What if Your Banana Could Talk?
The future of food is truly free and truly fair
The Museum of Ideas: Conversations on the Blue Couch Series
Originally published in OneZero August 5, 2021
By Tiffany Tsui and Shannon Mullen O'Keefe
You drop by the supermarket and decide to pick up a bunch of bananas. (On an app for choosing bananas the greenish ones are your type.)
You decide on just the right bunch and reach in to pick it up and — it screams.
The bananas are talking, you think. No, screaming!
OK, now you’re a little panicky.
What’s going on with the bananas?
The future of food
A future in which our food will be empowered to tell us everything isn’t very far off.
By 2030 food supply chain transparency will become a worldwide standard, thanks to digital innovations such as blockchain and other traceability and digital identity technologies.
When this happens the food chain won’t be just a “difficult to follow paper trail” — or a chain without any trail— instead there will be a record for everything and our everyday banana will be able to tell us the full story of its life!
Transparency and trust
There is lots going on with our bananas and when our banana asks us to listen, we want to trust what it has to say to us.
At the heart of digital technologies is trust.
They enable the supply chain itself to become a narrative. When this happens we can be certain that the story of our food chain is reliable — that we are getting the truth. This narrative matters so that we as consumers can make fully informed decisions.
After all, as consumers we can get a little spoiled. We expect our bananas to be a perfect color, but we might not always realize the story of the banana itself.
When there is a real story associated with the piece of fruit, we add another aspect of choice beyond just the green or spots — how about the life of the banana — and more importantly, the human lives associated with the banana we choose to buy?
As consumers this transparency helps us to know more before we vote with our wallet by buying. When we buy we are effectively giving our consent. The power is always ours in this moment.
We want to know as much as we can, don’t we? We want to trust that everyone and everything has been treated with dignity along the way.
So, what if in the future when we pick up our bananas, we scan a QR code and see the story of its life, including all supporting roles like the farmers, transporters and everyone who is a part of its story? What if we could catch a glimpse of the earth our banana grows from? What about rather than just a label on ‘Fair Trade Certified’, we’d get a mini, Lord of the Rings movie about the banana. We’d learn things like, did anyone try to bite off Frodo’s finger along the way? If someone did, wouldn’t that make a difference in our view about purchasing that banana? It would probably make a bigger difference than the color, wouldn’t it?
So, perhaps the documentary is a little dreamy, but at least with these technologies we’ll have the verified ledger — a truthful report.
If bananas could talk — tell us their real story — well, let’s just say, we’d want to listen.
And if ours are screaming there might be a problem.
A digital banana’s story
On a recent episode of Digital Bananas, hosted by Tiffany Tsui, also a co-author of this article, experts based in Africa talked about why African countries like Nigeria and Ghana are “mysteriously missing” from the Global banana trade map.
When we slice up our banana with our breakfast cereal, we probably rarely think about all of the complexities that surround it arriving in our bowl. Like what the farmers in countries like Nigeria and Ghana might be thinking about.
There, organizing farmers is difficult. Group leadership is hard to come by. And the pay? Well, there is often little financial inclusion for smallholder farmers. They have difficulty finding credit. They don’t have the financial resources to mechanize. Financing underpins pretty much everything. Like training. Good agricultural practices mean lots of training. Do farmers have access to that? In order to compete, do the smallholder farmers learn about or can they afford drones, which are becoming regular crop surveillance mechanisms? (or chemicals for pest control?) And what about the banana weevils that threaten crops in some places. Certain chemicals used to abate these are banned in the European Union. Can the farmers afford to farm in a way that is sustainable for the earth? And let’s not forget things like storage. Bananas can’t really sit on the docks waiting to be exported — remember, as consumers — we watch the colors closely — or we just won’t buy.
As one speaker pointed out about the challenges — “doing the right thing costs more.”
As one speaker pointed out about the challenges — “doing the right thing costs more.”
And this is the problem.
The countries that do trade in bananas seem to have figured out these problems. They are probably doing the right thing.
But are they?
How do we know if we don’t have access to a fully transparent story of a banana’s life on each journey?
Truly free and truly fair bananas
Rebecca Henderson sums up this sort of problem that can exist in our current state of capitalism very nicely in her TedX about the future of capitalism. Henderson teaches a class by the same name at Harvard Business School and has also recently published a book on the topic.
