In Costa Rica, I took tours of coffee, banana, and pineapple farms.
While I've read a lot about these industries in the past, I've never seen them up close or met many people who work there. On this trip, my eyes were open to where my food comes from.
Coffee, bananas, and pineapples are back-breaking crops. Coffee berries don't ripen all at once, so each berry has to be picked by hand when it's ready. Since bananas and pineapples are so easily bruised, each fruit has to be carefully grown, picked, and packaged by hand. This labor-intensive work means lots of jobs, but jobs where the worker is bent over, in the sun, for twelve hours each day.
Thanks to organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance, working conditions have improved a lot since the 80's, with higher wages, protective gear from harmful chemicals, and independent inspections of the farms and factories. But in a place where $15/day is a good wage, it's hard to justify supporting these industries by consuming exotic fruits way up North.
But these harsh conditions aren't going to go away just because I stop eating bananas, and I'm not sure I want these jobs to be taken away from Costa Ricans, either. I can understand the argument that although these are awful jobs, they are jobs that allow people to subsist in a poor country.
Right now, I'll continue to do what I know how to do.
First, buy locally at all times. Wonderful fruits and vegetables are grown right here in New England, even throughout the winter, and these farmers deserve my support as well. Plus, locally grown foods mean less transportation costs, which means less impact on our environment as a whole.
Secondly, when I do buy coffee, bananas, or pineapples, I look for fairly traded, organic products. Fair Trade means higher wages and better working conditions for the workers. Organic means less chemicals used, which means that much less exposure to the workers every day. Also, organic earns a higher price, often translating to a higher price for the farmers. (Here's a great piece by Oxfam America on organic rice farmers in Cambodia.)
You can also learn more:
Rainforest Alliance's Sustainable Agriculture program
TransFair: Fair Trade Certified