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Getting to the root of food waste in bananas

The market only accepts bunches of 5 perfect bananas. 50% of the mini bananas in Costa Rica go to waste (source: private)
Note: This article was originally published on LinkedIn on May 26, 2017. This version has been adjusted slightly to match current events.

The food waste of bananas created by consumers is only the tip of the iceberg. Even more waste is created at the farm level, where up to 40% of bananas are put to waste. As this short clip from Australian ABC TV argues this is due to ‚strict supermarket regulations’.

While supermarket regulations, which by the way mostly reflect expectations of the consumers, do play a role in this, the clip blinds out other reasons and it does not mention alternative ways for dealing with the bananas that don’t match the strict standards:

  1. from what I learned in my work on bananas, regulations are not merely esthetically motivated, particularly when it comes to defining which bananas are suitable for export: The size and shape of a banana upon harvest are also indicative of its ability to ‘survive’ the transport on a container ship and to mature accordingly either on the ship or in a ripening facility near its final destination, i.e. they ensure the optimal utilization of the fruit in the packing process and a proper green life period of the end product (see p. 100/101).

  2. in most of the banana producing countries, lower quality bananas are sold for inland consumption (same with coffee and other crops). In Australia this seems not to be the case, or then the clip fails to mention it.

  3. the lowest quality of bananas is still often acceptable for puree production. I know that for some farms supplying bananas to puree factories does not pay off, for example, if the volume they produce is so small that the puree producers refuse to come and pick it up (and they do not have trucks to bring it themselves). But anyway: puree production does exist as an outlet for inferior quality.

All in all, it is true that retailers do play a role in creating food waste on farm level, but they are not the only ones to blame. On the one hand, as stated above, esthetically motivated regulations often reflect consumer preferences; on the other hand, the specific circumstances during ocean transport also play a role. Instead of directly putting imperfect bananas to waste, we should consider alternative ways of using them – be it as puree, as a source of renewable energy, etc.

However, more critical is once again, the relation between food waste and price. As stated in my previous post, the very low retail price of bananas most likely exacerbates food waste by consumers.

The high percentage of waste at farm level puts an additional strain on the cost/income ratio of farmers: with the money they get per kilo they sell, the farmers also need to cover the costs of the 300 grams put to waste. If we factor the waste into the retail price this means that while we might pay 1 Euro per kilo of bananas consumed, the farmer in fact gets only 0.76 Euro per kilo of bananas produced. Let’s think about that the next time we grab at the ‘super fresh super bargain bananas’!

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