BATS, BANANAS, PESTICIDES and CHILD LABOUR

 

This is a complicated subject. I don’t know where to begin.

WHY? THE BANANA IS SUCH A SIMPLE FRUIT; ZIP-OFF JACKET AND NO SEEDS.

That’s right, no seeds. That lack of seeds is one of today’s Big Banana Problems.

I’ll start with some simple banana facts.

1. Bananas are the world’s favourite fruit.(1)

2. Bananas are nutritionally very good for human beings. They are the main source of calories for millions of people in the tropical world.(2)

3. Bananas are a BIG money business. In money terms, bananas are the 4th most valuable food crop in the world. Numbers 1, 2 and 3 are Rice, Wheat and Corn.(2)

4. Bananas make a larger profit than any other item in Britain's supermarkets.(1)

AND THE BAT CONNECTION?

Old world tropical fruit bats pollinate and plant wild bananas including Wahlberg's Epauletted Fruit Bat, the Egyptian Rousette Fruit Bat, the Marianas Fruit Bat, the Dawn Fruit Bat, the Short-nosed Fruit Bat and the Pacific Flying Fox.(3)

Pacific flying foxes

Wild bananas are also pollinated and planted by many new world tropical bats including the Banana Bat (Musonycteris harrisoni)that lives in southwestern Mexico.(4)

Banana Bat
Musonycteris harrisoni

There is another Banana Bat (Pipistrellus nanus). This tiny insect-eating bat lives in Africa. It is not a known Banana Plant flower pollinator. Pipistrellus nanus roosts inside a young uncurling Banana Plant leaf and has to change residence as the leaf opens. It has a larger insect-eating bat companion in its leaf roost, the Rufous Hairy Bat (Myotis bocagei), which local people call "the Banana Bat's big brother". (5)

 

SO WE CAN THANK BATS FOR EVERY BANANA ON THE SHOP SHELF?

Yes. But we would probably not eat the wild bananas that bats actually pollinate and plant. The fruit is dry, tasteless and has big seeds. One native name for wild bananas is “tae manu” which means animal feces, animal poo. People usually only eat those bananas when they are starving. They are called “famine food”.(6)

The whole banana and cross-section of a banana above are about 3 inches long (about 7.5 centimeters). They are the actual size of a wild banana species, Musa acuminata, subspecies banksii, that grows in Samoa. Very tiny!(6)


WHAT CAUSED BANANAS TO BECOME SWEET AND SEEDLESS?

Banana plants mutate easily. That means that now and then a plant sets fruit that is different than the fruit on other banana plants. The fruit could be bigger or sweeter or have smaller seeds or have no seeds at all.

Thousands of years ago in Asia a farmer discovered a Mutant Banana Plant that had very small seeds. Banana plants send up little banana plants around their stems that are called “peepers” or “suckers”. That early farmer replanted the little suckers from the Mutant Banana Plant. Ten to fifteen months later the farmer and his or her family could enjoy a harvest of bananas with very small seeds.

Over the centuries those first small-seeded bananas changed in many other ways and became the hundreds of different kinds of bananas that people like today.

 

HUNDREDS OF DIFFERENT KINDS OF BANANAS?! ALL THE BANANAS I HAVE SEEN LOOK EXACTLY THE SAME.

That’s because only a few kinds can be produced that travel well. Unless we visit markets in tropical countries we are missing out on the great variety of bananas, many of which are tastier than the ones we know, are differently shaped and differently coloured.

YOU KEEP SAYING “BANANA PLANT”. I THOUGHT BANANAS GREW ON BANANA TREES.

A banana plant can be 25 feet (7.6 metres) tall, as tall as some trees, but it is a herb, the biggest herb in the world. What looks like the trunk of a tree is really the overlapped stems of a banana plant’s big leaves.(7)

PLEASE TAKE ME ON A JOURNEY FROM THE FIRST MUTANT BANANAS TO THE BANANAS HANGING ON A HOOK IN MY FRUIT AND VEGETABLE SHOP.

That is a long journey through time and space and some of the history is lost. The journey might have happened like this.

The small, seedless mutant bananas developed by Asian farmers perhaps 10,000 years ago were carried by travellers, explorers, slave and ivory traders, colonizers and soldiers from Asia to India to Arabia to Madagascar, which is the big island off the east coast of Africa.

From there bananas travelled across Africa to the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa. They sailed to the Caribbean, the West Indies, Central and South America. Bananas also travelled to the South Sea Islands with the Polynesians on their long sea journeys.

