How is it possible to distribute goods as perishable as bananas all over the world without their being damaged? “Because bananas are a biofact, an example of nature technically adapted to the needs of people,” says researcher Linda Hering. “The term biofact derives from the Latin bios, meaning life, and facere, meaning to do or make. The banana may well retain a living, biological component, but the majority of what makes up the bananas for sale in supermarkets and organic shops is the result of human intervention. As a result, a great deal of technical knowledge is encoded in bananas, including how to transport them across the Atlantic without their going bad,” says Hering. However, this technical aspect is not conducive to the marketing of bananas. This explains why so many are sold as “harvest-fresh.” More on the significance of this later. Ecological and social expectations such as sustainable farming and fair working conditions also have an impact on the fruit.
“Turning a banana into a biofact is the result of wide-ranging human intervention at a number of different locations. Where it is grown, the EU internal market with its various regulations, logistical requirements, and trade define the character of a banana, its materiality,” says Linda Hering, researcher in the “Re-Figuration of Spaces” Collaborative Research Center. Working with geographer Julia Fülling from Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Hering examined Caribbean bananas in German food retail and concluded that they are the result of the expertise and work of different actors at various locations.
“The bananas on offer in Europe are grown in Central America and the Caribbean, some 8,000 kilometers away from their point-of-sale. The reason for this is that they cannot be grown in Europe, with the exception of Madeira and the Canary Islands. A number of steps need to be fulfilled before this perishable fruit can be sold in supermarkets in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. It is mainly the legal and corporate standards for seed producers and retailers in the Global North which determine which varieties from plantations in the Global South are suitable for long-distance transport and storage. But the different varieties of banana also have to be suitable for cultivation as monocultures, as monocultures are particularly susceptible to disease and pest infection. Resistance and the capacity to withstand both transport and storage have a major influence on the selection of varieties. “These three requirements alone have resulted in the Cavendish variety dominating plantations the world over and for the most part this is also the only variety on sale in Germany. Cavendish bananas succeeded the Gros Michel variety in the early 1970s after the latter was almost completely destroyed by a fungal disease. Cavendish is a human cultivar resistant to the soil-borne fungus Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense.
EU regulations such as 2257/94 also place requirements on bananas and help determine which varieties are grown on plantations in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic. This regulation requires that bananas imported to the EU must be at least 14 centimeters long and 2.7 centimeters in diameter.
Then there are the expectations of some consumers here in Germany. For them, it is increasingly important that certain ethical standards are maintained during production, such as fair pay for plantation workers and a environmentally-friendly cultivation, resulting in a fair-trade banana. At the same time, German consumers have grown used over the years to cheap bananas which look perfect and are available all year round. “The banana is also expected to achieve a balance between what is expected of a mass product and the increasingly individualized needs of consumers and markets,” says Hering.
Logistics, in other words transportation, storage, and distribution, plays an essential role in the sale of bananas in Germany. There are many stages to go through before wholesalers and retailers place their orders, presenting many demands over and above the purely technical requirements of, for example, digital communication technologies. Firstly, the bananas are packaged on the plantations from where they are transported to the ports for loading into refrigerated containers and shipped across the Atlantic in 14 days. Upon arrival in Vlissingen in the Netherlands, the logistics hub for banana imports in northern Europe, they are then distributed to ripening facilities in various countries for further storage in refrigerated containers.
The entire delivery chain embodies a huge amount of knowledge about the biological metabolic processes of bananas as well as the modern technologies influencing them and which enable the ripening process to be switched off and on at the press of a button, so to speak. Bananas, which are quickly perishable, have to be harvested when still green and unripe to prevent them arriving on the fresh produce shelves in supermarkets in a mushy, brown state. “Bananas give off the ripening gas ethylene, which means the air in the cooling containers has to be changed 90 times every hour; the transport temperature is 13 degrees Celsius. This prevents the ripening process occurring during transport as far as possible. Sensors are used to monitor these parameters. Only when they reach the ripening facilities and orders for specific amounts are received from retailers and wholesalers do the ripening technicians treat the bananas with ethylene. This boosts the ripening process so that the bananas reach the supermarkets in an acceptably ripe condition.
“However, rather than presenting bananas in supermarkets as a “miracle of logistics”, retailers (the third group involved in their creation) market bananas to the public as harvest-fresh,” says Linda Hering. This adjective implies something which is natural. In other words, bananas are presented as a natural product although this is no longer exactly the case. They are actually a product created by many protagonists involved in both their cultivation and the logistics chain. But we never get to hear this. “Our research showed us that retailers provide some information about the cultivation process, but withhold other details. Absolutely no information is provided regarding the logistics involved. Clearly, such information is not seen as likely to contribute to the sales of bananas, although the logistics processes are essential for their circulation,” says Hering. A QR code provides consumers with information about where their bananas are grown, about a worker and their working day, a drinking water project and a sponsored football team, both financed by one of the supermarket chain’s own banana funds, all surrounded by images of white beaches with Latin American music playing in the background. However, the location of the drinking water project and the football team have nothing to do with where the bananas are grown or with the bananas themselves. The customer gets to hear nothing about the use of pesticides and the treatment of bananas with ethylene. This would make a mockery of the claims of a harvest-fresh, natural product.
“What we were also able to deduce from the bananas is that the places and processes involved in their production – where they are grown, the logistical processes involved, where they are stored and where they are sold – impact on and are mutually dependent upon each other,” explains Hering. The fact that bananas are perishable impacts on the logistics processes (for example, treating them with ethylene). The tortuous process of transporting and storing bananas also has an impact on the products reaching back to where they are grown. “Global trade on an industrial scale requires the majority of products, including fresh produce like fruit and vegetables, to be standardized in terms of their biodiversity, shape and size to make them manageable for complex logistics processes and to ensure that they are available in the same quantity and quality at the point-of-sale,” write Hering and Fülling. This in turn results in monocultures taking hold in plantations in Central America and the Caribbean, the loss of biodiversity, and damaged ecosystems and runs counter to the expectations of sustainable production. It also reduces quality seals to sales gimmicks.
Linda Hering and Julia Fülling conducted their research within the project “Knowledge and goods: consumers’ and producers’ spatial knowledge.” This is a subproject of Collaborative Research Center (CRC) 1265 “Re-Figuration of Spaces”. CRC 1265 speaker is Professor Dr. Martina Löw, head of the Chair of Sociology and Planning of Architecture at TU Berlin.