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Stabilizing banana (conclusion)

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My apologies for the non-appearance last week of this, the third and final part of a series on the banana industry.

The gist of the earlier two parts is that it is high time we wake up to modern realities and stop, in completely unrealistic ways, to hark back to the past when we speak about the “revival” of the industry.{{more}}

There is no crop, no industry, which has been as abused as the banana industry in the Windward islands and been treated so much as a political football. Where has that gotten us?

There was a time, not too long ago, when Windwards’ bananas, while not a major factor in the global industry, held a prominent place in the UK market. All that has changed now, for a variety of reasons ranging from our own natural and man-made disasters to the changing nature of the UK market itself. Whereas in the 90s, our ‘green-gold’ was king in the UK, it is now bananas from Latin America which predominate, accounting for more than 60 per cent of the British market in 2015, in contrast to the less than one per cent from the Windwards (St. Lucia).

Latin American producers have been able to benefit from the continuous expansion of consumption in the UK to solidify their presence. Consumption of bananas in the UK is the highest in the European Union with each man, woman and child consuming an average of a 40 pound box of bananas per year. (I wonder what is our average consumption!)

Yet there are contradictions where prices are concerned. The British market is dominated by the giant supermarket chains, which have moved more and more, under social pressure to sell more “ethical” bananas – Fairtrade, organic etc. But their own price wars is having a heavy toll on prices.

The hardest hit is the so-called “loose” banana the prices of which are extremely low. It is a major contradiction to observe that even the cheapest apples, grown in the UK or the EU, fetch a retail price twice that of the price of imported bananas. How can that be?

This pricing imbalance and the cut-throat competition among the supermarket chains, is placing pressure on suppliers, and hence on producers, resulting in prices which are not sustainable. It means that more and more bananas from the cheapest sources are being sought, with Africa, primarily Ghana, and the Dominican Republic coming more and more into the picture.

These have implications for our own future in the market. Our UK marketer, WINFRESH, has been sourcing increasingly from both countries, in order to supplement supplies and keep market share. The DR trade is what today props up WINFRESH’s exports to the UK and makes its shipping service via, Geest Lines viable. Both countries export under the Fairtrade and organically-certified labels which now account for one-third of all British imports.

But it means that there is now also competition in Fairtrade, not always fair, since our small farmers, squeezed out of the conventional market by large Latin American plantations, now face plantation Fairtrade bananas as well.

All this means that we can no longer entertain political nonsense about banana recovery. All is far from lost but we must now objectively view the competition, rationalize production (what percentage for the UK, what for regional markets), increase local consumption. Above all quality production, whether for the UK or regional markets, can NEVER be ignored.

Additionally, we must all learn that it is not just production, but in the increase in productivity, that is going to make bananas, and agriculture viable. We are still at the yield per acre levels of the eighties and still behaving as though we are the only players on the block. Not so! We have to fight for each inch of market space.

Finally, and I will do a couple pieces on this, we have to develop an aggressive non-banana strategy to complement our banana revival efforts, linking it to agro-processing. There have been welcome but far too minuscule thrusts in this direction. We need to fit the pieces together, link production, productivity, agro-processing , local consumption, modernisation and ensuring decent returns and incomes to producers. Time for new ideas!

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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