Bananas grew and prospered in all of those places. In fact in Africa sweet bananas and their relative, cooking plantains, became the basic or staple food for millions of people.

Many banana farmers are women.(8) The money women make from selling the bananas they don’t eat helps to pay for the childrens’ school fees, building clean water storage tanks and buying additional nutritious food for their families.

YOU DIDN’T MENTION EUROPE AS A STOP ON THE BANANA JOURNEY. HOW DID BANANAS COME TO EUROPE?

Travellers and explorers carried the banana to Europe and North America. The general public couldn’t buy bananas imported from the growing countries until special refrigerated ships and railroad cars were designed to carry the bananas and keep them from ripening too soon. That happened in the early 1900’s.

The bananas are picked green and have to be delivered in 20 days. The journey by ship from the Caribbean to England takes 11 days. Then the bananas have to journey by truck to your fruit and vegetable store. It is a high-pressure, intense business.(9)

There is one European country that doesn’t have to worry about shipping schedules. Iceland grows its own bananas in big greenhouses heated by water from the island’s many volcanic hot springs. (10)

The sale of tropical bananas to non-banana-growing countries is a multi-million pound and dollar business. It means employment for hundreds of thousands of people in all of the countries where bananas grow, especially the Caribbean, Central and South America.

THAT IS VERY GOOD NEWS! THE BATS THAT POLLINATED AND PLANTED THE ORIGINAL WILD BANANA PLANTS HAVE A PART IN GIVING PEOPLE FOOD AND EMPLOYMENT TODAY!

Yes, but there is a dark side to that bright picture. Powerful American fruit companies were able to create massive banana plantations on Caribbean Islands and in Central and South America.

They cut down rain forests and displaced native people from their lands. They also hired hundreds of thousands of people to work on the plantations.(11)

The big fruit company owners soon discovered that various kinds of fungi have a hearty appetite for banana plants. The only way to stop the fungi from growing was to spray and spray and spray the banana plants with aerial bombardments of chemical poisons from airplanes.

A fungus is a quick-change artist. It can quickly change itself when it meets each new poison, stay alive and carry on killing banana plants. That has meant more spraying with even more poisonous chemicals.

 

WHAT ABOUT THE PEOPLE WORKING ON BANANA PLANTATIONS? ARE THEY PROTECTED FROM ALL THAT SPRAYING?

Not always. They are often expected to keep working while the chemicals rain down. Families live in housing close to the banana plantations. They are exposed to the poison rain also. Women who wash their working family’s clothes are exposed to the poison. The poison can cause human sterility. People can’t have babies. Babies that are born are often deformed.(12)

And take a closer look at the people working on the banana plantations. In Ecuador alone there are thousands of children working on banana plantations. They are less than 15 years old and some are as young as 8 years old.

They miss out on school, work up to 12 hours a day, climb 16 foot banana plants carrying sharp knives, haul loads that are too heavy for them and endure the pesticide showers. The children earn very little money but the money they do earn is important to help support their families.(13)

Young banana plantation worker transporting banana stalks for processing

SURELY LABOUR UNIONS DON’T ALLOW CHILDREN TO WORK ON A BANANA PLANTATION AND SHOULDN’T ALLOW ANYONE TO WORK IN THAT POISONOUS ATMOSPHERE WITHOUT PROTECTION.

The few unions that exist in South America have hardly any members. The big fruit companies don’t encourage unions to form. (13)

OH, DEAR, THIS IS A COMPLICATED TOPIC. WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP? IF WE ALL STOP BUYING BANANAS THOSE WORKERS WON’T HAVE ANY JOBS AT ALL.

We can help by buying Fair Trade organic bananas. They will cost more, but it means we are encouraging banana production where deadly poisons aren’t used and where the people who work on banana plantations get more of the money that is made. As it is now, most of the money made by raising bananas goes to supermarket owners in another country, not to the workers.


WE CAN CLONE A SHEEP. WHY CAN’T SOMEONE DESIGN A BANANA PLANT THAT DOESN’T GET DISEASES? THEN BANANAS WOULDN’T HAVE TO BE SPRAYED WITH POISON.

So far it seems to be easier for scientists to clone a sheep or even a human being than to breed a banana that doesn’t get diseases. Scientists need seeds to breed better bananas. The bananas we like to eat have no seeds, just little dark spots where seeds used to be.

