Why are Bananas such a Cheap Staple in the United States?

The picture on the right is a cluster of banana plants that, amazingly, grew out of a compost pile here at the farm. Like many foods that we eat, the history of the banana is sinister and unfortunately, the contemporary production of the crop is harmful, too. After reading this post, I invite you to join me in trying to find alternatives to banana consumption that are local and non-exploitative! 

Although it is disputed exactly where the banana plant originated, it was somewhere in Southeast Asia and is believed to have been the first fruit that humans cultivated. Bananas were brought to Africa by Arab conquerors and then brought to the Americas from the Caribbean via British Imperialism and colonization. Between the 1830’s and 1880’s, banana production exploded and huge areas across Central and South America were turned into monocultures. 

Quickly, bananas became a tool of imperialism, as the United States began to use corporations and monopolies to extract resources and labor from other countries. That is to say, companies like the United Fruit Company (UFCO), which was founded in 1899, were corporate extensions of colonialism. The men who owned UFCO were able to extend their power by collaborating with corrupt political leaders in other countries, such as the dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera in Guatemala. Eventually, UFCO literally managed the Guatemalan postal service, controlled over 40% of the country's land, owned their telephone system as well as most of the railroad tracks, did not pay taxes, etc. There is a LOT more to this history that you can read about, but UFCO even played a large role in the Guatemalan coup d’état, spreading anti-communist propaganda about the country and collaborating with the CIA. 

This process of exploiting smaller countries to produce one crop for exporting/foreign consumption and benefit is where the derogatory concept of a ‘banana republic’ came from. Although this post focused on Guatemala, it was not the only country that UFCO and similar companies forced imperial control over. 

UFCO now runs under the name Chiquita, continuing to exploit both land and people alongside its competitors, Dole and Del Monte. This website has a comprehensive list of the ways in which banana monopolies are abusive, from violent repression of unionization to spraying workers and their homes (workers often live on the plantations, which creates economic enclaves) with the huge amount of chemicals that are necessary to maintain a monoculture.

We have to ask ourselves, as a fruit that almost always has to travel thousands of miles to arrive in our hands, why are bananas so cheap? The reality is that the imperial legacy of the banana persists and the ‘external’ costs of banana production on land and people are not deemed worthy of calculation.