In March 2017 the BananEx team met with banana producer organizations from major exporting nations to the UK, in the port city of Santa Marta, Colombia. We discussed the issues faced by growers in the region, and visited banana plantations to share experiences and ideas. Fusarium wilt, certification costs, and low banana prices were highlighted as major issues by the producers.

The meeting was funded by a Global Challenges Research Fund Impact Accelerator Award, and was hosted by Anuar Escaf, Executive President of the Asociación de Bananeros del Magdalena y La Guajira (ASBAMA).

bananasantamarta
The port city of Santa Marta © David Bebber

Participants

  • Dr Dan Bebber, Prof Steve McCorriston, Dr Annalisa Marini & Dr Varun Varma (University of Exeter, UK)
  • Farrah Adam Jiménez (UN FAO World Banana Forum, Rome)
  • Dr Ximena Rueda Fajardo (Universidad de los Andes, Colombia)
  • Anuar Escaf, Indhira Reyes & Karen Cuello (ASBAMA, Colombia)
  • Juán Camilo Restrepo Gómez, Marco Tulio Calvo Sánchez & Elkin Valencia Ospina (AUGURA, Colombia)
  • Jorge Arturo Sauma Aguilar & Eduardo Gómez (CORBANA, Costa Rica)
  • Eduardo Ledesma & Raúl Villacrés (AEBE, Ecuador)
  • Darío Vargas (ADOBANANO, Dominican Republic)
  • Sam Mathias (BGA, Belize)

We thank Annalisa Marini, Farrah Adam Jiménez, Ximena Rueda Fajardo and Anuar Escaf for translating our communications and discussions before, during, and after the meeting. With thank David Bebber for photographing the visit.

Santa Marta banana exports

Anuar Escaf (Executive President, ASBAMA) gave an introduction to the banana industry in Colombia. ASBAMA, based in Santa Marta, represents around one quarter of Colombian production, with AUGURA making up the majority. Colombia exported 1830388 tonnes of bananas in 2016, equivalent to US$ 848 million, making bananas the third most valuable agricultural export after coffee and cut flowers. Most Colombian bananas are produced by the Tecbaco and Banasan companies, in the Caribbean region. There are 1513 banana farms in Colombia employing 93,000 workers, and covering around 600,000 ha or around 9 per cent of the total agricultural area.

bananacontainers
Santa Marta exports 25,000 refridgerated containers of bananas each year © David Bebber

We visited the port of Santa Marta, to view the packing and shipping processes. The trip was hosted by Dina Acevedo Chavez of SMITCO, the port operator. A total of 24,492 thousand refrigerated containers of bananas were exported from the port of Santa Marta in 2016, comprising 71 % of all cargo, and 28 % of the volume of banana exports from Colombia. A surprising revelation was that manual inspections of individual banana boxes are carried out for the presence of illegal narcotics, placing a heavy logistical burden on the port. For most producer companies, all boxes are inspected. AUGURA commented that environmental and social aspects of banana production are critical, because banana agriculture will play an important part in the peace process following disarmament of the FARC.

bananacheck
Nearly all 18kg boxes must be manually inspected for narcotics © David Bebber

Major issues faced by producers

We asked each producer organization to describe the major challenges they face.

AUGURA: Technological challenges include phytosanitary certification of planting material, because domestic capacity is not large enough to fulfill demand and so material must be imported. Improving and optimizing use of technologies such as fertilizers and drainage would improve yields, but investment in new technologies is hampered by low margins. Socioeconomic issues include attracting and retaining younger workers given low banana prices (though worker turnover is low in Colombia). Initiatives such as support to purchase houses, and training in collaboration with the National Institute of Education aim to improve conditions and attractiveness to workers. Most labour in Colombia is unionized. There is some concern as to the effect that Brexit will have on trade with the UK [note: banana prices recently increased in the UK due to the post-referendum fall of Sterling and adverse weather impacts in the Caribbean].

