Alternatives to “Free Trade” Bananas
Bananas and plantains are a dietary staple throughout the tropics, and the diseases that beset the Gros Michel and Cavendish varieties, which are grown on monocrop plantations, threaten a vital source of healthy and relatively cheap calories that much of the world has come to rely upon. In recent years, consumers and civil society groups have organized to demand bananas that produced in more socially and environmentally responsible ways, creating organic and “Fairtrade” alternatives to conventional “free trade” bananas.
In the early 1990s, the big three banana companies expected European unification to enable them to increase their market share. Chiquita, Dole, and Del Monte ramped up production in Latin America, cutting down more primary forests, especially in Costa Rica. But the market reforms of the European Union “did not allow banana imports to expand as expected.” The preferential trade agreements that European countries had negotiated with their former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific were effectively grandfathered in when the European Union took effect in 1993.
While Fyffes, Dole, and Del Monte adapted to the new regulatory environment, Chiquita did not. It lobbied the U.S. government to lodge a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) and enlisted the governments of Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico to sign its petition. After a back-and-forth between the United States and Europe that was dubbed the “banana wars,” the WTO ruled in 1997 that the EU banana regulations violated international free trade agreements.
But the winds were blowing against the Great White Fleet. In 2014, Chiquita merged with the Irish fruit distributor Fyffes, creating the world’s largest banana company and controlling more than one third of world banana exports. As of this writing, three companies—ChiquitaFyffes, Dole, Del Monte—control 80 percent of the global banana market. A number of nongovernmental organizations and civil society groups, ranging from international labor unions to environmentalists, began to develop voluntary standards that would ensure that bananas were organically and/or equitably produced. (It is possible to have one without the other: organic fruit may be harvested by child laborers, or pesticide-laden fruit may be harvested by workers who earn a living wage and enjoy the right to join a trade union.)