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Banana Farms to Reduce Chemicals

GUÁCIMO, Limón – Fruits and vegetables grow quickly in the tropics. Unfortunately, so do their enemies.

Along with the heaving lushness of banana plantations on Costa Rica’s Caribbean slope come microbes, fungus and hungry insects that damage and destroy crops in a variety of creative ways.

Nematodes, a type of parasitic worm, chew at the roots of banana trees until they tip over. Black Sigatoka fungus burns dark circles on the leaves and kills the trees. Insects do their worst to the bright green bunches of bananas.

To keep it all at bay, Costa Rican banana growers use millions of dollars in chemicals every year, chemicals that can create their own problems by harming the environment.

But this week, the National Banana Corporation (CORBANA), a public-private association that promotes banana exports, began studying less chemical-intensive methods of getting rid of the pests.

Along with reducing the chance of contamination from pesticides and herbicides, bananas produced using fewer chemicals would be a value-added product attractive to the European market, CORBANA representatives said.

The research is taking place in a new facility – a low, block building painted hospital-scrub green, across the street from CORBANA’s other research complex in the Caribbean-slope town of Guácimo.

All the CORBANA bigwigs came out to inaugurate the building on a drizzly morning last Friday.

“This is now a world-class research center,” CORBANA president Romano Orlich told the assembled guests.

The new research facilities – actually housing two research areas, known as the Biological Control Center and the Banana Molecular Biology Center – cost CORBANA a little more than $1 million to build, equip and staff, and took less than eight months to construct.

Research started the Monday following the inauguration, said CORBANA’s research director, Jorge Sandoval.

“It’s a new line of work and we’re 100% committed to it,” Sandoval said of the effort to reduce chemical use on banana plantations.

Sandoval said CORBANA’s goal is to reduce the chemical use of its 100 members by 50% in the next 10 years. The results-oriented research should have something to show for itself in the next year or two, Sandoval said.

Some methods could include, for example, using a certain kind of natural fungus to fight off the nematodes. The fungus forms a collar just below the nematode’s head, killing it.

A totally chemical-free banana that can be mass-produced is a long way off.

Reduction in the use of chemicals, however, is the short-term goal.

“That’s what society demands of us,” Orlich said. “Reduce the use of chemicals.” Society isn’t the only one making demands: The market is having its say as well.

About 5 0% of Costa Rican banana exports end up in the European Union, and Sandoval said European consumers are willing to pay more for bananas produced using fewer chemicals.

“With added value, you would think that people will buy a different banana because it’s produced differently,” he said.

Central America is at the moment in talks with the European Union over an association agreement whose free-trade element could include the loosening of import restrictions the European Union places on Central American bananas (TT, Oct. 19).

Those talks are not expected to bear any fruit until at least late next year.

Meanwhile, CORBANA isn’t the only banana producer in Costa Rica trying to cut its chemical use. EARTHUniversity, just outside Guácimo, also has a research program to reduce chemical use on banana plantations (TT, Aug. 10).

Chiquita, another large banana producer in Costa Rica, has reduced its pesticide use by 35% in the past few years under the watchful eye of the Rainforest Alliance (TT, Jan. 19).



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