ASBAMA: Technological issues include the implementation of precision agriculture to increase yields, for example soil sampling to improve fertilizer application regimes, though this technology is very limited in application in Colombia. Market demand for ‘perfect fruit’, i.e. free of all blemishes and defects, is expensive socially and environmentally, and changing consumer expectations would reduce the need for chemical inputs like fungicides and reduce wastage. Increasing productivity (via increased yields or reduced waste) can buffer against exchange rate fluctuations. Revenues decrease when the US dollar increases in value. Echoing AUGURA, the issue of attracting workers to agricultural labour needs to be addressed. Education and training are key to this.

bananawaste
Large quantities of bananas are discarded because of tiny imperfections © David Bebber

BGA: Black Sigatoka is the main disease threat to production, and disease modelling is being used to help manage the disease. Belize has 25 large plantations producing all export bananas. Annual worker turnover is 50 per cent. Increasing yields through investment is difficult because prices are low, and are controlled largely by Ecuador, the largest producer.

AEBE: Around 80 per cent of banana plantations in Ecuador are small (< 30 ha), and farmers are unable to switch to other crops irrespective of prices because there are no alternatives. Certification schemes (e.g. Global GAP, Fairtrade) are very expensive for smallholders to acquire, as are technologies such as fertilizers and drainage. As in Colombia, there are issues attracting young workers to banana cultivation.

CORBANA: In terms of production, the biggest issue is Black Sigatoka disease, which is proving difficult to control with fungicides. Research is underway into bacterial control of this fungal disease. Most labour is unionized or in cooperatives in Costa Rica. Most workers receive benefits such as pensions and health insurance.

ADOBANANO: The Dominican Republic is an important producer of organic and Fairtrade-certified bananas. Around 85 per cent of plantations are very small (< 8 ha). The most important issue is labour. Unlike Latin American countries which largely comply with ILO standards, a large fraction of the Dominican Republic workforce comprises undocumented workers from Haiti. The Fairtrade Foundation has threatened to remove certifications because of the prevalence of undocumented workers. [note: Hurricanes Irma, Jose and Katia destroyed around half of the Dominican Republic’s banana plantations in 2017, according to Gustavo Gandini of BANELINO]

Fusarium wilt TR4 is the greatest concern

We asked producers what their most urgent research questions were. Their answers spanned plant protection, agriculture, and economics.

ASBAMA and AUGURA:

  1. How can we control TR4?
  2. How can technologies like data management, crop modelling, and precision agriculture assist with climate change adaptation?
  3. How can we increase the attractiveness of banana cultivation for the workforce?
bananagraph
Detailed soil measurements are enabling precision agriculture in some plantations © David Bebber

CORBANA:

  1. How can we prevent the spread of TR4 to Latin America?
  2. What is the price elasticity of bananas? The price of bananas is very low and is hampering investment in appropriate technologies and social improvements – could prices increase?
  3. What are the opportunities for increasing global banana demand?

AEBE noted that Ecuador lacks research and training, and that here is a need for producers to work together and share information to improve competitiveness:

  1. What innovations would increase employment and the health of the sector?
  2. How can waste be reduced or sustainably managed?
  3. What is the potential for regional-level bargaining power to establish prices?

ADOBANANO:

  1. How can we prevent TR4 arrival?
  2. How can agricultural insurance and loans be made available to smallholders? Could these be incorporated into purchaser contracts?
  3. How can certification costs be reduced? Has certification benefited the region? Can certifications and inspections be rationalized to reduce demands on producers?
  4. How can phytosanitary controls be improved, without burdening producers?

BGA:

  1. The price of bananas in the UK is too low. How can revenues to producers be increased? Certification is fulfilling market demand, but premiums are not reaching producers.

