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Just how much does it cost growers to give us bananas at 68p per kilo?

Bananas at Tesco, U.K.

‘If banana price inflation had kept up with the pace of Mars bars, the fruit would cost £2.60 a kilo now.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian


Powered by article titled “Just how much does it cost growers to give us bananas at 68p per kilo?” was written by Joanna Blythman, for on Tuesday 25th February 2014 08.00 UTC

Walk into Tesco or Asda today and you’ll be able to buy a kilo of bananas for about 68p. Back in 2002 that same bunch would have cost £1.08 – yes, 59% more. Bananas are a glaring exception to the rule that food keeps getting more expensive. If banana price inflation had kept up with the pace of Mars bars, for instance, the fruit would cost £2.60 a kilo now.

This is a uniquely British anomaly: in France, Italy and Germany, over the same period the retail price of bananas has increased by 10%, 3.9% and 7.2% respectively.

In the crazy world of UK supermarket pricing, bananas have never been cheaper. We are now typically paying 20p for an English apple yet only 11p for a banana shipped from the other side of the world. Does this bargain deal smell rotten? It certainly ought to.

For years, British supermarkets have used shamelessly cheap bananas as a key weapon in their price wars. They have demanded that their suppliers give them bananas at a price so unfeasibly low that they cannot possibly be grown in a decent, equitable way.

The cheap bananas in UK supermarkets are typically grown on Latin American plantations that are owned by transnational fruit exporting companies, or their satellites. The natural landscape will have been flattened to allow for intensive banana cultivation stretching as far as the eye can see. These vast acreages are heavily treated with pesticides, usually by aerial spraying. This is why, in Latin America, the banana is often referred to as “the chemical fruit”.

The workers generally live either in lamentable shanty accommodation on site or are bused in great distances to work a long and punishing day. Paid piece rates, they have to work themselves into the ground to make a living wage.

The scandalous conditions of workers in the banana industry have been thoroughly documented by British trade unions, the campaigning group Banana Link, and the Fairtrade Foundation, and laid before the top brass of British supermarkets. And yet it is fruits with this foul-tasting backstory that leading chains want us to buy.

Faced with undeniable facts about the sheer despair entailed in the production of the cheap banana, Waitrose, the Co-op and Sainsbury’s now source 100% Fairtrade bananas. But the other supermarket chains haven’t followed suit. It is only Fairtrade – the system that guarantees growers a better, stable price and pays a premium for community projects – that is keeping small co-ops of banana growers in Latin America, and further afield, in business. In the Caribbean, for instance, distance to market, climate and topography all mean they could never compete on price with the plantation-grown crop.

But although Fairtrade provides a model for a more ethical banana supply chain, the price-cutting activities of our biggest supermarkets are distorting the whole banana trade. Even Fairtrade bananas are being sold these days at the ludicrously low 68p a kilo, as a loss leader, because all bananas are now part of the ongoing price wars between chains.

Of course, supermarkets don’t suffer from loss-leading strategies – they simply jack up their margins on other foods to make up for any hit they take on bananas – but as all the value is wrung out of the banana supply market, you can be sure that faceless people in faraway places will be feeling the squeeze.

Quite rightly, the Fairtrade Foundation is calling on the government to stop supermarket price-slashing on bananas, but hell will freeze over before that happens. This government, like its predecessors, turns a blind eye to all supermarket transgression providing our oligopolistic retailers maintain the necessary illusion of keeping prices down.

Food riots usually occur when prices are too high. Perverse though it may be to campaign for prices to be raised, in the case of bananas it is the only humane and ethical response. We need a riot over banana pricing right now. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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