Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Growers' New Tune: Yes We Have Ecobananas ; IN LATEST SIGN THAT ECOLOGICALLY FRIENDLY FOOD IS BIG BUSINESS,CHIQUITA WILL SOON ADOPT ECO-OK LABEL

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Growers' New Tune: Yes We Have Ecobananas ; IN LATEST SIGN THAT ECOLOGICALLY FRIENDLY FOOD IS BIG BUSINESS,CHIQUITA WILL SOON ADOPT ECO-OK LABEL

Article excerpt

Bananas are going green.

Americans buying their favorite fruit may see signs at the produce stand announcing that the bunches are "Eco-OK."

That means the companies that grow the fruit are meeting environmental and social standards set by green groups. And bananas are just the latest Latin American crop. Heightened social responsibility is spreading from the banana plantations to coffee, cacao, sugar, and citrus producers. The food industry has caught on that, in this time of prosperity, Americans are willing to pay more to feel good about what they eat.

"It's smart business as well as environmentally and socially sound," says Bill Liebhardt, of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program at the University of California at Davis. "It builds a better position in the marketplace. It's part of good business to present your product as environmentally benign or beneficial and to say that you pay your workers a good salary."

Last month, a sign of change in the banana business came when Ecuador's second largest producer, Reybancorp, earned the right to use the Eco-OK seal of the Better Banana Project. By early fall, Chiquita, one of the top three banana producers (along with Dole and Del Monte), will qualify as well.

"When you take those two companies together, it means a transformation of the banana industry," says Chris Wille, who works for the Rainforest Alliance out of Costa Rica. As of this spring, about 30 percent of banana production in Costa Rica and 70 percent in Panama had been certified. Mr. Wille puts production of Better- Banana-Project-certified farms at 60 million boxes, or 10 percent of Latin American and Caribbean production.

Banana growers' legacy of abuses to both land and humans at one point led to talk of boycotts. But in a nation like Costa Rica, where 50,000 families depend on the sweet yellow fruit, a boycott would have harmed more than helped.

"Instead of throwing people out of work," says Wille, "we looked at giving guidance to the industry and rewarding the good actors by giving them an eco-label that they can use to distinguish themselves in the marketplace."

One example of the changes taking place: When Wille first arrived in Costa Rica 10 years ago, he saw rivers choked with blue plastic bags, used by growers to control ripening and protect the fruit from insects.

The bags used to be stripped off and thrown into piles that were carried off in floodwater. Now, on all certified farms, they are collected and recycled.

Even people within the industry admit the business needed to do something.

"The banana industry has a reputation of misuse of chemicals and poor treatment of workers," says Rafael Wong, president of Reybancorp. Now, the firm will meet standards set by the Conservation Agriculture Network, a coalition of Latin American environmental groups. …

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