Commercial banana growers like Chiquita
pesticides to combat fungus,
insects and other pests that
could destroy the fruit.
And they use those pesticides often.
Chiquita SECRETS Revealed
MIKE GALLAGHER & CAMERON McWHIRTER
Cincinnati Enquirer 3may1998
"They don't want us doing any research. For example, water pollution. It is better (for a company) to suspect that the water is polluted than to know that the water is polluted." - Professor Luisa Castillo, Costa Rica's National University Pesticide ProgramCommercial banana growers like Chiquita use numerous pesticides to combat fungus, insects and other pests that could destroy the fruit. And they use those pesticides often.
The reason is simple. Bananas sold in the United States or Europe are almost all one type: the Gran Cavendish, the large banana that consumers have grown to expect. On miles of plantations from Guatemala in Central America to Ecuador thousands of miles to the south, the fruit is genetically identical.
Because the tropical plants are planted in close proximity and come from the same genetic source - a system known as "monoculture" farming - an outbreak of pests, fungi or disease can quickly wipe out a plantation.
It would be as if scientists cloned one person who was likely to get a disease. If that person got the disease, soon all of the clones would catch it as well, unless they were given massive amounts of medicine. In the case of bananas, you use pesticides.
"You're creating an extremely artificial situation. You're creating a situation that is ripe for some kind of a pest or fungal problem to sweep your plantation," said Dr. Thomas Lacher, Jr., an associate professor at Texas A&M's Department Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences and co-author of a recent article on risks to the environment by the banana industry.
He said the multinational companies, including Chiquita, use pesticides now that are dangerous and toxic or "pretty hot" when applied.
But these pesticides don't just go on the plants. Applied by air or by workers with backpack sprayers, pesticides drift through the air. They get into the soil and onto workers, villagers and animals.
Scientists and environmentalists stress that the industry's pesticide problem is not endangering the consumer, but endangering the workers and villagers where the bananas are grown.
"What makes you ill or can even kill you as a worker may not affect you as a consumer," according to Colorado State University Professor Douglas Murray, author of Cultivating Crisis: The Human Cost of Pesticides in Latin America.
Over the decades, the banana industry has faced a series of problems related to the use of pesticides. One of the most highly publicized cases involved Dibromochloropropane, known by the acronym DBCP, which was widely used in the 1970s to combat tiny parasitic worms that attack the roots of the banana plant.
DBCP, through improper application and toxicity, allegedly caused sterility in male workers, according to lawsuits filed in U.S. courts. By 1997, more than 24,000 banana workers, mostly in Costa Rica and many of them employees of Chiquita or its subsidiaries, signed up for class action law suits against the manufacturer, Dow Chemical, and users of the pesticide, including Chiquita.
The lawsuits stated that many men had become sterile and medical evidence linked their sterility to the pesticide. The companies, including Chiquita, which said it used the chemical only in the early to mid-1970s, have fought efforts to get the case tried in a U.S. jurisdiction. In June, Dow Chemical offered $22 million in a global settlement - which worked out to a few hundred dollars per worker.
"We continue to dispute our liability," Dow Chemical spokesman Dan Fellner told the Enquirer. "Unfortunately, many of the users and purchasers of DBCP did not read the labels or follow the instructions."
The plaintiffs accepted the offer from Dow, but cases against the banana companies are pending.
"If we ever get in a courtroom, we'll kill them," said one of the plaintiff attorneys, Charles Siegal of Dallas.
In a statement issued through its attorneys, Chiquita did not mention litigation but stated it stopped using DBCP in 1977, "two years before the EPA banned DBCP in 1979."
EPA records show it ordered DBCP phased out for use in the United States in 1977. The product was banned in Costa Rica in 1978. The EPA ordered a complete ban on the product in 1979, meaning any product that tests positive for even a trace of the pesticide may not be brought into the United States.
As consumer consciousness about pesticide use increased over the years, the banana industry changed pesticides when problems were brought to the public's attention in North America and Europe.
