The fast-growing organic bananas sector

The fast-growing organic bananas sector

Organic farming is on the rise and, despite the constraints linked to their production in tropical environments, bananas are following the trend.

Driven by general awareness of health and the environment, the organic food market experienced unprecedented growth between 2000 and 2016. Agricultural areas have increased by a factor of 3.3, the number of organic farms by 9.6, and more than a hundred countries currently have regulations in place. The fact is that beyond its impact on soil and consumer health, organic farming is also a tool for managing natural resources, as it promotes food security. Take, for example, the Tigray region of Ethiopia, which used to be regularly hit by food crises. The rehabilitation of one million hectares of organic land has enabled the establishment of food self-sufficiency for 100,000 people and the curbing of deforestation.

In the tropics

Tropical fruits such as bananas, avocados and mangoes are not immune to the trend, although their production requires an exceptional combination of heat, humidity and rainfall. Unfortunately, these conditions are also conducive to the development of fungi and parasites that thrive in the tropics from January to December in the absence of winter frost.

In conventional farming, the use of fungicides, soil drainage and, for bananas, leaf thinning and protective sleeves protect the fruit from pest attacks and thus satisfy world demand. In organic farming, the situation is becoming more complicated, especially for bananas. No natural treatment is currently able to control the black sigatoka, a fungus that can decimate half a banana plantation in a few days. This is all the more so as the golden fruit is less resistant compared to avocados. In organic farming, this characteristic translates into increased efforts, more care and handling.

The avocado tree is a solid tree that is capable of reaching a height of 20 metres and which can survive cold spells up to -1° C depending on the species. Its water requirements range from 1,200 to 1,600 mm annually, and, thanks to its great genetic diversity, it can adapt to various climates, as long as it does not freeze and its soil is drained. Between 2014 and 2015, the production of organic avocados almost tripled, rising from 9% to 24%. As for the banana tree, it is an ephemeral herbaceous plant from 3 to 10 metres high, very sensitive to temperature variations, water-demanding and predisposed to mould. Its fruits are produced when a constant temperature of at least 10°C prevails, the humidity level is high, rainfall reaches at least 3,000 mm/year and the soil is regularly drained. Among its advantages are the facts the plant is perennial and its growth lasts only between 7 and 9 months. Only 1% of the 118 million tonnes of bananas produced each year are organic, which still seems low for the most consumed fruit in the world.

Inside organic banana plantations

As the leading producer of fair trade and organic bananas in the ACP zone, Compagnie Fruitière recently signed a partnership with WWF France to continue implementing environmental initiatives. The group’s organic banana plantations are thus established in drier environments close to healthy watercourses in northern Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

There, the banana trees are evenly coated with organic paraffinic oil, which is able to keep parasites away in these latitudes. Farmers use essential oils to fight fungal diseases during the post-harvest period. During growth, compost made from cocoa dehulling waste (the thin bark that surrounds the bean) acts as a natural fertiliser rich in organic minerals. Weeds are controlled by hand weeding or by using a legume cover crop. This permaculture enables the suppression of weeds, reduction of evaporation, provision of more nutrients to banana trees and aeration of the soil, thanks to the deep roots of legumes.

New plantation in Ecuador

To extend its organic production to other regions of the world and intensify its practice of increasingly virtuous agriculture, the group recently acquired a 150-hectare organic plot in Ecuador, near Guayaquil. A small country wedged between Colombia and Peru, Ecuador is nevertheless a major banana producing country exporting nearly 6 million tons of bananas each year. It also has the double advantage of a dry climate and a highly qualified workforce trained in the most advanced farming practices. Finally, its exceptional plant diversity can be a source of inspiration concerning natural solutions for producers.

The delicacy of bananas

The delicacy of bananas

Bananas are fragile fruits that require a lot of care and inspections from flowering to consumption. The journey and life of an elegant fruit.

Every day in Africa and Latin America, expert hands cultivate banana trees, which are transient but productive plants. Bananas, which are harvested all year round, are fast-growing (about 9 months) perennial fruits. Although there are now more than 1,000 varieties, Cavendish dessert bananas account for more than half of the world’s production. Soft, sweet, immaculate and pampered, a Cavendish can pass through the hands of more than fifty people before landing on our plates.

Cultivation and harvesting: precise actions

Five months after planting the cuttings or shoots, flowering starts on a trunk essentially composed of rolled leaves. Then comes the banana cluster comprising “hands”, the bunches, and “fingers” which are the fruits. Bananas are sensitive to cold, wind, temperature variations, mould, insects and shocks and require a lot of gentleness and care. Growers bustle about in plantations where the soil is regularly drained. They remove dead leaves, measure, fertilise, remove pistils and parasites, stake the trees, while checking for latex drips and tracking parasites or fungi. They also do not forget to remove the suckers that form at the foot of the parent plant threatening the survival of the banana tree. This is called suckering. Incidentally, at harvest time, only one successor sucker will be preserved. Around the sixth month, the clusters are protected with a sheath. This protective bag also creates a micro-climate conducive to fruit growth.

