Since its beginning, EARTH University has sought to demonstrate that agricultural profitability can be achieved while caring for people and the planet.
For more than 20 years it has made efforts to produce bananas in the humid tropics in a more environmentally-friendly way. Today, the roots of this initiative are strengthening in fertile soil.
One of the many ecological challenges
One challenge facing producers is how to replace the use of chemical fertilizers.
Farmers using nitrogen-based fertilizers cause significant environmental damage worldwide. Once released, such fertilizers form nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas with 300 times the heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide (CO2). In addition, the fertilizers can contaminate drinking water, contribute to “dead zones” in the ocean and degrade ecosystems.
An organic alternative
In 2007, Whole Foods Market financed a research project at EARTH to generate alternatives in organic banana production. The project, led by Professor Roque Vaquero, has resulted in possible solutions to the challenge of producing bananas organically.
The alternative planting model the researchers have proposed also offers the possibility of additional revenue streams.
The project, for example, has used nitrogen-fixing legumes including leeks, cratylia and flemingia plants within the banana plantation’s experimental area. The biomass such plants provide, through periodic pruning, serves as a source of nitrogen.
Cacao, fruit trees (citrus and rambutan) and wood have also been planted along with the bananas in order to find a balance between the environment and commercial requirements. Professor Vaquero remarks, “The fruit and forest trees increase plant diversity in the area, and make use of aerial and subterranean space at a height and soil depth that bananas do not reach. As a result, leaves that fall naturally help recycle nutrients from deeper soil layers. There are also economic benefits, as the crops offer the producer other sources of income, apart from bananas.”
Thanks to this balance between farming and the environment, the organic banana project is thriving within the natural ecosystem of the tropical rainforest.
In this way, the organic project has started to generate sources of revenues. The Costa Rican supermarket chain, Fresh Market, offers its clientele organic bananas produced at the University, says Roger Ruiz, General Manager of Business Operations at EARTH. Profits help finance the educational costs of the University.
Now that they have managed to develop some alternative crop practices for growing bananas organically, the challenge for Vaquero and his team is to continue perfecting them and to create a commercially-viable model. As Ruiz notes: “The model produces fewer boxes per hectare, and the bananas have a lower weight, but costs are also significantly reduced by eliminating chemical fertilizers and chemical disease control, and there is additional income from the other fruits and lumber.” Vaquero adds: “Obviously, there are also many other advantages that haven’t even been quantified, such as less environmental damage, a safer product for direct consumption, etc.”
Impact beyond the research
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the organic banana project thus far has been its conversion into the research and development unit for EARTH´s commercial banana operation.
Two years ago, with support once again from Whole Foods Market, EARTH began an extensive renovation of its banana plantation, with a total of 220 hectares renovated to date.
Although the commercial farm does not use herbicides, it has recently begun planting mucuna (also known as cowhage), a type of legume that acts as a nitrogen-fixing ground cover. The commercial farm has also implemented an innovative system of planting the bananas in hexagons around Guayacán trees. The tree branches are pruned regularly and incorporated into the soil, adding nitrogen. This system increases the number of plants per hectare, provides protection from the wind and allows a better distribution of sunlight.
Of course, this is just the threshold for promoting effective and environmentally-friendly techniques in the banana industry.
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