Hawaii Bananas Could Be Set For Resurgence

Hawaii’s banana industry may be well-positioned for a serious comeback. They are certainly growing well in our backyard. This photo shows our latest crop growing amidst Blue Ginger.

Prices of Hawaii bananas have never been competitive with Central America in the past due to the high cost of land and labor. The scale is starting to tip in favor of Hawaii bananas for two important reasons:

1. Price of bananas from Central America is up 36% compared with this time last year.

With escalating fuel costs, banana prices of $1 a pound and more are or will soon be standard on the mainland. Fuel prices impact not only transporting the bananas, but the cost of fertilizer used to grow them as well.

Hawaii is the same distance to the West Coast as is Central America. There’s the potential of shipping bananas cost effectively to the mainland from Hawaii.

2. Most commercial bananas could soon face extinction due to BBTV (Banana Bunchy Top Virus).

Hawaii bananas are not immune from BBTV. However, research at University of Hawaii at Manoa, in concert with USDA, is yielding positive results. It appear that BBTV may be controllable in Hawaii bananas, and new varieties currently in development could be completely immune.

Virtually all commercially grown bananas (not including those from Hawaii) are of the Cavendish variety. While there are over 1,000 banana varieties, standardization on this one variety occurred in order to assure even ripening in shipping, among other things.

As last week’s banana article in the NY Times pointed out, when all bananas come from the same genetic pool (one variety), they are extremely vulnerable to disease. This wiped out commercial bananas in the first half of the 1900’s.

The Chinese Cavendish variety, while considered inferior in taste, was grown because it was immune to the infection. Now, however, a more virulent virus to which the Cavendish is not immune is spreading and is expected to affect Central America within the next 5-10 years.

Banana Production in Hawaii

Hawaii has a long way to go in banana production. Last year Hawaii raised only 20 million pounds compared with the 7.9 billion pounds the U.S. imported, primarily from Guatemala and Costa Rica.

Earlier this year, one of our state’s largest banana producers, Mauna Kea Banana Company was set to shut down operations after 30 years.

Since then we’ve learned that they have changed plans, and will be remaining open. The company will primarily grow Williams variety bananas, and will invest $1 million in hydro-electric power and a bio-diesel (cooking grease) to fuel plant.

The future looks bright for Hawaii bananas.

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