Going bananas over climate change
What will happen to the ubiquitous yellow fruit as global temperatures increase?
People all over the world are bananas about bananas. They make the perfect breakfast companion, a healthy snack any time of the day, and a staple of many tropical countries’ diet. In fact, the word for bananas in Uganda (“matooke”) literally means food . As climate change continues to impact the banana producing regions of the world, we may see a change in the availability of the fruit.
In “Climate Change and Food Systems: Global Assessment and Implications for Food Security and Trade” published by the UN, researchers from Biodiversity International analyzed how yields will change in current banana producing regions due to projected changes in rainfall and temperature. Results of the study show that by 2070, the areas of the world suitable for banana production will increase by 50% due to higher global temperatures. With this rise in temperature, the production cycle from planting to harvest may be shortened in some areas .
Despite these seemingly favorable conditions for sustained banana production, other changes due to climate change will put on a strain on banana production. The rise in temperature is expected to increase water demand by 12-15%. Many banana farmers currently produce banana as a secondary crop to coffee. The increase in temperatures and water demand makes coffee cultivation more difficult, so farmers may abandon coffee and banana cultivation together. Perhaps the biggest challenge to banana production will be the increase in spread of pests and diseases, such as black leaf streak disease which is accelerated by increased temperatures . In Latin American countries such as Honduras, where agriculture generated $2.4 billion (13% of economy) in 2014, droughts have caused a decline in banana production. Colder dry seasons due to climate change have also slowed the rate at which bananas ripen. 
Exhibit 1: Areas suitable for banana cultivation will increase with climate change.
Focus on Dole
Dole Food Company is one of the largest producers of bananas worldwide. Dole bananas are grown and sourced from independent growers in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Honduras. These bananas are then sold primarily in North American, European, and Asian markets. As climate change brings challenges to the Dole’s banana and other agricultural production, Dole has taken steps to promote climate change awareness in its banana growing regions by hosting reforestation and education events . In 2008, Dole evaluated the possibility of producing carbon neutral fruit in Costa Rica . In 2013, Dole ran a plantation in Costa Rica that had cut water use in its processing plant by 80% and recycled plastic covers used to protect bananas in the field. However, the project is still far from reducing the entire Costa Rican banana supply chain to zero carbon emissions .
Looking into the future
In the next 30-50 years, Dole will need to make some fundamental changes to its supply chain in order to keep up with global banana demand. As temperatures increase, certain banana producing areas may become too hot for production. Dole will need to transition cultivation from these areas to new regions whose increased temperatures become suitable for cultivation. By 2100, the banana cultivation map globally may look very different than today’s. The most tropical areas near the equator will become too hot for cultivation, while subtropic areas will be main sources of production.In addition, Dole should use the banana crop variety as a key resource to adapting to climate change. The over 500 varieties of bananas each have slightly different optimal cultivation temperatures and water needs. Adjusting the variety grown in each area can also help maintain current production levels. In parallel, Dole needs to work with local farmers to continue education on pest and disease control as well as best practices for water-saving irrigation techniques.
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 German Calberto, G., C. Staver and P. Siles. 2015. An assessment of global banana production and suitability under climate change scenarios, In: Climate change and food systems: global assessments and implications for food security and trade, Aziz Elbehri (editor). Food Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome, 2015.
 Bernard Kilian, Jelle Hettinga, Gustavo André Jiménez, Santiago Molina, Adam White, Case study on Dole’s carbon-neutral fruits, Journal of Business Research, Volume 65, Issue 12, December 2012, Pages 1800-1810, ISSN 0148-2963, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2011.10.040.
Student comments on Going bananas over climate change
Bananas are great! This was super interesting. I had no idea there were over 500 varieties of bananas. A few questions I had after reading your post:
1.) You mention that the largest challenge to banana production results from an increase in pests and diseases that are linked to temperatures. What has the research been in combating this problem and do you really think it’s a larger challenge than what seems like a necessary shift to subtropic areas? I would argue that moving areas, which will disrupt economies, require building a new supply chain, and require compliance with new regulations might be most challenging. In addition, if the trends continue, will the subtropics eventually also become unsuitable for banana production?
2.) What were the results of Dole’s carbon neutral fruit experiment and do you think it’s scalable?
3.) How was Dole able to cut water use and were there any downsides to this?
It is very interesting to learn about the potential opportunities and challenges companies like Dole face in the banana market. Specifically, it left me to wonder if they could benefit from owning the banana farms or forming JVs with their banana growers to better help them sustain their banana production. By only procuring bananas, Dole can is limited to how much they can actually impact and oversee the farming efforts of their growers. This would add additional risk to Dole’s mode, for example, they would be directly exposed to pest risks rather than having the second hand procurement impact.
I also was struck by the data that suggests climate change will push banana farming north. Personally, I was excited by this since it means that my bananas will be traveling a little less far and using a little less energy to reach me :). Giving it more thought though, it is concerning that this land currently used for banana farming is at risk for becoming abandoned. I would be very curious to learn about what any abandoned banana farming land could be used for down the line (and hopefully it is not for deforestation / urbanization)!