The burden of certification

All country representatives highlighted concerns about certification. Global GAP, Fairtrade, Organic, and Rainforest Alliance are the main certification standards for banana. Although accepted as part of the environment in which they function, certification is seen to be very cumbersome particularly for small farmers where access to finance can be difficult and, if exports are interrupted, the process of certification has to begin again. Concerns were  raised about the lack of uniformity of certification though it was not clear which standard should apply (US or Europe) given the different markets where banana exports are sent. The producer organizations stated that certification schemes are developed without consultation with producers.

bananafairtrade
Certification costs are a concern to many producers © David Bebber

Extreme weather and plant disease

While Black Sigatoka is the main fungal disease currently, all countries expressed great concern regarding the potential arrival of Fusarium Wilt Tropical Race 4. Even if a new resistant banana cultivar becomes available, the expense and upheaval of replacing current cultivars would be devastating. The producers highlighted a number of environmental and climate issues that had affected their banana sectors in recent years. Part of this reflects extreme events such as hurricanes (Costa Rica, 2015 and the Caribbean 2017), heavy rains (Dominican Republic, 2016) or drought (Colombia, 2014). There has been the experience of a 5-fold increase in insurance premiums after the hurricane in Costa Rica. Most countries appear to have some policies in place to address environmental/climate issues: in Colombia, there are funds to improve water management and protect local ecosystems; in Costa Rica, there is a 2 cents/box exported to provide a compensation fund. Long term climate issues were also noted relating to concerns about drought and disease. BGA noted, however, that climate change may not have wholly negative effects as it may allow banana production to move further north in Belize.

Fairness in the banana trade

A common concern in the banana sector is the impact of downstream buyers on upstream suppliers and the ‘unfairness’ associated with these bilateral relations. However, the experience of the representative countries appears to differ in terms of their relations with buyers in importing countries. For some exporters, there is increasingly direct involvement of retailers with producers. Ecuador, the largest exporter, has a multi-year pricing approach where prices are set in negotiation with the Minister of Agriculture, five producer representatives and five traders. A minimum price is set which relates to estimates of production cost plus a reasonable profit (+32% of costs).  Belize works on the basis of a five-year contract with buyers with prices adjusted across three tiers in a given year. The Dominican Republic has no long term contracts. Colombia works on the basis of bilateral bargaining with the prices paid to producers determined by an ex-post calculation. While the differences here were interesting to observe, there was some opaqueness with regard to price setting in the supply chains and there was no detailed discussion of other practices that downstream participants can exert on suppliers even in the context of negotiated contracts which impacts on the returns for suppliers.

bananabootwash
Biosecurity measures like boot washes are in place to prevent TR4 from establishing © David Bebber

Visiting the farms

On the second day of the meeting we visited a number of plantations to discuss banana production.

The first farm was a conventionally-managed small-holding of around 3 ha. Fungicides/pesticides are applied 3 times per year. The farmer mentioned the El Nino-related drought of 2015-2016 but no details of impact were discussed. The planting density was 1700 plants/ha, which is generally used across Colombia. Participants from other countries implied that this is a low density of planting, but agreed that it could make fungicide/pesticide application more efficient. The farmer and ASBAMA representative explained that low planting densities are used to reduce competition between plants. This allows for raceme weights to reach their target of 22 to 25 Kg. Water for irrigation is sourced from nearby river, paid for by a fee to local authorities. Fee is USD 50 per year for up to 3 ha, then fee increases in proportion to land under irrigation. Individual plants/corms are replaced after approximately 20-30 years. Replacement frequency is based on level of soil compaction. Fresh planting (or replanting of an entire farm) is always temporally staggered, this allows for harvests on a weekly cycle.

