year, and heavily relies on bananas from other countries to help meet its demands for the fruit. Therefore, it may need to take steps to secure the sustainability of the people and places that supply the bulk of its bananas. With that in mind, we look at the most important countries supplying the US with this important tropical produce.

10. Dominican Republic - 9.22 Million Pounds Imported

#10 Dominican Republic - 9.22 Million Pounds Imported

In this country banana production is widespread. It is practiced both by large scale and small scale farmers, who employ it either in mixed cultivation or via monoculture (strictly banana stands). The Dominican Republic highly benefits from the export of this fruit, and last year it exported bananas totalling nearly 9.22 million pounds to the United States. Banana cultivation provides lots of rural labor due to its labor intensive nature. In the Dominican Republic, the banana industry is the second largest employer, following only the government. The sector provides jobs for 6,000 farmers and employs 700 people at boxing plants.

9. Panama - 50.65 Million Pounds Imported

#9 Panama - 50.65 Million Pounds Imported

Initially, bananas tasted better, lasted longer, were more resilient and didn’t need any artificial ripening. They were better fruits since there were no severe diseases affecting them. But since this country experienced the Panama disease, a fungal disease, the production of bananas in Panama have been greatly reduced. Still, in 2014 Panama exported over 50 million pounds of bananas to the US, making it one of the country’s largest suppliers for this crop.

8. Peru - 61.65 Million Pounds Imported

#8 Peru - 61.65 Million Pounds Imported

In 2014, Peru exported over 61 million pounds of bananas to the US. However, the production of bananas in this country are associated with many problems which significantly challenge the workers on the plantations. The workers have to toil for long hours in tropical conditions to care for the plants and their harvest. The income of these workers is generally low and, in some cases, the wages aren’t enough to support their families.

7. Nicaragua - 87.88 Million Pounds Imported

#7 Nicaragua - 87.88 Million Pounds Imported

Nicaragua exports a larger portion of its bananas to the US and last year it exported bananas totalling over 87 million pounds. However, some of the pesticides sprayed on banana plantations in this country have continued to raise controversy and some alleged illnesses. The Northern Nicaraguan region was once full of agricultural wealth, but the locals claim that this changed after the introduction of a pesticide that has highly affected the health of the workers there.

6. Mexico - 489.25 Million Pounds Imported

#6 Mexico - 489.25 Million Pounds Imported

Mexico is one of the largest banana producers and exports a large portion of its bananas to the United States. The country has over 75 thousand hectares of which 15 thousand are in the states of Chiapas and Tabasco. However, the country only had a small share of $3.71 million in the European Union in the year 2014. Still, it sold over 489 million pounds of bananas to the United States.

5. Colombia - 912.04 Million Pounds Imported

#5 Colombia - 912.04 Million Pounds Imported

This is another high producer and exporter of bananas which exported bananas totalling over 912 million pounds to the US in 2014. The country accounted for 25% of the world’s banana foreign market earnings in 2009.

4. Honduras - 1,188.93 Million Pounds Imported

#4 Honduras - 1,188.93 Million Pounds Imported

Banana production supports the Honduran economy to a high degree despite many natural problems like hurricanes, which have highly diminished fruit production there. Agriculture in this country produces 60% of all its jobs and half of its merchandise exports earnings. Bananas have been among the country’s largest exports for a long time and, in 2014, the country exported over 1.1 billion pounds of bananas to the US alone. Most of the production takes place on the northern coast, and is primarily controlled by two American fruit conglomerates: Dole and Chiquita. However, these two companies’ operations in the country have been significantly affected by strikes and Hurricane Mitch in recent years. Bananas are also a favorite treat of the local wildlife, such as the capuchin monkey pictured.

3. Costa Rica - 1,824.69 Million Pounds Imported

#3 Costa Rica - 1,824.69 Million Pounds Imported

In the year 2012 alone, banana exports from this country had a net worth of $815 million. But one problem facing the production of bananas in this country, and which may continue to lower output, is the presence of “mealybugs” and “scale insects”. These pests have now affected over 240 thousand hectares of plantations in the Atlantic region. While the two insects hardly affect bananas to a point where they are inedible, they cause unappetizing blemishes which most exporting firms will not accept. The two insects are related to aphids and, just like aphids, they feed on banana sap to the point of weakening the plants, which then causes banana leaves to drop. The insects also produce a sticky substance known as “honeydew” which promotes the growth of mold on the fruit. One factor that is facilitating the spread of the insects is climatic change in the region.

2. Ecuador - 1,730.32 Million Pounds Imported

#2 Ecuador - 1,730.32 Million Pounds Imported

Ecuador is the second largest producer of bananas for the US, and a top exporter taking its fair share of the global market. In the year 2009, this country secured over $6.66 billion USD worth of banana sales in the global market as a whole. This country was among the largest exporters in 2014, and its exports to the US amounted to over 1.7 billion pounds in weight.

1. Guatemala - 3,348.75 Million Pounds Imported

#1 Guatemala - 3,348.75 Million Pounds Imported

The US's most important banana supplier, this country is the third largest banana exporting country globally, trailing Costa Rica and Columbia. The productivity in this country now stands at 4,000 boxes per every hectare, and its exports have increased by 25% in recent times to stand at $623.4 million USD in value today. However, most critics say that the high production has been accomplished via an unjust exploitation of the non-unionized workers in the country. Sources show that workers for the banana companies there may earn as little as $3 per day without any added benefits. This is contrary to what the US Labor Education in the Americas Project (USLEAP) expects. A little better, the unionized workers there earn $10 per day with some added benefits. The US imported bananas totalling nearly 3.4 billion pounds from Guatemala in 2014.

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