This is an awesome post! I have had the opportunity to observe the impact of arid and swift change in temperatures on the crop in Uganda (and the related price fluctuations). It is worthwhile to note that the increase in temperatures will also lead to a faster reproduction cycle for insects (and hence increase in their number) which will result in the spread of pests and diseases.
It will be interesting to track the way Dole will adapt to the disruption in the existing ecosystem and the new partnerships they will have to foster. Could not agree more with TOM LS, I believe it is imperative that Dole creates partnerships with local farmers and trains them to integrate climate change considerations in their practices. That will allow for the most rapid adjustment to the territorial shift of harvest.
I’m not a huge fan of bananas, but since they are such a staple for kids and adults alike, I would totally agree with you that this world would just not be the same without bananas. A few questions that came to mind as I was reading your post: 1) You mentioned that Dole tried to reduce its water use by 80%. This seems easier said than done. How did they come about reaching this target? 2) Many of the actions that Dole performed seem to work on a small scale (ex: one Costa Rica farm, etc.). How do you think this will play out when Dole expands its sustainability program on a larger scale?
As an avid banana lover, I was surprised to learn of both the headwinds and tailwinds that climate change will bring for banana crop yields. I found the contrast between rising temperatures serving as a favorable condition for increasing yield by 50% and rising temperatures causing a hike in demand of water therefore straining banana production to be extremely striking. Further, you noted that the biggest challenge to banana production will be the increase in spread of pests and diseases which is accelerated by increased temperatures. We read a case previously on Indigo Agriculture, a company that focused on the plant microbiome to improve crop yields and drought resistance. I wonder if there is an opportunity for Dole to get involved with partner organizations such as Indigo, who is researching ways to improve crop yields among dramatic climate changes and the challenge that pests bring with these changing temperatures.
Great post, cranberryfarmer8 (also, love the alias!)
In reading this post I found it very interesting that there are both positive and negative consequences of climate change for banana production. It can be easy to focus only on the negatives of climate change, but I’m glad you also mentioned the opportunity. Being able to grow bananas in new areas that previously weren’t good for crops will open new revenue streams and food sources to populations that previously didn’t have them.
I am curious about what Dole is doing today – given the relative success of the trial they ran in 2013 in Costa Rica, have they rolled out some of the practices to other plantations? One of the challenges with these types of programs is how time and resource intensive running the trials are – Dole should try to find a more scaleable way to roll out improvement programs in the future to make a bigger impact.
While I’m not a big fan of bananas, I respect that they’re a staple crop across the globe and the treats of climate change to banana production are all too real! As a follow up to @#CE#, I wonder whether there are additional approaches to managing the impacts of climate change with science. Are GMOs a significant factor in banana production? It sounds like there are a ton of strains, but I wonder if resources have been allocated to creating drought- and pest-resistant strains for the new world order. In partnering with farmers, per @Ina’s suggestion, I wonder if Dole will need to work to transition farmers in areas that can no longer produce bananas to other productive crops, and what impact this will have on local economies. Perhaps there are opportunities there, in addition to risks?
What was shocking for me is how cheap bananas are everywhere in the world, even when their production is at risk due to climate change. I think this is not just an operational issue that can be solved with great ideas like partnerships with local farmers as mentioned by other commenters, but also a global economic system which detaches the true cost of food with its price tag.
It’s also interesting that you’re giving Dole 30-50 years to respond. I’d think the better they’re able to take action, the less the impact would be. You mentioned initiatives like community education, plastic protectors for bananas, and other water-saving tactics – do you think they’re completely useless at this point? Is it not possible to develop them more to be more effective within the next 30 years?
Very surprising that despite potentially more beneficial conditions for banana production that there are negative economic consequences of climate change that may offset those benefits! I was specifically intrigued by the increasing predominance of weather-related diseases that may affect crops in the near term. Given that Dole is one of the largest banana producers in the world, are they pursuing ways to mitigate this burden of disease with other banana producers? As some others have pointed out, are they also pursuing research that may create banana models? Some preliminary ideas might be to create a banana strain variant that requires less water to grow or to find microbacterial solutions (like in the Indigo Agriculture case) to offset the disease burden. I wonder if those are projects Dole might consider worth investing in, or whether it is more beneficial for them to continue optimizing their footprint in the short term.
What an interesting paradox: climate change increases the amount of land where bananas can grow while, at the same time, reduces the amount of a critical resource (water) to grow the bananas. However after reading the article, I found myself asking is Dole doing enough? For being the largest producers of bananas, I would have expected a more thoughtful and calculated approach to reducing the impact of climate change on its business. A restricted supply of water would significant hamper banana production in any region so I do not think that the increase in workable land will offset the reduction in crops due to water restriction. I wonder why Dole is not testing additional solutions for growing bananas with less water?
Nice post! It was good to see an example where there are clear benefits of climate change. In this case banana production seems to be moving from one set of geographical areas to others. How will the global supply chain cope with these movements and how much does it cost? Are the differences in demand for the different varieties of banana or is it really as easy as just growing a different type of banana as the conditions change?