Bite goes on for 'ethical' bananas

KIM KNIGHT
Last updated 05:00 19/06/2011
Chris Morrison
PHIL DOYLE
BACKING BANANAS: Chris Morrison, from All Good Organics with some of the Fair Trade bananas.

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More banana-eating Kiwis are wanting to help the farmers who grow them and buy the more expensive Fairtrade certified fruit, Kim Knight reports.

In the public's mind, coffee is synonomous with Fairtrade. It's only in the past year you've had the opportunity to buy bananas, and then only if you go to particular shops.

Popular culture attributes the following to psychologist Sigmund Freud: "Sometimes a banana is just a banana."

Sorry Sigmund – New Zealand shoppers beg to differ.

This country imports more bananas per capita than any other nation in the world. And, in the last year, one million bunches of those were Fairtrade certified.

The ethically approved version of the lunchbox staple has, so far, grabbed a 4% market share. Campaigners say consumer response to the new product – just a year after its launch in the middle of an economic recession – is staggering.

"We all love a bargain," says Harriet Lamb, executive director of the United Kingdom's Fairtrade Foundation. "But if we tell people bananas are cheap because mothers on the other side of the world can't send their kids to school, then the public are really decent, they'll say: `I want a banana that is playing fair by the farmers who grow them'."

Lamb is in New Zealand this week promoting the cause that earned her the label "Eco Queen" from Cosmopolitan magazine – and a CBE in the UK's 2006 New Year's Honours list.

"I'm one of the few people who can say they've been a banana co-ordinator," says the 50-year-old. She says the fruit that is "practically given away" needs to be valued more. "How can you have bananas this cheap? Because someone, somewhere is paying the price."

Dangerous pesticides, pittance wages, total loss of self-determination – campaigners say workers in large-scale banana plantations are exposed to all that and more.

Fairtrade guarantees farmers a minimum price never lower than the market value. Buyers are required to enter into long-term trading relationships and charged an additional premimum that raises money for social, environmental or economic projects.

If you've bought a Fairtrade banana in New Zealand, for example, you've helped raise $80,000 for a co-operative of Ecuadorian growers who used the cash to fund a special needs school and clinic.

Why not support banana farmers closer to home? Chris Morrison, from All Good Organics, the company importing Fairtrade bananas, wishes he could. Small consignments of misi luki bananas have come in from Samoa, but the bulk are from an Ecuadorian co-operative of 400 small family farms.

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"New Zealand used to get a lot of bananas from Samoa and Tonga, but unfortunately, they couldn't deal with the corporate might of some of the players that came in... plantations reverted back to bush. We very much hope we will be able to bring Pacific bananas back to New Zealand, but it will take quite a while to build up that infrastructure."

Latest figures rank Kiwis as the world's 31st biggest banana eaters: 17.8kg per person, per year. The bulk of our bananas come from Ecuador (28 million kg last year) and the Phillippines (52m kg).

"They're a regular part of our daily diet," says Morrison. "And I guess most people presume their bananas are coming from an ethical source."

Fairtrade bananas average $1 a kilogram more than the more common Dole, Bonita or Gracio branded varieties.

Coffee is Fairtrade's biggest success story. Sales in New Zealand rose $2m to $18m last year.

Banana sales are growing, but there is a long way to go, says Lamb.

"In the public's mind, coffee is synonomous with Fairtrade. It's only in the past year you've had the opportunity to buy bananas, and then only if you go to particular shops." In New Zealand, total Fairtrade sales more than doubled last year, from $17.8m to $36.6m.

Lamb remembers the movement's early days. "Everyone was saying you'll never make it work ... the public don't care and they won't pay for it.

"But this is not about walking round in sackcloth and ashes. This is very mainstream and accessible and everybody can be part of it."

- Sunday Star Times

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