Bananas are the world’s most traded fruit. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates world exports of bananas totaled 16.8 million metric tons in 2006, with a value of $5.8 billion.
Most bananas are grown in developing countries, and the FAO said about 22 percent of global production ended up in export markets in 2006, the most recent statistical year available. Because they are considered a diet staple in many countries, adequate banana production is considered a key component of food security.
Given their importance in trade and diet, it’s not surprising there have been myriad banana trade wars over the years. Bananas were a key item of contention for the U.S. at the World Trade Organization for more than a decade even though commercial production of bananas in the U.S. is negligible. U.S.-based companies such as Del Monte, Dole and Chiquita kept the issue high profile in U.S. politics.
Bananas have also been a catalyst for modal warfare between breakbulk reefer operators and container carriers.
In spite of their global popularity, bananas don’t look like much when first picked. The green fruit is rock-hard and inedible and has to be ripened, making bananas a viable candidate to be shipped long distances.
The high volumes and year-round supply and demand combine to make it a lucrative and much sought after cargo. When container carriers first began targeting the refrigerated trades, banana routes were the first they would enter.
Maersk Line has developed container technology that slows the ripening process even more, according to Bill Duggan, vice president of North American refrigerated services for Maersk Line.
“We’re able to bring cargo further into the supply chain then we could before because of technology.” He said the shelf life inside a container for bananas has been extended through a special membrane built into the container that delays ripening. “We can take bananas by container into the Middle East, for example, where before the fruit would have to be shipped on a dedicated reefer vessel that would go directly there,” he said.
Bananas hold such a large share in the world’s fruit market that when product sourcing changes, it can mean a logistical line of dominoes. Port Hueneme in Southern California lost a significant amount of business several years ago when Japan started buying its bananas from growers in the Philippines. Japan used to purchase bananas from Central America. Carriers would load a vessel with bananas in Central America, steam to Port Hueneme, unload half the bananas for the U.S. market and reload that space with Southern California citrus exports.
When the banana portion of the shipment disappeared, citrus growers in California could no longer afford to send their product by reefer vessel direct to Japan. Instead, Japan-bound citrus is now trucked to Los Angeles and exported by container.
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