Big business: Banana

Bananas are the fourth largest crop in the world after rice, wheat, and maize. The yellow desert banana is a major export for tropical countries and one of the best selling food products in the UK.

However, for every £1 we spend in the UK on bananas, as little as 5p reaches the original producer in tropical countries. Fortunately, ‘fairly traded’ bananas are becoming more widely available and in buying them, we can help to improve pay and conditions for the world’s banana workers.

Almost all bananas in the UK were originally supplied from the Caribbean until undercut by South America. A combination of undercutting and increased import taxes drove many farmers into bankruptcy.

The green cooking banana

The majority of bananas (up to 85%) grown in the tropics are not exported, but instead harvested as green (unripe) bananas as a valuable source of carbohydrate for millions of local people. Many different banana cultivars are grown and prepared like potatoes. They can be fried, boiled, chipped or baked.

Bananas are particularly important to developing countries because they produce crops all year round, including at times when other national crops are in short supply between harvests.

Fewer yellow bananas

Almost all UK bananas are the ‘Cavendish’ cultivar. As with most edible banana cultivars, these plants are genetically identical clones that cannot produce seeds. They are reproduced from young offshoots from older plants. By contrast, ‘wild’ bananas are often inedible and filled with hard black seeds.

Unfortunately, the Cavendish cultivar is being killed by an aggressive fungus known as ‘Panama fungus’. This is spreading quickly between identical banana plants because they have no means of developing genetic resistance from sexual reproduction.

As the fungus becomes more widespread, there is no choice but to replace Cavendish with a resistant cultivar bred elsewhere – as Cavendish itself replaced the ‘Gros Michel’ cultivar when it was killed by the Panama fungus in the 1950s.

E025 - Banana leafFun fact

The central ribs of banana leaves are shaped like an internal drainpipe. This sheds excess water from the tip and funnels vast amounts of water to the thirsty base of the plant.

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At a glance

Distribution and Habitat

Native to brightly-lit forest clearings in Southeast Asia and Australia. Today grown in tropical countries worldwide.


Up to 8m (26’) with leaves up to 3m (10’) long. Our Dwarf Cavendish variety at The Living Rainforest grows up to 3m (10’).


Nutritious food cooked or eaten fresh by millions of people worldwide. Also used as animal feed and many traditional health remedies. Banana leaves are used as umbrellas, building/roofing material and in food preparation. Flowers are eaten in salads and stir-fries in South-East Asia.

Scientific name

Musa acuminate (Dwarf Cavendish)

For the garden

The banana Musa basjoo from Japan is one of the hardiest varieties. It can grow outdoors all year round in UK gardens, if positioned in a sheltered location and wrapped up during winter for protection against freezing.

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