Chelsea Green Publishing

Chelsea Green Blog

Yes, We Have Bananas, But …

Nationwide, the market for organic foods has soared from $3.57 billion in 1997 to $10.38 billion in 2003, according to the Organic Trade Association. The group predicts sales will reach $14.5 billion by the end of 2005 as Americans buy everything from radishes to beef grown without conventional pesticides and fertilizers, biotechnology, antibiotics or growth hormones. — The Associated Press Guy wielding machete takes aim and whacks at the stem of a dangling bunch of bananas. Banana bunch, big as an atom bomb, plummets toward the earth, where somebody catches it. It’s loaded onto a truck. Truck rumbles off through the jungle, arrives at a dock, where zillions of bananas are loaded aboard a ship. Ship heads out to sea. Several days later, it reaches a dock on the southern coast of North America. Bananas are exhumed from cargo hold and placed on another truck. Next stop: distribution center. Next stop: supermarket. Somebody at the supermarket slaps a UPC sticker on each bunch of bananas and lugs them to the produce department, where they wait for a Typical American Consumer to come along. That’s you. (Not to be sanctimonious about it: That’s me, too.) You put the bananas in your shopping cart, buy them, and take them home. You store them wherever you store them, and go to bed. Next morning you get up, go to the kitchen, get the coffee brewing, and remove a big box from the cupboard. The box contains cereal. (I’ll get back to that box in a minute.) You pour milk on the cereal, select one of the bananas you bought yesterday (for narrative purposes, we’ll pretend those bananas are ripe and ready to eat, but they’re really still mostly green), slice the banana onto your cereal, pour on the milk and pick up a spoon. Then it hits you, or should: Do you realize what an insanely labor-intensive process brought those banana slices from tropical treetop to northern New England cereal top? Then it hits you harder: How many people have handled that banana, which you are about to stuff into my face? Do you have any grip at all on the chain of evidence? Do you know where that banana has actually been? Somebody could have diverted that banana to the moon and back, and you wouldn’t have a clue. Somebody could have juggled that banana in a circus tent for three days, letting a chimpanzee play with it between shows. Somebody could have — oh, God, who knows? Okay, the bananas are a metaphor, and probably a poor one at that. I’m not out to make fun of people who harvest bananas for a living: They are grindingly poor, locked into systemic exploitation, and working harder than you or I ever will so they can feed families that are large because their religious leaders warn them not to use birth control, or they’ll go to hell. Nor am I mocking truck drivers, dock workers, or anyone working in any grocery store anywhere. They’re trying to make a living, just like you. I’m mocking a multinational, multicorporate, ruthless, hard-lobbying, profit-driven Frankenstein that should make you occasionally ask, as you look into your refrigerator or cupboard, such questions as these: Refrigerator. Which of what’s in there: 1.) Contains bovine growth hormone? (Did you know that a certain agribusiness giant has been trying for years to prevent the labels on dairy products that do not contain bovine growth hormone from saying so? Let’s buzz that one again, from a slightly different angle: Agri-Godzilla wants it to be against the law to tell you that a product is safe to eat. Can you spell Monsanto, boys and girls?) 2.) Has been goosed during its formative weeks with inorganic pesticides containing arsenic, copper sulfates, lead or mercury? 3.) Has been dyed or dipped in wax, for heaven’s sake, so it’ll look pretty? 4.) And where has that banana been, anyway? What was it fertilized or sprayed with, dipped in, or whatever, before it invaded your pantry? Cupboard. Which of what’s in there: 1.) Has been treated with BHT and sodium “to preserve freshness.” 2.) Is entombed in elaborate, disposable packaging that is much larger than it needs to be, to make room for contents that may have “settled during shipping”? So what’s for supper? First stop, refrigerator: oleoresin, calcium disodium EDTA; partially hydrogenated soybean oil, yellow 5 (don’t ask), FD&RC red #40, sulfur dioxide (yes, sulfur dioxide; have another maraschino cherry?), polysorbate 80, sodium benzoate, modified corn starch, and modified food starch. Modified food starch? WHAT food? WHAT starch? Modified how? Never mind; on to the cupboard. Let’s see: a little zinc lactate, hydrolized corn gluten, hydrolized vegetable protein, calcium chloride, disodium gyanylate, calcium propionate, sodium erythorbate, and (my personal favorite) monosodium glutamate. Today’s financial tip: Invest in sodium. Invest a lot. Then there’s good old “artificial flavor.” What’s that? Not a clue. Add a little maltodextrin, copper gluconate, potassium iodide, ferric orthophosphate, phenylketonurics and aspartame, and dinner is served. As for your coffee — well, you know: rain forests slashed and burned, workers paid pennies for every dollar you spend, plantation owners wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, yada yada yada. And if you’re drinking decaf, can you spell ethyl acetate? That’s what they soaked those coffee beans in to delete the caffeine. Yum. Good news, though: ethyl acetate has been thoroughly tested, and the U.S. government has declared it harmless. Drink up. Have another. It’s that good. Here’s a thought: Get off the grid (the agribusiness grid, that is; we’re speaking metaphorically here). Do your homework. Buy organic. Grow your own. Buy locally grown. No, you can’t buy locally grown coffee. But you can buy it from companies that buy it from farmers’ cooperatives in the coffee’s land of origin, which grow the coffee in environmentally friendly ways, and the money goes to the farmers and pickers, not to some plantation owner who spent $100,000 yesterday on his daughter’s birthday party. This coffee will be more expensive. So sue me. You can’t buy locally grown bananas, either. But you can at least buy organic ones. They’ll be more expensive. (Ibid.) Learning is hard work; implementing your knowledge is even harder. I’m as guilty as anyone. But we can’t plead ignorance. We can only plead insufficient commitment. I know you’re busy (I am, too), but while we’re too busy to care for the Earth, it is turning into (to borrow a phrase from author Kurt Vonnegut) “a poisonous, festering cheese.” Laced, of course, with bovine growth hormone. Now, about that pear …

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