After nearly 10 years of trying to send bananas to the United States, the Philippines finally sent a shipment last year. But despite this, the country is still not in a position to become a regular source of bananas to the U.S.
Location, transportation and volume are still the advantages of traditional American banana sources like Guatemala, Ecuador and Costa Rica.
The Philippines began exporting Cavendish bananas, the most widely bought type in the U.S., in September 2013. American firm Dole Food Company Inc. sent over 3,000 metric tons from its Philippine plantation; the first time fresh bananas from Asia were exported to the US.
As one of the top producers and exporters of bananas, the Philippines wanted to bring the fruit to the U.S. and tap one of the biggest markets in the world. The U.S. consumes about 25 pounds per person of bananas per year.
The Philippines previously only sent prepared banana products like banana chips or frozen bananas for other uses to the U.S. Its market is normally China, Japan and the European Union.
American officials had to certify that bananas grown in the Philippines met with health standards that understandably took some time. Philippine bananas can only enter certain ports in the U.S. to for sanitary issues.
This was hailed with much fanfare in the Philippines and banana growers hoped this would bring a new market for their products.
But the time for rejoicing is not yet here.
“It takes too long to bring in Cavendish bananas from the Philippines that stores will need to raise prices on the product,” said Dan Koeppel, author of the book “Banana: Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World.”
“Bananas have to be green when they arrive at port so if it takes too long it could be a problem.”
Philippine banana producers were concerned that the Chinese market would be closing on them after skirmishes between the countries occurred in the South China Sea. Several shipments were banned in 2012. While trade has normalized, the geopolitical issues of both nations continue so a new market needs to be explored.
In 2013, the Philippines exported $911.7 million in bananas worldwide according to data from the Philippine Trade department. In 2012 it exported $646.7 million to its various markets.
While the U.S. is a big market, it relies mainly on Latin America for bananas.
Majority of the 4.6 million metric tons of bananas and plantains that the U.S. imported in 2012 came from Guatemala, followed by Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia and Honduras.
“Latin America is the leading banana export region so there are no other exporters that can supply the volume needed in the U.S. market,” said University of Florida economist Fredy Ballen in an email.
Most of the fruit consumed in the U.S. are Cavendish bananas, and because the top producers in Latin America also mainly grow this type, this has encouraged other countries to try and grow it as well.
Bananas are one of the most traded fruits in the world.
Data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations showed world exports reached 16.5 million tons in 2012. This is up 1.1 million from 2011.
Koeppel said the Dole shipment from the Philippines last year was mostly symbolic because no one really knows when the next one will happen.
As of now, there have been no announced plans for another shipment from Dole but the Philippine government and the Philippine Banana Growers and Exporters Association are positive that more companies will now be able to send bananas to the U.S.
What the Philippines and other banana producing countries should do instead is to look at ways to export to the US other types of the fruit. These countries should look at possibly creating a container shipping method so these fruits do not ripen as quickly during transport.
“It would be great if these banana varieties could start being exported to the United States so that mainstream American consumers could begin to enjoy them and reduce their dependence on the Cavendish variety,” said Jonathan Conning, an economist with Hunter College in an email.
Koeppel suggests the Philippines market the Lacatan banana to the US.
The Lacatan is more common in the Philippines. It is also more expensive than the Cavendish but could attract different types of customers.
“If some smart entrepreneur engineers delivery of interesting bananas then it will be very good,” said Koeppel.
“It’s just a better proposition.”