I was in a local grocery store looking for a green pepper. Single ones were $2.29 a pound and a bag of six was $2.99, so I had to pause and do the math, along with the calculus of what I’d do with six green peppers.
As I stood working the numbers I heard a THUMP… THUMP… THUMP… right behind me. I turned and could not believe what I was seeing. The produce clerk was grabbing bunches of bananas and spiking them hard into a trash bin.
I jumped in, “Wait, I’ll take those!”
He said, “Take some new ones out of the box here,” as he pointed to the boxes of newly-delivered hard green bananas that would soon fill the space of the perfectly ripe ones.
I told him that I hated food waste and that I could not watch him continue what he was doing. I snatched a few bunches of bananas. Rescues. Godspeed to the rest. They were not being saved or shipped to the homeless shelters or the banana-less shelter. They were going in the trash.
This kind of thing viscerally haunts me for several reasons. Tonight, 99% of the world’s population will go to bed without a banana. That’s not to make light of the problem of hunger, it bothers me extremely that people in the developing world frequently do not have access to fruits and vegetables. When my wife was a child in rural Ukraine, a banana was a rare and cherished gift. Even in this affluent nation there are places where a good banana is a rare commodity.
But aside from the human impacts, bananas have a substantial environmental footprint. Each banana going into that bin had a remarkable story to tell, and left a little skid mark on the environment.
Bananas are raised on huge plantations in Central and South America, and also the Philippines. They start from a flower that gives rise to the tiny bunches of fruits. They are managed with frequent applications of fungicides and insecticides, as bananas are constantly under attack by pests and disease. Nine months later they are ready for harvest.
Large bunches of bananas weighing over 100 lbs are cut from the trees and moved to packing houses on the plantation. Workers are usually paid by the bunch, so they work fast. It is hard labor in a hot climate. Serious health issues have been documented from banana workers overworking.
The large bunches are then separated into “hands” and packaged, typically by women laborers. The green bananas are packed tightly into boxes to limit shipping damage. Already 30–40% of bananas are discarded because of blemishes and other imperfections that affluent consumers will reject. The boxed product is shipped within 24 hours of harvest.
Bananas are placed into refrigerated transportation at 56°F and moved onto large white ships (to help control temperature). They head to the USA where they are received and transported by truck to the ripening room.
The ripening room is a space in a building that is like an aircraft hangar. Huge rooms are filled with boxed bananas, and ethylene gas is pumped in. This natural plant hormone stimulates the beginning of the ripening process.
The gassed bananas now race against the clock. Genes associated with ripening have been triggered, complex biochemistry springs to action, and the bananas are changing physiologically as they speed to your local grocery store where you can buy a pound of them for well under a dollar. Think about that.
There they sit, until someone buys them.
Or if they find no purchase, ripe fruits may be donated to local charity, but that requires time and energy.
Or they go into the trash.
My new rescue bananas are now on my counter and I regret not making a deal with the store to rescue the whole litter before they became litter. I paid full retail for the rescues, and they rode shotgun next to me to their new home.
This morning I ate one and it was still not quite ripe enough. Ripening raises the levels of sugars and fruity esters, the volatile compounds that make a banana taste like a banana. The guy at the grocery store was trashing a product that still was not even ready for prime time, let alone past its prime.
I think that every piece of food we have is a miracle, and it is amazing that we have the choice we have for such a low price. Understand your food. Understand where it comes from, what it takes to produce it, the genetics, the workers, the history, the environmental footprint.
The bananas that I could not rescue today sit in a dumpster, baking in the hot Florida sun. A tremendous investment of time, fuel, labor, and crop-protection chemicals, now lost forever to a landfill.
My grandfather grew up during The Depression and always said, “Wasting food is sin.”
I think it is worse. It is a criminal waste of resources, and an insult to those that have no food, and the environment that makes sacrifices to produce it.
Kevin M. Folta is a Professor and Chairman of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. He teaches science communication workshops for scientists and ag professionals, and hosts the weekly podcast Talking Biotech. His research funding and cost reimbursements may be seen at www.kevinfolta.com/transparency.