By Tom Burfield, writer for The Packer
Sales in the organic banana category continue to grow, and major grower-shippers are hopeful that they’ll be able to meet that increasing demand.
Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc., Coral Gables, Fla., offers organic bananas, and Dennis Christou, vice president of marketing, said the category “has continuously seen positive growth.”
“Volumes and demand continue to rise for this product,” he said.
Only recently has the company started to see a slight slowdown in that increase compared with the previous year, he said.
Bananas are one of the commodities with the biggest growth in organic purchases, added Marion Tabard, marketing director for Coral Gables-based Turbana Corp.
“Demand for organic bananas shot up this year,” she said, adding that 31% of banana buyers said they bought organic fruit at least some of the time, according to The Packer’s Fresh Trends.
“That number is up 9% from last year,” she said.
“Retailers have been developing initiatives to grow the organic category to satisfy the need of their customers,” Turbana said.
Turbana offers naked, bagged and banded bananas as well as 3-pound packages for club stores, among other packaging options.
At Dole Food Co., Westlake Village, Calif., Bil Goldfield, director of communications, said that while the vast majority of Dole bananas are the conventional cavendish variety, “We are seeing consistent growth in demand for organic bananas as well, by both retailers and consumers.”
In response, Dole has continued to expand its organic volume and production areas.
“Since Dole started our organic program over 20 years ago, we are now the largest grower and distributor of fresh organic bananas,” Goldfield said.
“People are looking for more organic,” said Nicole Vitello, president of West Bridgewater, Mass.-based Oke USA Fruit Co.
Vitello believes the company may have an advantage when it comes to marketing organic bananas through the Equal Exchange label.
Equal Exchange Fair Trade bananas are produced by small co-ops in several growing areas.
Bananas can be prone to diseases, she said, so large conventional banana producers tend to increase the use of chemical sprays to control those diseases in order to maintain the same output, she said.
The smaller Equal Exchange organic growers may be the most nimble and able to identify problems, change their growing practices and adapt new production methods, she said.
There’s a market demand and ecological need for organic bananas, she added, so it’s important to engage different types of farmers in the effort.
Organic bananas aren’t always easy to produce.
One challenge involved in growing organic bananas has been sustainability, Christou said.
“Most organic bananas do not yield the same as conventional bananas, therefore they require more water/irrigation, also more land, which is at a premium in the world,” he said. “So our concern is that we actually use 40% to 60% more land, water, labor and organizations to obtain equal volumes.”
In terms of supply, he said, “We find that demand for this particular product is increasing much faster than the availability of product.”
Another challenge in growing organic bananas is dealing with Mother Nature, “which always plays a large role in production, and even more so in organic items, (since) they need to comply with strict regulations in order to be classified as organic,” Tabard said.
Vitello believes the world should be producing more organic bananas, but with conventional fruit continuing to serve as a loss leader at retail for as little as 39 cents per pound, it can be difficult to persuade shoppers to pay $1.50 per pound or more for organic bananas.
She called for consumer education about the role of organic bananas, and she would like to see retailers to adopt more realistic pricing models for the fruit.
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