Why Caribbean bananas are the best

Organically-grown bananas are in the and among health-conscious Britons, who fear the long-term effects of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals on their and and their children's health. The Windward Islands of Dominica, St Lucia, St Vincent and Grenada are now increasing their output of organically-grown produce, proving once again why they are the best in their fields. Mark Wilson investigates

  • Harvesting bananas in St Lucia. Photograph by Chris Huxley

Rivière Antoine in Grenada, Hampstead Estate in Dominica, Anse Le Raye in St Lucia. Rolling green hills and valleys, blue skies and the sea beyond. From next year, these lands will be growing premium-priced organic bananas for British supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s and Waitrose.

In Britain, organic fruit sells at 25%-40% over normal prices. And it’s becoming big business. One major British supermarket chain wants 5% of its food sales certified organic within two years. Consumers are increasingly worried that traces of pesticides, herbicides and other farm chemicals may have long-term effects on their health and on their children’s. There is also concern that overuse of farm chemicals may cause long-term damage to the environment.

But that doesn’t mean that you can just slap a label on a bunch of bananas and call them organic. Produce must pass a stringent test. Organic bananas from the four Windward Islands — Dominica, St Lucia, St Vincent and Grenada — will be certified by the Soil Association, an internationally respected body based in the English city of Bristol. The produce must be grown on land that has been free of chemicals for at least five years.

This isn’t an easy condition to meet everywhere in the Windwards, as farmers have been using herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilisers for years. However, the Windwards have a natural advantage for organic banana farming — they are free of Black Sigatoka disease, which is virtually impossible to control through organic methods.

Farmers in the Windward Islands are moving to high- value niche markets. They can’t compete with ordinary bananas from Central and South America on price and volume. Huge plantations in Ecuador can grow bananas and land them in Britain for around US$9.00 a box. For producers in the Windward Islands, the cost is closer to US$13.00. Even with niche marketing, investment to improve yields and cut unit cost is vital. In the Windwards, around 7% of the banana land is now irrigated.

The best-run Caribbean farms already produce up to 25 tonnes an acre, better than Ecuador’s 17-tonne average. An ambitious US$60m investment programme aims to increase the Windwards average yield from the current 8 tonnes to 15.5 tonnes by 2004.

But labour accounts for around 60% of farm costs, and even with better yields, island producers are unable to match the US$3.50 a day wages offered by some plantations in Ecuador. Nor would they want to. In these middle-income Caribbean economies, farm workers earn around four times as much.

Higher labour standards can be used to advantage. A growing number of overseas consumers don’t want to pinch pennies on their food bill at the expense of low-paid and sometimes exploited farm workers and their families.

“Fair Trade” bananas, certified as meeting employment and environmental standards, sell with a “social premium” of US$1.75 a box, paid to rural farmer community groups that use the cash to improve farm infrastructure or for social development projects. The Windwards are already the largest source of “Fair Trade” bananas on the British market, and sales are growing rapidly.

All Windward fruit is now specially labelled and marketed in Britain by the Windward Islands Banana Development Company, which has its headquarters in St Lucia and is owned by local farmers and island governments. As a result, shoppers know what they are buying and where the produce comes from. Direct sales to major supermarket chains — Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose, Marks and Spencer, the Co-op, Morrisons — bring better prices than working through a wholesaler. The bananas are weighed, wrapped and boxed on the farm, ready for the supermarket display shelf.

Island bananas are a distinctive product. They are generally tastier than their plantation-grown competitors. The volcanic soils of the Windwards are rich in potassium, which stimulates taste-enhancing biological processes in the fruit. More importantly, the fruit is not forced into maturity. It grows at its own pace, taking two months longer to mature than the factory-farmed plantation banana. There’s also a higher proportion of small fruit, which fetches a premium price from customers: three bananas in the fruit bowl are more manageable than two giants.

There is plenty of scope for distinctive niche products. There is land available for conversion to organic farming, and farmers with a commitment to the industry. British supermarkets need organic mangoes, pineapples and passion fruit. With year-round warmth, good soil, plenty of rainfall, and with international ports and airports a few miles from the farm gate, the Windward islands have the potential to be profitable producers of speciality tropical crops, as well as tourist resorts.

The banana barrier

For 50 years island producers made a steady, if modest, living, shipping to a protected British market. But trade privileges have been eroded since 1992, when Europe abolished all internal trade barriers. In many ways, the industry is a model for agricultural development: farmers own their own land and have a stake in the companies that buy the fruit, ship it, and market it in Britain.

From 1998 to 2000, the European market was flooded with up to 250,000 boxes a week of fruit from Latin America, imported on suspect licences. Prices recovered in the first half of 2001, but there is more trouble ahead.

From 1 July, with yet another change in the European Union’s trade regime, import licences have been reallocated. That means another increase in Latin American imports, at a time of year when locally grown apples compete hardest with bananas for space in the lunch box. Windward producers will also lose the additional income they now earn from the sale of licences.

From 2006 it gets even harder. Import quotas will go. Traditional producers in the Caribbean and elsewhere will still get some benefit from lower tariffs, but the big plantations may shave their profits for a year or two to increase market share by undercutting the island producers. This strategy is unlikely to work if buyers know the Windwards product, prefer it, and are prepared to pay extra for fruit produced in ethical and environmentally friendly conditions.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.