When you pick up a bag of Fairtrade bananas costing £1.29 in Asda today, it’s hard to imagine the work that has gone into putting it together. Gideon Gilbert is the chair of the Mesopotamia Fair Trade banana farmers’ group. His day on the farm often starts before 6am, before the day gets too hot, and his hard work on the farm is evident in the lush, green leaves of the healthy banana plants that cling to the steep hillside. It’s tough and back breaking work, there’s watergrass and other weeds to clear, leaves to prune, old banana plant debris to clear, young bananas to deflower. Then he has to ensure the banana bunches are protected from insects by covering them in bags, plus fertilising and water channelling. In the thirteen weeks it takes for each bunch to grow and mature to the size required by supermarkets, it’s a constant vigilance.
When the harvest begins, says Gideon, you then have make sure the bananas are pristine - even a small blemish on one banana could lead to the whole pack being rejected. Then you have to always remember which of the supermarkets you’re harvesting for that week. It it’s Asda,
well they want the bigger sized bananas, but only in bunches of six. Sainsbury’s, meanwhile, prefers the small bananas for their JS Kids packs - this used to be bunches of seven but now they want eight in a pack. So each bunch has to be carefully chosen and cut to size, with superfluous bananas, even though perfect, cruelly cast aside. The bunches must then be laid down a certain way to let the natural latex drip out. After this they are washed carefully before finally being bagged. Even then, with Asda the bananas must point in one direction in relation to the bar code on the bag, whilst Sainsbury’s wants them to face in the opposite direction. Finally the bananas in their sixes, or eights, in their bags, facing the right way, are boxed and labelled with the farmer’s personal bar code, and ready to be taken to the reception point ready for the next shipment.
Life would certainly be easier for the growers if supermarkets didn't all insist on such different requirements, and as a shopper, I can't help but wonder if we're really naturally finicky about our bananas, or whether we're just being encouraged to be
so picky. Sometimes, says Gideon, you think you wouldn’t wish banana farming on your worst enemy. So why does he carry on doing it? Well, for one, I love the land and watching things grow, says Gideon. But with Fairtrade, there’s an additional source of pride for the farmers. With the social premium, the farmers have bought a new school bus, they’ve equipped pre-schools with toys and storybooks, they’ve funded scholarships to ensure the brightest kids can finish secondary school, even if they come from poor families. The next time mum goes to Asda, says Gideon, he’d like her to know that if she chooses Fairtrade bananas for her own kids, it means a child in another country, maybe even in St Vincent, has also been able to go to school.
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