bananawash3
Bananas are washed before packing © David Bebber

The second farm was a larger (115 ha) conventional farm, with R&D facilities to aid precision agriculture and information driven management. Nearly all of the production from this farm is exported. Even small blemishes result in fruit rejection. An on-site lab assesses methods/practices to improve productivity for the 115 ha on this farm and also provide monitoring services to other farms, covering a total of 2000 ha (not sure about this number). Variables including temperature, humidity, rainfall, soil texture, soil moisture, nutrients (NO3-, K+), ions (Na+, Cl), soil pH, soil electrical conductivity and compaction are mapped. The monitoring frequency of variables is weekly for low productivity, or monthly otherwise. Analyses were presented for the potential reasons for low production, focussing on the 25% poorest performing sections of the farm. Soil salinity was identified as a key problem,  probably exacerbated by reliance of ground water for irrigation. Issues of salinity appear more severe in the dry season and years with below average rainfall (when reliance on irrigation increases). Salinity becomes less of a problem if irrigation water is sourced from rivers. Based on these data, KCl fertilizer use was abandoned, as Cl content was detected to be high, causing salinity. The lab is keen to provide services to a larger number of farms, e.g. regular monitoring on soil moisture, soil nutrient status, compaction, etc.

The average recommended fertilizer for banana cultivation in Colombia is N:P:K = 450:0:700 (note: P is not a limiting nutrient in banana cultivation).  Analyses from this farm showed that the recommended nutrient ratios in fertilizers could be wrong, with too high N content. Soil compaction was also detected as an important reason for low productivity. Soil compaction was mapped at high resolution in the farm. Plants were replaced, or soil was tilled at locations where compaction was high. Analyses showed around 10% increase in productivity with this intervention (preliminary estimates). Replacement of plants on compacted soils or tilling were shown to increase raceme weight from approximately 15 Kg to 22 Kg. Such targeted/selective replacement of individuals is more cost effective than replacement of all individuals as is often done (on a 30-50 year rotation).

bananaworkers
Workers take a short break © David Bebber

The delegates discussed the cultivars of Cavendish being used – Colombia uses three of the main cultivars (Grande Naine, Williams and Valery). Costa Rica has abandoned Valery as it is more susceptible to wind damage.

The farm follows a new mother-daughter system of managing harvests (at any one time a single individual has a flowering/fruiting stem and only one other non-flowering stem). Plantations usually follow the mother-daughter-granddaughter (1 fruiting stem + 2 other non-fruiting stems). Here the second stem was allowed to establish when the 1st stem had reached a height of 2.7 m. This is to promote larger fruit size and reduce competition within an individual for resources.

The third farm was under organic certification, and largest of the three (200 ha). The farm began as only 9 ha three years ago, but has greatly expanded. The rapid expansion of this farm due is to high productivity (approximately 3000 boxes/ha), the same as expected with conventional farming. These high yields are not the norm for organic farming in the region. Yield from organic plantations are generally around 2200 boxes/ha. Only the Williams cultivar is grown. A 70% premium is realized compared to conventional bananas. This farm benefits from high organic matter in the soil (which requires periodic replenishment by purchasing organic material), virtually no pressure from black sigatoka infection, and high light availability (low cloud cover). The low disease pressure is a big advantage, as control measures for black sigatoka can cost approximately USD 2500/ha. Micro-climate (dry conditions, topography) may be responsible for low levels of black sigatoka infection in this farm, according to the owner. Soil salinity was not an issue on this farm. They have an occasional problem with thrips (probably red rust trips), which cause banana skins to turn a little red. Fruit is rejected though perfectly edible. During packing, a plastic film is wrapped over the bunch stalk, increasing shelf life for a few days without the need for post harvest chemical sprays. But shelf life was admitted to belower than conventional bananas. Most other organic farms in the area have not seen as much success, mainly because of poor soil organic matter management and disease issues.

Next steps

The meeting was invaluable for focusing the research strategy for the BananEx project. The BananEx research team are in contact with the producer organizations, and have received banana production data to enable improved yield modelling. We are discussing options for a future meeting in which producer organizations can meet with UK stakeholders, including major retailers, to discuss some of the major issues facing the banana trade that were highlighted in Santa Marta.

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