As a “huge fan of capitalism at its best, and as an economist and a business school professor,” Henderson agrees that “genuinely free and fair markets are one of the great inventions of the human race.”
She also points out a flaw in our current model of capitalism though.
“Markets only work their magic when prices reflect real costs.” And she suggests that it takes leadership courage to ensure real costs are reflected.
She cites a story in which the CEO of a garbage company, Eric Osmundsen, takes a stand.
Henderson suggests that he was willing to see things differently. He wanted to change the way trash was handled in order to make a difference for our environment. He encountered the problem of a corrupt industry. It was cutting costs by dumping waste illegally, taking advantage of poorly enforced regulations and fines for violations.
According to Henderson’s story, this leader decided to “run clean.” He faced backlash from his team and the industry at first. But, after making this public, investors eventually agreed that “taking the high road could pay off.”
As Henderson’s case study goes, competitors agreed not to dump illegally. And regulators got on board. Customers supported higher prices. And the company became one of the largest recycling companies in Norway. “There are thousands of other business leaders like this,” Henderson says. “Willing to do the right thing.”
‘There are thousands of other business leaders like this,’ Henderson says. “Willing to do the right thing.”
She now calls on business leaders to step up to better capitalism for the future. If there is a reason beyond simply doing the right thing for business leaders to act in this way — it is also in their self-interest, she points out. In the long run business will benefit too.
While Henderson focuses much of her attention on our changing climate and the planet, there is an implicit challenge that she offers up to the rest of us as we consider all aspects of our business dealings including our trade.
Her thinking matters to the story of the banana.
What is a banana’s true cost anyway?
Another way to look at the cost of the goods we purchase, like our bananas, is, “If the price feels (too) cheap, who are [we] not paying?”
Are there hidden costs that we’re not aware of when we’re ‘swiping left,’ past the yellow bananas with spots?
Beyond the stickers
If we expect to eat truly fair and truly free bananas, what do we expect their transparent story to tell us?
Fair trade and organic certifications are a great starting point. You might find a label on your banana that represents a certification like this. But as we know, “perfection is always a moving target” and traceability technology offers the possibility for there to be a more complete and transparent story.
What will we want to know specifically? For starters, more about the lives of smallholder farmers. The World Bank estimates that 500 million smallholder farmers currently live in poverty. Our technology might help us to answer questions like, what happens in the ‘first mile,’ of the banana’s life? Does our food have a digital identity (name) which allows us to trace its life from the hands of farmers and the earth to our mouth? Are smallholder farmers provided with financial access? Are they paid well (meaning do they earn living wages?) Are they treated with dignity in their work? Are we sure practices such as child labor are not tolerated? What about the environment? Are there environmental protections in place? Is sustainable farming practiced? Are there certifications and standards that apply? Are they known and enforceable (and enforced?)
We can imagine how a conscious application of traceability technologies might help us to answer these questions. As blockchain, AI, cryptocurrency etc. cease to be just technical jargon, hype or speculation, and leaders choose to deploy them to answer critical questions like these this will make a difference not only for our business but also for our global community — humanity, that is.
As we answer the questions and then act on them to make a difference we will see that we have the opportunity to impact the lives of smallholder farmers significantly by improving their livelihoods and to hold ourselves accountable for our use of the environment, too.
All in all this means an opportunity for us to evolve, grow, innovate and build an even brighter future for our food and ourselves.
Our bananas may not be screaming yet.
But their story — and the story of the earth and the humans who touch their story all along the way — is screaming out to be told.
So when the bananas talk someday soon, let’s listen.
From The Museum of Ideas: Conversations on the Blue Couch Series Tiffany Tsui is a global strategist with a proven track record in developing and successfully pioneering business models on sustainability and digital transformation. She is an investor, founder and mentor for several start-ups, initiatives and projects, in the area of GreenTech, AgTech, Food & Beverage and with a geographical focus between emerging countries and China, Europe and China — in and outbound.
Shannon Mullen O’Keefe is a lover of wisdom, dedicated to imagining what we can build and achieve together. She served for years as a leader for global consulting teams and most recently as an Interim Executive Director for a non-profit organization. The Museum of Ideas houses her independent research, writing, thought leadership and content contribution projects and collaborations.
Read the first in the Conversations on the Blue Couch Series here.