Environmental Impacts of Banana Growing

Killer Bananas:  The Environmental Impact of Banana Plantations

    It is not a secret that current practices of banana farming in many areas of the world are contributing to the destruction of tropical rainforests- one of the most diverse ecosystems on our planet.  75% of the earth’s biodiversity lives in these forests, and because the majority of bananas are grown in monoculture plantations (plantations in which they are the only type of vegetation), as well as areas of cleared rainforest, they are playing a big part in the tragic loss of biodiversity we are seeing today.1 We, as American consumers are not making matters any better as we eat, on average, twenty-eight pounds of bananas per person per year.2 This inexpensive fruit is the fifth largest agricultural commodity in world trade, and for people in areas of Central, East, and West Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean, it constitutes a large portion of their diet.3

    A major problem associated with growing any crop in a monoculture is that once the land has been devoted to agriculture for a single species, soil fertility diminishes greatly.  In the case of bananas, the former rainforest soil in which they are originally planted is particularly rich in nutrients.  Deforestation, however, has resulted in the loss of a great amount of productive land, due to the fact that once protective forest cover is depleted, overall soil quality greatly declines.4   Banana producers are forced to continually expand their fields to make up for the diminished production per hectare, and the cycle of destruction begins again.  Monoculture plantations pose another problem in the sense that they keep the plants from developing immunity to many devastating diseases that occur in nature.  Within the past few decades, certain viruses, pests, and fungi, have spread in epidemic proportions, and have begun to attack the world’s top selling commercial breed-the Cavendish.5   This susceptibility has, in turn, resulted in a crop heavily dependent on agrochemicals for its survival, and a widespread strategy for banana farmers- kill all invasive and threatening species with toxic pesticides. . . lots of them.

    On many banana plantations, fungicides and insecticides are applied as many as forty times a year, amounting to a total use of nearly 44 kilograms per hectare.6   Not only do these chemicals cause cancer and mutations in humans, making them extremely harmful to the workers on plantations, but they are also devastating to the surrounding environment.  After seeping into the water table, the toxic substances find their way into local aquatic systems, making the water an unsuitable habitat for many types of wildlife.  Sediments from overused land and agrochemical runoff are contributing to coral reef deterioration off the coasts of Costa Rica.  Tortoises and manatees are facing extinction partly due to the fact that pesticide runoff kills the algae on which they feed.7   The combination of chemical usage, deforestation, and mono-crop plantations has led to soil so depleted of nutrients and saturated with agrochemicals that it is impossible for any type of vegetation to survive in it.  If some solution is not found, banana plantations will continue to contribute greatly to degradation of fertile land and loss of biodiversity. 

What is Being Done?
    As awareness is being raised about the huge negative environmental impacts of mono-crop banana plantations, an increasing number of exporters are choosing to harvest more environmentally friendly fruit by limiting chemical usage on their plants.  In 1991, Chiquita Brands International began its “Better Banana Project,” requiring banana producers to maintain certain standards and environmental practices such as reduced pesticide usage and soil conservation.8   Many other smaller corporations and independent farmers have chosen the “organic” path, cutting out synthetic agrochemical usage altogether.  This is not an easy task because of the high risk of diseased fruit.  Organic farmers have found effective solutions to this problem, however, including developing plantations in drier areas where deadly fungi are less prevalent, and also incorporating other plants to provide shade.  This “polyculture” method of farming creates wind barriers for the banana plants, and botanical pesticides such as lemon grass and tobacco are often incorporated in the fields to protect the crop from a variety of pests naturally.  Crop rotation every few years replenishes the soil, and proves to be very beneficial in keeping pests and diseases from developing resistance to the natural pesticides.9

1Worobetz, Kendra. “Loss of Biodiversity is a Critical Issue.” Department of Biological Sciences.  University of Alberta: April 14, 2000.
2Fairclough, Gordon; McDermott, Darren.  “Fruit of Labor:  The Banana Business Is Rotten, So Why Do People Fight Over It?” Wall Street Journal; New York, N.Y.: Aug. 9, 1999.
3UNITED Nations. Food and Agricultural Organization. “Going Bananas.” Economist; 10/22/2005, vol. 377 Issue 8443, pg. 85-85.
4Morton, J. 1987. Banana.  In: Fruits of Warm Climates.  Julia F. Morton, Miami, FL. 1987 (
5Mlot, Christine. “Greening the World’s Most Popular Fruit.” National Wildlife, Feb/Mar2004, Vol. 42 Issue 2, p18-19.
7Blythman, Joanna. “Bent Bananas.” Ecologist; May2005, Vol. 35 Issue 4, p44-49.
8Mlot, Christine. “Greening the World’s Most Popular Fruit.” National Wildlife, Feb/Mar2004, Vol. 42 Issue 2, p18-19.
9Yamileth, Astorga. “The Environmental Impact of the Banana Industry.”