Once the bananas have reached the desired size and enter the sleeping phase naturally, the sheaths are removed and separators are placed between each hand. This period during which the fruits slow down their respiration and therefore their ripening, is often compared to a form of hibernation. This is the time when the harvest can begin. Cut manually with a sharp gesture, the clusters, which produce up to 250 bananas, are carried over the shoulder and gently placed in bins suspended from cables running through the plantation. Once at the packing station, they are then cut into bunches, soaked and rubbed in an aluminium sulphate bath to remove any latex residue or stubborn insect.

Prepared for the long journey

The aesthetic quality of the still-green bananas is inspected by graders before packaging. Those destined for the European market must meet strict standards in terms of size, morphology and colorimetry. Those that do not conform are immediately discarded. After having been sorted, weighed and labelled, the compliant bunches are then carefully placed in perforated and aerated boxes. Quality checkers then check the information displayed on the packages, such as category, final destination and traceability code. The packages are then placed on pallets which also have bar codes. Once they arrive at the port of departure, the pallets leave in closed and ventilated cold rooms, where the temperature ranges from 13° to 14°. They will travel under these conditions so that their sleep phase will be extended for the duration of the journey.

For example, bananas produced in Africa by the Société de Culture Bananière (SCB), one of Compagnie Fruitière’s subsidiaries, are first loaded onto ships in Douala, Cameroon, then in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Transport, which can last between 10 and 15 days, is just as important as the soil of the plantations and the sunshine or the humidity all year round. Thermometers and fans keep green bananas asleep in ship holds. A simple variation of a few tenths of a degree could trigger a too-rapid ripening, or conversely, cause curls due to the cold. Once landed in European ports, 3% of the packages (about 250 pallets) are examined in minute detail to check whether the size, curvature and even the white of the flesh conform to European standards and the indicated category. Checks are also made to ensure the fruit does not have damaged crowns or traces of latex.

Ripening and consumption

Before being delivered to traders, the fruit must still resume their ripening cycle, placed in a ripening room. In a few days, in an atmosphere controlled at about 17°, the starch is transformed into sugar, the skin turns yellow and the flesh softens. The bananas delivered to customers, which are delicious but still fragile, must be carefully extracted from their carton one bunch at a time. When stored outside a refrigerator, they can then retain their beautiful ochre colour and sweet taste for a week.

Quality manager, an exciting job

Quality manager, an exciting job

Laureano Alonso, who has been in charge of Compagnie Fruitière Spain’s 4 ripening facilities for more than 15 years, enthusiastically describes what goes on behind the scenes in his job.

The biggest concern in ripening facilities is the temperature.  We monitor it constantly, because the slightest deviation can have serious consequences on an entire shipment”, says the Madrid native who grew up surrounded by fruits and vegetables. Currently quality manager for the ripening facilities in Spain and Portugal, he supervises the unloading, ripening and distribution of the 115 tonnes of bananas destined for the Iberian peninsula annually. These steps require a rigorous and intuitive management capacity and a unique know-how, acquired from producers.

Carried out in a controlled atmosphere, the ripening phase is as crucial as cultivation or transport because, explains Laureano, “it is at this time that the fruit acquires its sweet taste and its golden appearance, two of its main qualities”.  The fact is that the bananas arriving in Europe are still green and asleep. Like most starchy fruits, bananas naturally interrupt their ripening process by reducing their respiration. This sleep is prolonged by a temperature of 13° during the journey in refrigerated holds. However, the fruits still have to undergo various quality controls before being awakened.

At the port, one team first verifies the packages’ traceability and checks the bananas’ internal temperature. A second team unloads the bunches and stores them on other pallets. Another team inspects the appearance of the fruits, their colour, size, weight, pesticide content and checks for the presence of visible defects. This thorough inspection enables the determination of whether the bananas comply with the various standards imposed by the European Union and the requirements of customers. According to Laureano: “on average, less than 1% of the cargo remains in port, as the bananas have already been inspected before shipping.

The fruits then go to the ripening room, where a temperature of 17° to 18° will take them out of their torpor, triggering their transformation. “In a few days, thanks to the heat and ethylene gas they produce naturally and which we ventilate, the starch is converted into sugar, the skin turns light yellow and the flesh softens. Watching this process is still thrilling even after all these years” says Laureano. Finally ready and tasty, the bananas are re-packaged and labelled for delivery to customers in the order of their arrival.

In 30 years of experience, Laureano has witnessed many developments in the sector, including one in particular: “A very scientific approach used to be applied to banana production in the past. Today, far fewer pesticides are used and the human factor is even more central to production. The fact is that we work with a natural, living, changing product. And we know that an engaged, responsible workforce is as important as a workforce with technical knowledge.”

The best part of his job? Without hesitation, his years as a dock worker: “I loved working in the ports. These are extraordinary places, where you can mix with people from all over the world every day. It’s rare and I was very lucky”.  When he trains new recruits, Laureano is enthusiastic about the means of communication now available, while remaining convinced that the qualities required for his job combine rigour, a sense of responsibility and a deep longing for nature and people.