In 2003 a laboratory opened in Uganda, east Africa, which hopes to protect banana crops by genetic modification. Bananas are a major source of nourishment in Ugandan diets.(14)

Scientists in Honduras have developed a banana that can be grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This banana is known as FHIA. It ships well and so far the plants that have been tried in Uganda are more resistant to disease.(15)

 


IT SOUNDS AS IF BATS ARE NO LONGER NEEDED IN THE BANANA
BUSINESS.

If scientists fail to develop a disease-free delicious banana that travels well, they will have to go back to the wild bat-pollinated bananas with big seeds and start over from scratch.

The evolution from the wild bad-tasting banana with big seeds to the banana we eat today could have taken hundreds of years, maybe even thousands of years. How long will it take scientists to repeat the work of those ancient Asian farmers? If scientists persist in that task, they may still need the pollinating and seed-planting bats to help them by ensuring the existence of genetically valuable wild banana plants.

 

References:

(1)Bates, Jennifer, Bent Logic, Earthmatters, Friends of the Earth, Issue 56, Autumn 2003, p.16

(2)Canine, Craig, Building a Better Banana, Smithsonian Magazine.com; http://www.smithsonianmag.com/issues/2005/october/banana.php

(3)Fujita, M.S. 1991. Flying Fox (Chiroptera:Pteropodidae) Pollination, Seed Dispersal, and Economic Importance: A Tabular Summary of Current Knowledge, Resource Publication No. 2, Bat Conservation International

(4)New York Botanical Gardens Bat/Plant Databases http://www.nybg.org/botany/tlobova/mori/batsplants/database/dbase_main.htm

(5)Wendy White, Personal Communication, 28 November 2003

(6)Balic, Michael J., Cox, Paul Alan, Plants, People, and Culture, the Science of Ethnobotany, Scientific American Library, 1997

(7)Morton, Julia, Banana, Fruits of Warm Climates, pages 29-46, 1987;http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton

(8)Qaim, Matin, A Socioeconomic Outlook in Tissue-culture Technology in Kenyan Banana Production, Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 40, p. 18-22; http://www.biotech-monitor.nl/4008.htm

(9) A History, Banana Facts; http://www.vandamme.be/history.html

(10) Root, Waverley 1980. Food, Simon and Schuster, New York

(11)United Fruit Company - Wikipedia, The free encyclopedia; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Fruit_Company

(12)Blythman, Joanna, Bent Bananas, Ecologistonline; http://www.theecologist.org/current_issue/bent_bananas.htm

(13)Tainted Harvest, Child Labor and Obstacles to Organizing on Ecuador's Banana Plantations, Human Rights Watch; http://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/ecuador/

(14)New Uganda lab to improve bananas, The Guardian,Life, page 7, 28.08.03

(15)The 'FHIA' good factor for Ugandan Bananas, New Agriculturist On Line; http://www.new-agri.co.uk/03-5/develop/dev01.html

 

 

THE PLANT

The Banana Plant

Order: Zingiberales
Family: Musaceae (Bananas and Manila Hemp)
Genus: Musa
Species: Musa acuminata, Musa balbisiana (wild species)

 

THE BATS*

Marianas Flying Fox (Pteropus mariannus)
Dawn Fruit Bat (Eonycteris spelaea)
Pacific Flying Fox (Pteropus tonganus)
Seba's Short-tailed Bat (Carollia perspicillata)
White-lined Bat (Vampyprops lineatus)
Tailed Tailess Bat (Anoura caudifer)
Pallas's Spear-nosed Bat (Phyllostomus hastatus)
Long-tongued Nectar Bat (Glossophaga soricina)
Little Big-eared Bat (Micronycteris megalotis)
Jamaican Fruit Bat (Artibeus jamaicensis)
Big Fruit Bat (Artibeus lituratus)
Wahlberg's Epauletted Fruit Bat (Epomophorus wahlbergi)
Egyptian Rousette Fruit Bat (Rousettus aegyptiacus)
Short-nosed Fruit Bat (Cynopterus sphinx)
Banana Bat (Musonycteris harrisoni)

and many others.

Fujita, M.S. 1991. Flying Fox (Chiroptera:Pteropodidae) Pollination, Seed Dispersal, and Economic Importance: A Tabular Summary of Current Knowledge, Resource Publication No. 2, Bat Conservation International

New York Botanical Gardens Bat/Plant Databases http://www.nybg.org/botany/tlobova/mori/batsplants/database/dbase_main.htm

Text and illustrations by Mary Louise Alley-Crosby who thanks Dr. Merlin D. Tuttle, Founder and President, Bat Conservation International, Austin, Texas, for permission to use his photograph of Pacific flying foxes as as source material.
Updated 12 March 2006

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