For example, in 1990, the pesticide Aldicarb was banned by the EPA after levels above EPA safety guidelines were found in potatoes being brought to market. Later, excess levels were found by FDA checks of some bananas coming to American ports. Quickly, the pesticide was dropped by the entire banana industry.
Professor Luisa Castillo, head of the National University's Pesticide Program in Costa Rica, said she and other scientists had complained about Aldicarb to banana growers for years, with little result. Chiquita stated that it used the pesticide for only one year.
"Aldicarb was very popular, but it was causing a very high number of pesticide poisonings to workers, and it was also causing fish kills and other problems here," she said. "We had already pointed out this problem with Aldicarb, but nothing had been done. It was only in the moment that the residue appeared in the fruit that immediately they (growers) stopped using Aldicarb."
Industry supporters said that banana companies don't misuse pesticides.
"Pesticides are very expensive, so you only use them if you absolutely have to," said Robert Moore, president of the
International Banana Association (IBA), a Washington D.C.-based group working for the interests of the American banana industry.
Since the Aldicarb scare, the banana industry has met safety standards for U.S. Food and Drug Administration spot checks at the ports. According to FDA reports, administration tests from 1992 to 1994 showed traces of pesticides in the bananas sampled but rarely in unsafe amounts. The FDA checks only a fraction of the bananas brought into the United States. In 1996, it conducted tests on fewer than 800 shipments. During the same period, tens of thousands of shipments brought more than 22.3 billion bananas into the country, according to the IBA.
Polly Hoppin, director of agricultural pollution prevention at the World Wildlife Fund and an expert on pesticides said the FDA checks don't reveal much about what is going on at the plantations.
Professor Scott Witter at Michigan State University's Institute of International Agriculture said that most pesticides applied these days may show up in FDA banana sampling, but virtually always within safe amounts for consumers. But for the thousands of people working on or living near the banana plantations, pesticides threaten their health.
"The people who tend to take it on the nose are the Costa Ricans or the Hondurans or the Ecuadoreans who work on the plantations when they are doing the spraying," he said. "They're in the field. Their water supplies get contaminated. Their kids play in the dirt that's contaminated that day. I've yet to witness a really wonderful program where they say, OK, we're spraying today, everybody needs to stay inside."
Chiquita, through its lawyers, has stated that "There is no soil contamination problem on Chiquita farms."
Scientists complain that figuring out how exactly pesticides are affecting people and the environment on banana plantations is extremely difficult, because gathering any hard data is constantly resisted by banana companies.
"They don't want us doing any research," said Professor Castillo at the Pesticide Program. "For example, water pollution. It is better (for a company) to suspect that the water is polluted than to know that the water is polluted."
The large banana companies resist independent scientific studies on their plantations, because they don't want the public to know, she contended.
"They are always saying that hard data can affect them in the international market," Professor Castillo said. "So if it is known that there are pollution and health problems, then people won't want to buy the product. From our point of view, we feel we have to know the situation in order to change it and that we hope that the more educated consumer will change things."
Professor Lacher at Texas A&M said he and his co-authors on his recent paper about agrochemicals in the banana industry tried to get the multinational companies to cooperate, but could not get anyone to talk with them.
"We didn't publish the industry perspective, but you can't get access to industry information," said Mr. Lacher. "If everything is proprietary, there's nothing we can do about it."
Mr. Lacher said the industry is defensive on the pesticide issue.
"Nobody's saying you shouldn't grow bananas," he said. "Nobody's saying you shouldn't apply chemicals. But what you need to do is look at what the major sources of risks are."
Scientists aren't the only ones feeling a cold shoulder.
Several years ago, the Intergovernmental Group on Bananas of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization set up a special committee called the Banana Improvement Project. In a 1995 report, project officials stated that they hoped the major companies would provide the project with money and technical assistance to tackle difficult problems facing banana production, including Black Sigatoka - the destructive, airborne disease that threatens the entire banana industry and has led major companies to increase aerial spraying on their farms.
At the Intergovernmental group's meeting in Rome last May, the Banana Improvement Project wrote its own epitaph in the meeting report.
"The lack of financial support from the banana industry is surprising and extremely disappointing," the report read.