GUÁCIMO – The banana plantation on the campus of EARTHUniversity is messy and a little bit wild. Grasses and tropical weeds cover the ground, and fragments from recent trimmings lie drying and decaying where they fell beneath the banana trees.
Luis Quirós, the plantation manager, tramps in among the trees, squats at the base of one of them and plunges his hand beneath the ground cover into the rich, black compost that surrounds the roots.
“There’s a lot of life here,” he says, poking his fingers deeper and pulling them out damp and muddy. “Worms, bacteria, cockroaches, everything.”
He looks up with obvious pride: “It’s life.”
It’s life that wouldn’t be there if EARTHUniversity followed the heavy chemical regimens of most Costa Rican banana plantations, which kill almost everything and leave the ground stripped and muddy.
Instead, the university relies on a combination of manual labor, bio-diverse groundcover and special fermenting compost to keep the farm healthy.
It’s just one of the steps that EARTH, a tropical agronomy school outside the Caribbean-slope town of Gúacimo, has taken toward turning its 278 hectares of banana plantation into a model for largescale, organic banana production that can produce export-grade bananas.
The goal, however, is still some ways off. While the university’s researchers have found natural solutions to control certain insects and fertilize the banana trees, it has yet to figure out an organic way to deal with a nasty fungus that is the bane of commercial banana plantations in wet tropical zones all over the world.
Still, the progress EARTH has made toward organic and sustainable banana production hasn’t gone unrecognized. In 1999, the university began supplying bananas to one store of the U.S. giant organic supermarket chain Whole Foods, Inc., and at the beginning of this year formed a partnership with Whole Foods that makes the supermarket chain the exclusive retailer of EARTH’s bananas.
While the bananas still aren’t technically organic, they are sold under Whole Foods’ Whole Trade seal, meaning that they are more socially and environmentally friendly than typical conventional bananas, said Matt Rogers, who heads up the partnership for EARTH.
The banana operation at EARTH can produce between $2.5 million and $3 million worth of bananas per year.
It might seem strange that an institution of higher learning would engage in crossborder supply deals with supermarket chains. Yet running a banana plantation is only natural for EARTHUniversity: It has always been one.
When the University was founded in 1990 with grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the W.K.Kellogg Foundation, it was built on 3,300 hectares of land that included a cattle ranch and a medium-sized banana plantation.
Tropical fruit farming in Costa Rica typically takes a lot of chemicals, something that went against EARTH’s mandate to be a university that encouraged organic and sustainable agriculture. EARTH, however, would take up the challenge.
“We decided that the banana is a product so important for this part of the world… that we weren’t going to leave it for someone else to solve,” said Gerardo Mirabelli, the director of external relations for the university.
EARTH, then, began researching ways to make its bananas less dependent on chemicals.
The solutions it found came in some interesting forms.
The humble nematode is a microscopic, single-cell organism that finds the roots of banana trees tasty. Leave them to their own devices, and the little guys will chew at a banana-tree’s roots until the tree topples over. They can wipe out as much as half of a banana plantation that way.
Traditionally, banana producers have taken many different approaches to nematodes, especially in Costa Rica, in whose wet climate the nematode thrives. Lately the more common policy is a scorched-earth approach that kills the nematodes through chemical use.
Researchers at EARTH, however, have worked out a different arrangement. By way of explanation, Dr. Richard Taylor offered the analogy of a bad neighborhood, full of crime. If a lot of good people moved into the neighborhood, the bad ones would be forced out.
In scientific jargon, that’s known as “competitive exclusion,” and it turns out to be a good way to keep nematodes away from banana tree roots. Farmers move helpful bacteria – yeast and yogurt bacteria, for example – into the neighborhood around the banana tree roots, which pushes the nematodes out.
That black compost around the roots of the banana trees is called “bokashi.” It’s an invention of Japanese scientists and is made from banana waste compost and a special mixture of three kinds of helpful bacteria called “effective microorganisms,” or EM.
“It’s something you can drink yourself,” he said. “You can take a shot of EM. I do every once in awhile.”
Other solutions the EARTHUniversity researchers have come up with over the years are not so microscopic. Take, for example, the blue plastic bags that cover banana bunches in any banana plantation to protect them from insects.
EARTH was the first banana producer to start recycling those bags in the 1990s, and later Chiquita and other banana growers in Costa Rica followed suit.
More than just recycle the bags, EARTH’s researchers have also started using a substitute for the strong chemicals that coat the bags to keep off insects: hot chili pepper mixed with garlic.
All the coatings of the bags EARTH uses will be switched over to that natural mixture by the middle of next year.
None of these solutions are trade secrets. The EARTH research library is opened to any private company that wants to examine its findings, and companies like Chiquita stop by EARTH once in awhile to look for tips on how to make their plantations more environmentally friendly.
Of course, EARTHUniversity isn’t the only organization in Costa Rica trying to lower the amount of chemical use on the country’s banana plantations.
Chiquita, for one, has been working with the Rainforest Alliance since 1994, trying to decrease the amount of chemicals it uses on its bananas, as well as find ways to make the chemicals it does use less harmful to the environment (TT, Jan 19).
Likewise, the National Banana Corporation (CORBANA), a public-private organization that supports the country’s banana producers, is working with several universities around the world with the goal of lowering the industry’s chemical use by 50% within the next 10 years, according to Jorge Sandoval, the director of CORBANA’s research center.
That would go against the trend of recent years.
Oliver Back, who works in the Rainforest Alliance’s agriculture programs, noted that in the 1980s banana growers used 30 to 40 kilograms of active chemical ingredient per hectare on banana plantation. These days, that number is close to 50.
The reason is the same reason that EARTHUniversity is still finding organic banana cultivation illusive: the black sigatoka fungus.
Having originated somewhere in the Philippines, black sigatoka has spread to become the bane of banana farmers in wet regions all over the world. The fungus attacks the leaf the trees, blighting them and taking away their ability to make energy using sunlight.
The only way to stop black sigatoka: Aerial spraying, which is why chemical use in Costa Rica’s banana farms has gone up over the years, according to Sandoval.
But EARTH’s researchers are undaunted.
Standing outside the university’s banana packing plant, where the green fruit is packed in cardboard boxes marked “EARTH Bananas,” Quirós and organic banana project director Roque Vaquero counted off options on their fingers.
They could create a plant that is resistant to the fungus. Or they could make up something organic that would attack the fungus.
No one seemed to think, however, that the answer to the black fungus would come soon.
“In an environment like this, it’s good and hard,”Vaquero said.
Organic Farms Generally Small-Scale While there are organic banana growers in Costa Rica, they are generally small-scale, or oriented either to the local market or to producing processed foods such as baby food or dehydrated bananas.
The reason for this, said Jorge Sandoval, the director of research at the National Banana Corporation, is that Costa Rica’s damp climate promotes all manner of blights and troublesome insects, chief among them the black sigatoka fungus.
This means chemicals are necessary for growing a large-scale crop of Cavendish bananas (the most common variety exported) to a size and quality that meet foreign market standards.
Organic banana growers operating in Costa Rica include Gerber Ingredients, which uses the bananas to make purée, and Florida Products Procesadora –which makes organic banana juice concentrate, according to www.infoagro.go.cr, a Web site managed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock.