Common misunderstandings about banana production
There are certain misunderstandings and misperceptions about banana production. While people with a western perspective on agriculture usually know about integrated (IP) crop production in their own countries, the same production method is often not acknowledged for crop production in tropical countries – particularly banana production. This is partly due to the simple lack of understanding how a modern banana farm works. So let’s clarify a few basic facts.
Monoculture and crop rotation
Monoculture is the term commonly used to describe a form of crop production where a single crop species is cultivated in a field or plot. Monoculture is by far the predominant form of crop production, because it permits high productivity, competitive costs and good product quality. Mixed cultures (i.e. several species growing side-by-side) on the other hand, are frequently used in small domestic or subsistence agriculture but do not work for larger farms. Crop rotation is another concept of crop production, when a sequence of different crops is produced in rotation in order to maintain soil fertility and diversify products. Crop rotation is in common use for annual crops such as potatoes, cereals, maize for cattle feed, sugar beet etc.
Why are bananas produced as a monoculture and without crop rotation?
- Bananas need lots of sunlight and their foliage creates dense shade. This means that bananas do not produce well under trees, and furthermore very few useful plants grow in the shade of bananas. For this reason large and small banana farms generally grow bananas as a monoculture.
- Bananas are a long-term crop, similar to vineyards, orchards and forestry. Once planted, a well-cultivated banana field on suitable soils will continue to provide high yields for decades. Only individual plants which fail to produce are replaced. Therefore crop rotation is not a common practice in tropical banana cultivation, and where practiced, does not happen on an annual basis but on longer multi-year cycles.
- Bananas do not destroy soil fertility and leave barren soil behind. Quite the contrary:
Bananas need lots of nutrients to produce high quality fruit, so a good banana farmer will keep the soil fertile and well-drained and add back the nutrients which are consumed by the banana plants. In most tropical countries banana farming is not mechanized. This means that no machinery compacts the land and reduces the fertility. On the contrary, the vigorous root system of the bananas explores the soil to a depth of around one meter. The banana plant itself does much to conserve the soil. The leaves and stems of the banana plant which remain on the land after the banana fruit is harvested form a thick layer or mulch, which protects the soil from erosion caused by intense tropical rains. As this vegetable material decays, it provides a habitat for animal species that live in and on the soil, and recycles nutrients which are consumed by the next generation of banana plants.
Why are bananas grown on such large areas?
Visitors to tropical countries where bananas are produced for export are surprised that they see what appear to be vast areas of banana farms. They ask questions such as “Do banana farms use the land which is needed to produce food for the local population?” In countries producing bananas for export only a small percentage of the land is used for banana production:
- Banana farms need very specific conditions, such as land which is fertile and level, well drained, provides plenty of moisture through rain or irrigation, and has good road connections to the port where bananas are loaded on board ships. For this reason banana farms are found in clusters in low plains where these special situations are available. However, this is usually a small part of the total land used in agriculture and cattle raising. For example, in Costa Rica banana farms occupy less than 1% of the total land surface.
- Banana production for export uses far less land than the crops in our temperate countries. For example: – Banana land in Costa Rica: 40,000 hectares – Vineyards in Europe: France 800,000 hectares, Germany 100,000 hectares, Switzerland 15,000 hectares. – Sugar beet in Germany: 400,000 hectares. – Olive groves in Spain: 2.5 million hectares.