Global Agriculture

World Banana Forum prepares for 4th Global Conference amid multiple challenges

07 March 2024, Rome: Bananas are the world’s most exported fresh fruits with the global trade worth over $10 billion annually. But the sector faces challenges ranging from the impacts of the climate crisis to rising costs, falling consumer purchasing power and a destructive fungus, as the World Banana Forum, hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) prepares to convene here next week.

The 12-13 March 4th Global Conference of the Forum will focus on bringing improvements in areas such as labour rights, gender equity, environmental impact, sustainable production and economic issues. “We must move beyond the current understanding of economic sustainability into new socially and environmentally friendly or sensitive business models,” for example creating case studies in responsible purchasing practices, says WBF Secretary Victor Prada.

Mandatory regulation?

While the cost and process of certification remains a challenge for many smaller producers, European and other countries have called for increasing regulations for the sector and believe businesses should aim for higher standards, either mandatory or voluntary. “We are going in the direction of mandatory,” Prada adds.

The forum brings together retailers, importers, producers, exporters, consumer associations, governments, research institutions, trade unions, and civil society organizations. Side events before and after the main meetings will focus on gender equity, living wages and incomes, and the destructive Fusarium Wilt TR4 fungus, which poses a growing threat to the industry.

The export volume of the fruit, which is nutritious, easy to transport and not fiddly to peel, has seen a massive growth over the last three decades. But high levels of investment have led to a surplus in global production. This, coupled with concentration in the retail sector, increasingly dominated by the big supermarket chains exerting heavy pressure to reduce prices, has “contributed to an imbalance of power between large buyers of bananas on the one hand and the producers on the other,” says Pascal Liu, a FAO Senior Economist and team leader on responsible supply chains in the Markets and Trade Division.

The sector was badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, along with weather patterns influenced by climate change, bringing heavy rains and hurricanes particularly affecting the Latin American and Asian producers, which account for over 95 percent of the global banana trade. From a high in 2019 ,exports saw a sharp drop in the following three years and a stabilisation only came last year.

Rising costs and disease

Banana producers have been impacted by rising costs for such key inputs as fertilizer and fuel, while purchasing power of consumers in many countries has also been eroded by inflation.

Higher fuel prices and geopolitical tensions have created higher transportation costs, with sea freight insurance charges soaring amid tensions in the Black Sea and Red Sea and severe drought affecting the Panama Canal.

Added to these factors, the Fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (TR 4) fungus has been spreading over the past decades from Asia and the Pacific, westwards towards central Asia, and eastern Africa. It reached Latin America in 2019 and has become a major challenge for banana exporters there.

“Once fusarium wilt is in the plantation you cannot get rid of it, there is no control method, you basically need to burn down the plantation and move production somewhere else,” Liu says.

The fungus affects many varieties including Cavendish bananas, which provide around half of global banana supply and almost all of the bananas exported. More than 80 percent of global banana production is thought to be based on TR4 susceptible germplasm.

Making a difference

On the positive side, the number of World Banana Forum members has been steadily growing since the Forum was set up in 2009, with more and more retailers and multinational trading companies pressing for sustainability certification. Meanwhile, initiatives by the Secretariat have been making a real difference to improving several aspects of the industry’s record, says Prada.

As examples, he cites the Carbon and Water Footprint tool to support banana producers in measuring and reducing the climatic impact of the industry, which has been tested in nine countries so far. Meanwhile the Banana Occupational Health and Safety Initiative (BOHESI), being implemented in Ecuador and Cameroon, has helped address labour rights concerns on occupational health and safety.

“We have a huge portfolio of other initiatives,” covering issues such as plastic use and plastic disposal in the banana industry and use of agrochemicals and highly hazardous pesticides, Prada says.

The World Banana Forum will also include a banana tasting event, which aims to showcase the remarkable diversity of bananas, with more than 1 000 varieties produced in the world. It emphasizes the importance of conservation efforts and celebrates the myriad flavors, colors, and shapes that bananas offer. By highlighting the rich biodiversity within the banana sector, the event will not only showcase genetic variety but also underscore the cultural and economic significance of bananas in diverse communities worldwide.

Produced in more than 135 countries, bananas and plantains are a staple crop for the food security of 400 million people, as well as an essential source of income in many developing countries.

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