Sunday, November 29, 2009

My organic banana tipping point

In the USA, we love our bananas, eating around 30lbs a year each - one way or another. Well, it’s the great convenience food, and good for you too - very low in sodium, saturated fat, and cholesterol.

A lot of the calories are from sugar, so let’s hope it’s the  slow-release kind, because the odd banana may be the only dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals that many people get.

Jeri Lynn and I eat a bunch a week, mostly in natural yogurt smoothies with a couple of other soft fruits. It’s one of the most palatable ways to reach the recommended daily intake of fruit.

I never liked bananas until I got the “bonk” cycling up Clee Hill in England, collapsing limply at the side of the road. My body craved calories, and the only food I carried was a bunch of bananas belonging to the other guys - who were now way ahead. I had no choice. I lay in the grass at the side of the road under my bicycle, with just enough strength to slowly peel the bananas and feed them to my lifeless body. Gradually I gained strength until a wobbly walk to the train station became possible.

I like to think of it as my first near death experience, and although I’ve never fallen in love with either the taste or texture of bananas, I eat them out of gratitude. Until last year that is, when a casual stop at a plantation packing station in Costa Rica became a tipping point.

(Nutrition data and image courtesy of - Top graphic  and other pics in Costa Rica by me.)

Our eco guide explained that dense monoculture of their number one export crop in this ideal hot and humid climate needs massive applications of pesticides to combat the killer nematodes and fungus that become inherent to such a system. Fifty cropduster type aerial sprayings a year of heavy-duty chemical pesticides. Plus chemical fertilizers.

Irrigation washes a lot of it away so they need to apply yet more in a vicious cycle. Waterways around banana plantations are toxic.
Good for us, the banana bunches are protected by plastic bags, themselves impregnated on the outside with, you guessed it, pesticides (at least in the conventional plantations which account for 99% of our imported bananas.) When they reach us, they are “clean”.

Not so the workers in the plantation. They suffer abnormally high incidence of cancers, not to mention alcoholism, low wages and domestic abuse.

Ranting at the big agripolitical machinery isn’t going to help, and I have no desire to heap unemployment on top of the woes of plantation workers. Shipping bananas and delivering them “ripe” requires huge capital investment, no matter how they’re grown.

The move to a better grown banana will only gather speed if people who care change the demand paradigm. Buy organic bananas if you can – most of them are from the corporate giants and production is only marginally sustainable, but it’s the right thing to do.

Whether organic tastes better, or is better for you, or even if it’s better for the planet, is moot. To allow human beings to live with astronomic levels of chemical toxicity so we can chomp on a 17 cent banana with a dollar soda is indefensible. Do it in the USA and you would be thrown in jail. So I switched to organic, and I eat more of them. If I can find fair trade certified bananas so much the better.

The long-term sustainability of banana monoculture, albeit organic, is questionable. Deforestation to replace spent land remains an issue, as does pollution. Not to mention the cost of shipping and ripening. But agribusiness will be delighted to meet demand for organic in the meantime.

Really sustainable banana cultivation is being achieved on a small scale in Costa Rica, planting in a forest canopy situation. Most of the fruit goes to puree, but if ever I get the chance to go to Costa Rica again, you bet I will search out jungle bananas.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The grow your own legacy of Bob Cannard Sr.

Earlier this year, one of the great boosters of home and locally grown food in Sonoma County passed away.

Bob Cannard’s family chose to counterpoint his rather noisy life with a quiet family funeral. But on what would have been his 83rd birthday, and with Fred and Nancy Cline’s help, they threw a party for anyone in Sonoma Valley who cared to see the old fella off.

They roasted an ox, fed maybe six hundred or so people with a fabulous meal, and fired a cannon.

It was no less than Bob would have expected, and in fact, it was more.

Bob was not an organic grower, but the ox his sons roasted was grass fed, their produce way beyond organic, and the Cline wine came from grapes grown sustainably. 

By anyone’s reckoning, this was an act of great generosity and inclusiveness. For me, that’s exactly what Bob was all about, and why the event was so special.

Depression era starvation was burned into his memory of childhood, as was his mother’s generosity toward the starving. The Cannards of Danville, Pennsylvania were growers, bottlers, canners, preservers, cordial makers and despite being a large family, gave a lot of it away.

Ever since, wherever he has lived and whatever he has made a living at, he has always had an orchard, grown produce in abundance, and kept chickens. More than that, he has urged, cajoled, and intimidated everyone around him to do the same.

“Don’t worry about the details, here’s some bean seeds, take a couple of these broccoli plants and this Ficus carica and get ‘em in the ground. Would you believe you can grow forty-seven vegetables on twenty square feet all year round. Why I can eat my own fresh peaches from May through to November! Try this raspberry, wonderful. Pull a few carrots and take this Camellia for Jeri Lynn, Do you need eggs?

It’s the last thing he said to me, or rather wrote, on his trademark yellow pad after his voice went. Take some eggs.

The fig tree gave us three sweet figs this fall. Go get some seed and grow some food.

You can visit the website for the Bob and Edna Cannard Fund for Agriculture for additional information about Bob Cannard, Sr..

Many more of his stories, history and memories have also been collected in Sonoma's Last Pioneer, which was jointly published in 2005 by the Sonoma Historical Society and Whitworth and I.