LSA Collegiate Fellow and anthropologist Alyssa Paredes’s research is bananas. (B-A-N-A-N-A-S.) Paredes examines the politics and history of the fruit, tropical landscapes, soil microbes and pathogens, and the languages and cultures associated with them. Paredes pays particular attention to the way the transnational banana trade works, and how it doesn’t—and how the dysfunctionality is surprisingly instrumental to the global banana trade. She’s even been involved in making a documentary film about the banana industry between the Philippines and Japan. To Paredes, the banana narrative is a parable for commerce, environmental degradation, and disparity. By uncovering the complex paradoxes and disconnects in the banana industry, Paredes reveals how industrialized food production shapes the fate of many rural regions in our world.
LSA: How did you become interested in bananas? And what do bananas tell us about the world?
Alyssa Paredes: It’s become almost a cliché in anthropological circles to say that I “fell into” my research topic, but I emphasize it here as a reminder, especially for young scholars, about the importance of welcoming serendipity into the research process.
After graduating from college and spending a year in Japan on a Fulbright Fellowship, I worked in a New York City-based Japanese multinational food and beverage industry. I often describe the company as the “Pepsi-Co of Japan.” I was at the very bottom of the corporate hierarchy, and had limited access or ability to reflect on the vast network of exchanged goods of which I was a part. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, I developed an interest in the production and transport of food in long-distance chains, and longed for a way to explore my burning questions outside of the constraints of the corporate world. Needless to say, I found what I was looking for in academic research.
I knew only two things for sure in the earliest years of my Ph.D. education in anthropology: I knew I wanted to explore the food production-consumption nexus, and I knew I wanted to do this between the two countries I cared about most deeply, the first being the Philippines, the country of my childhood, and the second Japan, the country I had dedicated many years learning about. In those preliminary stages of research, I asked myself, very simply: What is the most important commodity between the Philippines and Japan? All signs pointed to export bananas, and to the southern island of Mindanao, where they are predominantly grown.
I found a paradox at the heart of the transnational trade in bananas. In the Philippines, where bananas are grown, the industry is among the most cost-intensive in the agriculture, fisheries, and forestry sector. In Japan, the consumer market where the majority of Philippine bananas are destined, bananas are always the cheapest fruit available, sometimes selling for less than $1 per 5-piece pack. What makes this transformation—from very expensive production, to very cheap consumption—possible is what we might call “externalized costs.” These are the indirect effects of production that are considered “external” because they are not accounted for in the ways that production costs or the final price of a product are calculated. “Costs” give the impression of purely economic phenomena, but they can be social and environmental too. The reality of externalized costs is not unique to trade in bananas, but rather a common component of trade in just about any of the commodities that compose our everyday lives.
There are a lot of banana-related metaphors, and they reveal quite a few things about the Philippines. Political pundits and scholars alike use metaphors of “banana politics” to describe the state of political dysfunctionality and corruption that is rampant in the highest offices of government. Activists in Japan use the term “banana republic” to critique their relationship with the Asian Third World. To me, the story of bananas is less a metaphor than it is a parable because the banana industry has become caught in cycles of environmental harm and disease on the one hand, and quick fixes that do not address environmental degradation or social disparity on the other. This parable gives us a clue about what we can expect to see (and indeed are already seeing) in many other industrializing agricultural zones in the twenty-first century.
LSA: Can you describe the different places, methods, and languages that you used in your research and how they all link together?
AP: Doing social scientific research on transnational commodity chains requires crossing borders of varying kinds. For me this has meant thinking across not only different countries, but also different landscapes of life within those countries: from plantation grounds, packinghouses, and residential areas, to port warehouses, wholesale markets, corporate offices, and supermarkets. Taking scale into account has meant paying equal attention to activity at the nation-state level, as well as at the microbial or microscopic level. This comes to the fore primarily in the work I’ve done on chemical exposure and plant pathology in and around plantation zones, for example. Of course, none of this immersive research would be possible without multilingual skills—in my case, in Filipino and in Japanese, the former being my native tongue and the latter a learned third language.
The question about how these disparate sites and scales “link together” in a long-distance food chain is an important one, but perhaps an equally pressing question is how they fail to link. To give one example, Filipino plantation laborers often chop down banana trees as a form of popular protest, thinking that damaging harvest volumes will send a powerful message to their Japanese importers abroad. In reality, however, those importers rarely even notice a change so the political message is lost along the way. One of the biggest surprises during my fieldwork “following bananas,” so to speak, was how such disconnects, miscommunications, and fall-outs are endemic to transnational trade. Many people tend to imagine the commodity chain as a thick rope that ties zones of production to spaces of consumption; indeed, much of our consumer politics relies on the notion (even hope) that what we do here affects what happens there. There is some truth to that, but it is entirely contingent on the structure of the commodity chain we’re dealing with. It behooves all of us who are attached in one way or the other to global networks of trade to understand the nature of those disconnections, and to determine how we can effect positive social and environmental change despite these disconnections.
LSA: What would you like people eating bananas here in Michigan to know?
AP: Here in Michigan, most of the bananas we consume are imported not from the Philippines but from Latin America. There are many social, economic, and environmental injustices behind the blemish-less façade of “America’s favorite fruit.” What I’d like us all to know is that we cannot simply buy our way to justice. Purchasing organic or fair-trade bananas is a laudatory personal choice if you can afford it. However, it seldom makes the kind of political statement that is capable of convincing large manufacturers to alter their practices or of bolstering social and environmental campaigns. There must be regulatory structures that respond to the on-the-ground realities, and American consumers need a more robust, inclusive, and democratic system to make collective purchasing decisions. As a model I look to Japan’s consumer co-operative systems, which have memberships in the millions. This is another research direction that I’ve been exploring as well.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This story is part of a series highlighting the research of LSA Collegiate Fellows, a program of the National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID) at the University of Michigan. The LSA Collegiate Fellows Program is one of the most unique and innovative programs in higher education, recruiting and retaining faculty who are experts in their fields and have demonstrated commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion through their scholarship, teaching and/or engagement.