Growers Hope to Peel Profits From Eco-OK Label

Growers Hope to Peel Profits From Eco-OK Label

The banana business is going greener, with a number of major companies, including Chiquita, working to qualify for a new Eco-OK banana label developed by environmental groups under the banner of the Better Banana Project.

To maintain certification, banana farms must show continual improvements in their environmental practices and treatment of workers. Ecuador's second largest banana producer, Reybancorp, earned the right to use the Eco-OK label last month, and Chiquita expects to have all its farms ready for certification by fall. The industry trend is driven by the increasing willingness of Americans to pay more for eco-friendly food.

In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor last week, Bill Liebhardt, of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program at the University of California at Davis, said such certification is smart business that helps the environment and society.

"It builds a better position in the marketplace," Liebhardt said. "It's part of good business to present your product as environmentally benign or beneficial and to say that you pay your workers a good salary."

The program addresses myriad socio-environmental issues. On certified farms, reforestation programs have replaced rampant deforestation. Workers receive improved housing, schools, training, and medical care -- along with contracts and the right to organize. In addition, most certified farms pay workers above minimum wage.

At Chiquita's Costa Rican farms, for example, workers make $12.90 a day -- 176 percent more than the $7.33 minimum wage.

Chiquita was the first multinational company to join the Better Banana Project, which began in 1991. "We will have all of our farms completed by the end of the summer or early fall," says Magnes Welsh, a Chiquita spokesman. The company's farms in Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia are already fully certified.

Dole, too, is taking on a more verdant hue, the Monitor reports. Last month, it ranked among the Top 10 companies overall in environmental and social responsibility as ranked by the Council on Economic Priorities, a public-interest research organization.

"Large farms, in general, are hopping on board," says Liebhardt. "A lot of industries are trying to present themselves in as green a light as possible."

Many coffee farmers in Costa Rica have stopped dumping organic wastes from coffee mills into rivers, which was a major source of pollution. Also, under pressure from conservationists, some coffee farmers are returning to a traditional method of growing coffee in the shade of rain forest trees, which provides habitat for monkeys and birds. In Brazil, the sugar industry is phasing out the practice of burning fields before harvest.
The reason for all this is simple: money. American shoppers are more willing than ever to pay a premium for eco-friendly products.

For example, at Magic Mill, a natural-foods market in Madison, Wis., organic bananas -- 99 cents a pound, compared with 39 cents for their ordinary brethren -- are the second-highest seller, behind cherries.

It was the surging popularity of organic and eco-friendly products in the marketplace that, in part, motivated Ecuador's Reybancorp to put six years of effort into transforming their haciendas into "eco-hip" farms. It replaced 65 to 75 percent of its infrastructure, planted hundreds of thousands of trees, and restored about 5,000 acres.
And it expects a return on its eco-investment. "We thought we would get a premium price if we did this," says Wong.

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RELATED LINKS:

Chiquita Banana

Rainforest Alliance

Tales From the Jungle: A rainforest reader
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