Living Lightly: Going Bananas for Wildlife

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Branded America’s favorite fruit, the banana isn’t usually grown in ways favorable for wildlife. 

Banana plantations—found mostly in Latin America—are notorious for spraying a slew of toxic chemicals designed to keep the soil sterile and the habitat barren of everything but bananas.

One recent study found that the blood of caimans—small crocodiles—living downstream from banana plantations near the Tortuguero Conservation Area in Costa Rica had higher concentrations of pesticides in their blood and were in worse health than caimans in more remote, less polluted regions.

Paul Grant, a wildlife biologist from Stellenbosch University in South Africa, says that he and a number of local residents have witnessed fish kills related to pesticide exposure in the area. This bodes badly not only for caimans—long-lived, top-of-the-food-chain reptiles—but also for the birds and other animals that can be adversely affected by eating the contaminated fish. 

In some places, however, practices are improving, thanks to innovative leadership and consumer demand. 

About 30 miles from Tortuguero on an 800-acre commercial plan-tation operated by EARTH (Escuela de Agricultura de la Region Tropical Humeda) University, the habitat is anything but barren. Black howler monkeys make loud whoops nearly every evening. Birdsong starts before sunup, and dragonflies hover above puddles following the afternoon rains. The diversity of species present on the plantation—which exports 75 percent of its crop to Whole Foods in the United States—is proof that it’s possible to produce a wildlife-friendly banana alongside everything from toucans to sloths to wild cats.  

“Our sustainable practices make us different than a typical, conventional plantation,” says Michelle Medina, who leads business development at EARTH. The university took over the commercial plantation in 1989 to show that sustainability and turning a profit can go hand in hand. “Our drainage ditches have plants that clean the water and sequester carbon,” she says. “We even have shrimp in our canals, confirming that the water is healthy.”

Most commercial banana plantations don’t have ground cover because the herbicides they spray kills everything. “But ground cover promotes biodiversity, sequesters carbon and stops soil erosion, so we keep it,” says Medina. Hand-cutting the cover and manually removing weeds rather than aerial herbicide spraying also provides its 300 employees with a safer environment. The plantation is divided into several blocks, each one buffered by miles of rain forest to protect biodiversity and to harbor the birds and other animals that naturally reduce pests and lower the need for pesticides. 

To keep insects off banana bunches still on the stalk, EARTH covers them in bags like other plantations. But rather than soak or fill the bags with pesticides as conventional producers do, EARTH saturates them in a hot chili pepper and garlic mixture. “It doesn’t kill things, it just repels,” says Medina, pointing to the yellow warbler flitting overhead.

Unfortunately, the tropics make conditions ideal for fungus to grow—which causes banana bunches to ripen too soon—so it is difficult to be completely organic. For this, EARTH resorts to some targeted fungus chemical control while also relying on the use of “efficient microorganisms”—tiny bugs that control the spores of the fungus. Nemotodes (roundworms) are also a constant threat that EARTH combats with organic compost. “If nematodes have organic matter, than they don’t eat the roots of the banana,” says Edmundo Castro, director of the university’s carbon neutral program. 

When the bananas are finally picked, they’re affixed with the “EARTH University” label, proof positive that they were safely and sustainably produced. Consider settling for nothing less the next time you pluck a bunch of bananas from the produce aisle. —heidi ridgley

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