When we think of bananas and the Japanese, the heralded ‘Morning banana diet’ may come to mind. Indeed a banana buying craze broke out in Japan when this diet debuted in March 2008. In a week, sales increased by 70% causing a price spike and pressure on imports. The basic premise is that by only consuming bananas for breakfast with a glass of room temperature water, you will lose weight, providing you have regular meals, snacks in moderation and eat dinner before 8pm. There are probably more ins and outs to it, and I suggest you check out the official site if you want further information. My interest lies not in diet crazes, but in the provenance of these bananas.
Even prior to this banana diet frenzy, which has been unique simply due to its endurance; bananas were the fruit of choice among the Japanese-consuming 970,000 tonnes in 2007. They are among the top 10 countries who import bananas, accounting for 7 % of worldwide banana imports between 2002-2006, the third largest import market after the US and Europe. Some of this may be due to bananas being much lower priced than their fruity counterparts. Indeed during my time in Japan (I’m now back in Europe for the time being) bananas were pretty much the only fruit I ate due to the extortionate prices of other fruit there. Difficult times lay ahead for me as a self confessed fruit junkie, and led to much raisin rationing. Thankfully a whole platter of fruit (or so it seemed in my fruit deprived and somewhat jet lag state) awaited me on arrival back home, in response to my cries of fruit deficiency. So an arigato to the mother there.
Diamond encrusted fruit?
This begs the question of why fruit is so expensive in Japan. Part of this can be explained by Japan’s very protective agricultural regulations; the prices reflect the high tariffs imposed on fruit imports. This enables stronger protection of domestic producers and in the context of increasing concerns over food miles, this approach can only be applauded. The Japanese are also stringent on quality, so if the quality of the import is not competitive with local quality, it is likely to be rejected. And then there is the case of ‘gift fruiting’, in which fruit is chosen for their aesthetic value then polished, boxed and lovingly presented as a perfect gift for one’s family, friends, boss… Oh and a giant price tag is slapped on for good measure. However many Japanese producers tend to be small scale farmers who produce in small quantities and will take great care over their fruit, to the extent that in some cases apples are individually wrapped on the trees to protect them! This goes some way to justifying this premium on some fruit.
So why the ‘bargain bin’ banana prices?
- Firstly there has been a downward trend towards fruit consumption among the younger generation. Why? Many people find it a pain to peel and cut fruit, and prefer supplements or fruit based beverages. However if you ask me, eating a pear or an apple is not overly troublesome…But in Japan, the mindset tends to be that apples, or grapes for example must be peeled and chopped. The only fruit which seem to have bucked this downward trend are pineapples, kiwifruit and yes, bananas. And whilst the import restrictions remain so severe the prices will remain high, also contributing to the falling consumption of fruit.
- Unlike fruits such as apples, there is no domestic production of edible bananas, and the worldwide oversupply of bananas has led to depression in banana prices everywhere. This was caused in part by the establishment of the EU Banana Regime market in the nineties, and wrangling with the WTO and the US who disputed the EU’s protection of former colonies who produced bananas. This consequently created uncertainties in the banana market and overproduction, thus saturating the market and depressing prices. This was compounded by the financial crisis in Asia towards the end of the nineties and the poor economic situation of the Russian Federation, which led to lower than expected market demands for bananas.
As mentioned in my previous post there does seem to be a great gaping hole in the Japanese Fairtrade market, and this was equally reflected with the bananas I saw on my shopping expeditions. Dole seems to be the main contender, or should I say monopoly on the banana market. Dole I equate to dollar bananas i.e. cheap bananas sourced from the blood and sweat of oppressed underpaid plantation workers. Strong imagery perhaps, but not entirely far from the truth…Coming from the UK where Fairtrade bananas (and organic) has become the norm, where leading supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s and Waitrose only stock Fairtrade, further emphasised to me the lack of ethical provenance of bananas in Japan.
Facts and figures:
But these are just initial observations, and as any researcher worth their soya sauce should know, one should not take observations at face value. The Philippines has consistently been Japan’s primary source of bananas, accounting for 60% -90% of their fresh banana export (depending on which sources you read). Yet despite the exports accounting for a good proportion of Filipino earnings, it hasn’t necessarily been a cosy relationship for the workers, who have reported health problems due to the application of dangerous pesticides during its cultivation. In 1986, ‘The Stop the Philippine Banana Pesticides Campaign’ was set up to apply pressure on multinationals. A survey found 26 different chemicals being used which included World Health Organisation (WHO) class A (extremely hazardous) pesticides aldicarb, phenamiphos and ethoprop. Although the Japanese government have set a limit on pesticide residues, this applies to Japanese products, and not those imported.
Part of the problem of banana cultivation is that historically it is a form of agriculture which expanded to the detriment of forests and natural vegetation, which reduced biodiversity due to its monoculture plantations, and thus required large inputs of artificial fertilisers and pesticides to prevent disease and maximise productivity.
On a human level, the conventional banana industry is well known for its abuse of labour laws: child labour, low pay, excessively long working hours, discrimination, sexual harassment and the ignorance of health and safety regulations.
The slightly less depressing news…
Due to overproduction, the expansion of areas for banana cultivation has stabilised thus reducing the threat to primary forest since the focus is now upon increasing yields on existing farms. However this does not negate the problem of intensive agrochemical use on monocultures (and its enormously polluting effect), nor the danger it poses to workers health who in the vast majority of cases still remain unprotected and exploited.
However a few environmental and social certifications and labels do exist in the world of bananas, the most recognised being:
- Organic farming
- Fair Trade
- Rainforest Alliance
The main impasse to organic production is the fungal disease Black Sigatoka, which remains a large threat to the banana crop, as well as its ability to mutate and develop resistance to fungicides. Furthermore, in Japan, their strict phytosanitary rules and inspections also create difficulties for traders attempting to import organic bananas, a similar situation they face in the US and New Zealand.
In terms of Fairtrade, Japan has been importing small quantities of the ‘balangon’ bananas from the Philippines since 1989, through the company Alter Trade. However this still remains a minority activity which is somewhat surprising when you discover that the production of bananas by Fairtrade producers currently exceeds market demand, and there is therefore a surplus. This has led to FLO International (Fairtrade Labelling Organization International) restricting new producer groups from registering for Fairtrade status, unless they can prove they are able to sell to a new Fairtrade market. This is to prevent existing Fairtrade producers losing business due to a glut of new Fairtrade producers. The alternative proposed is a Fairtrade quota system.
Bin the bargain bananas!
Perhaps this seems a simplistic or naive conclusion, but as one of the biggest banana importers in the world, wouldn’t it make sense for the Fairtrade market to expand in Japan, to go some way towards rectifying the lack of market demand for Fairtrade? Yet as long as Japan continues to rely on bananas as a cheap source of food, and fuel for their weight loss regimes, challenging the ubiquitous, unethically low priced bananas will prove difficult, particularly as the price of other fruit remains so high.
- Philippine Banana and Japan
- ‘Banana diet craze sweeps Japan’. 29th September 2008. The Telegraph (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/3102492/Banana-diet-craze-sweeps-Japan.html )
- ‘Japan’s Banana Diet Strips Store Shelves’.25th October 2008, ABC News ( http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Diet/story?id=6108046&page=1)
- ‘Japanese Banana Boom is Boon to Dole as Imports Surge to Record’, 2009. (http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601081&sid=ajfQQ9KWR74U)
- The World Banana Economy, 1985-2002…
- Anytime is fruit time- Japan Today
- Japanese vegetables, fruit and mushrooms
- Oligopolies, Fair Trade, Bananas and Protectionism-Bized