By Connie Salmon, bilingual author, originally from Puerto Rico, lives in Connecticut.
You put it in your cereal. You eat it with peanut butter and bread. You eat it with ice cream in a special dish. But have you ever wondered where your banana came from?
Many people think that bananas grow on a tree. The truth is that they grow on an herbaceous (herb) plant. It’s leaves sprout from the ground and wrap around each other very tightly, forming the stem. Large purplish red buds push through the center of the stem and later form smaller purplish flowers that grow into bananas. The banana got its name from the Arabic word for finger, banan. A single banana is called a finger.
Bananas most likely came from South East Asia, about 7,000 years ago. Then they were taken to Arabia, and later to the Middle East and Africa. They were transplanted to the Canary Islands. From there, the Spanish brought bananas to the New World, after the voyages of Christopher Columbus.
Bananas grow in plantations in countries with a tropical climate. Leading exporters of bananas to the US are Columbia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and West Africa.
The banana is America’s favorite fruit. There are 500 different types of bananas. The most popular one in the US is the Cavendish.
If the bananas are going to be harvested the traditional way, they are sprayed with pesticides (chemicals to get rid of insects) at the plantation. Then the farmers add fertilizers (artificial nutrients) to the soil to help the crop grow.
If the bananas are to be harvested organically, natural fertilizers like manure and seaweed are used. Insect predators and barriers are used to prevent pests. For example, crushed eggshells or pistachio nut shells prevent slugs and snails. The plants are weeded by hand or mulch is used to prevent weeds.
Farmers tie banana plants to long poles for support and cover them in large, plastic bags to protect them from insects and birds. The clear plastic lets light reach the leaves, allowing the fruit to mature.
Nine to twelve months after planting, the fruit is ready to be harvested. The bananas grow in large bunches. These are broken down into smaller groups. 10 to12 bananas are called a cluster, 4 to 6 are a hand, and each individual banana is a finger.
There are many steps to the harvesting (gathering) of the bananas. They are picked while still green to prevent them from spoiling while being shipped. A worker called a cutter cuts down the plant with a machete. Another worker, a backer catches the plant as it falls into a large cushion on the backer’s shoulder, to prevent the fruit from bruising. The backer attaches the bunch to one of the overhead cables that run between rows of plants. The moving cables bring the bananas to the packing shed, located in the plantation.
The bananas are washed in large tanks of cold water. The water removes most of the chemicals from the fruit. It also lowers the temperature of the bananas, which are still warm from the tropical heat in the field.
Inspectors then examine the bananas, to make sure they are of good enough quality to export. Once they pass inspection, the bananas are carefully packed into boxes, so they don’t bump against each other and bruise.
Boxes of bananas are loaded into huge, refrigerated ships or reefers, to prevent the bananas from ripening any further, putting the bananas “to sleep.”
Once the reefers arrive at their destination, they dock at food terminals. They are then inspected for insects, snakes and other tropical pests (spiders sometimes hide in banana leaves).
Then the fruit ripens in special rooms for 3 to 8 days. Ethylene gas, which is produced naturally by all fruit, is pumped through the ripening rooms to speed up the process. The temperature is lowered as days pass, so the bananas don’t over-ripen before they are loaded onto refrigerated trucks and brought to the market to sell.
The banana has at last made its long journey to you. The next time you are in the supermarket with Mom, you can pick out a hand or a finger of bananas and tell her all about them.
Sidebar: TOP EXPORTERS OF BANANAS TO THE UNITED STATES
The banana is the most traded fruit in the world. Bananas started to be traded internationally by the end of the 1300’s. Today they are grown in over 150 countries.
There is an organization called Banana Link in Latin American countries like Ecuador, Honduras, Columbia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Nicaragua. It campaigns for fair and ethical trade practices for banana (and pineapple) plantation workers. In a largely hostile work environment for trade unions, there is a high level of violence and repression.
There is also a failure of health and safety standards, that causes much devastation of human health and natural environments, due to the use of toxic chemicals in banana production.
Banana Link fights for the dignity of workers (both men and women) and trade union rights. Trade unions try their best for workers to have better wages and benefits as well as better working conditions.
Bananas and plantains are a staple food in many tropical countries and play a major role in food security for many households.
ECUADOR: US $3,68 millions in exports. Total Banana production: 6.28 million metric tons.
THE PHILIPPINES: US $1,608 million in exports. Total production: 8.4 million metric tons
COSTA RICA: US $1,083 million. Total Banana production: 2.27 million metric tons
COLUMBIA: US $990 million. Total Banana production: 3.7 million metric tons
GUATEMALA: US $956 million. Total Banana production: 3.8 million metric tons
Other smaller banana exporting nations include countries like Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, Mexico, Dominican Republic, and Ivory Coast.
Sources for the Information:
“How bananas are Grown, Banana Link” www.bananalink.org.uk
Encyclopedia Brittanica.com: “Banana (Description, History, Cultivation, Nomenclature)”
By Connie Salmon, bilingual author, originally from Puerto Rico, now lives in Connecticut.