Chronicle of an agroecological transition: French West Indian bananas

Change story 8 September 2021
French bananas, which are grown in the French West Indies, are the fruits of a long history, fraught with difficulties, that CIRAD has supported over the years. Forty years that have revolutionized banana growing and seen biodiversity return to banana plantations.

Banana varieties  © CIRAD

With an almost 60% cut in pesticide use between 2006 and 2015, French bananas have come a long way. Who has never heard of chlordecone? Until it was banned in France in 1993, this pesticide was used massively in Guadeloupe et Martinique for over twenty years to control banana weevils, resulting in long-term contamination of soils, local people and some agricultural products. Since then, the value chain has undergone an agroecological revolution. It has achieved impressive results in terms of reduced pesticide use. It has also overcome a competitiveness crisis and climate hazards and found a place in a highly competitive global market. CIRAD has supported the chain over the years, with the aim of making it more competitive and environmentally and socially sustainable. It is distributors who are currently showing an interest in its recent innovations that enable responsible, virtually chemical-free production. And biodiversity has reappeared in banana plantations.

In the forefront of agroecology

Banana growing developed in the French West Indies from the late 1930s onwards, and research began to support the chain within the next decade. In the 1960s-1980s, against a backdrop of strong global competition, agronomists innovated, to boost productivity. However, in time, monocropping showed its limitations, and yields fell, due to the presence of weevils and nematodes in the region's soils. At the time, CIRAD was working to develop toolkits and rational technical packages for producers, to reduce the systematic use of phytosanitary products or mineral fertilizers and their environmental impact. The organization developed a combination of soil decontamination as regards nematodes and the use of healthy in vitro plantlets.  The innovation, which is still practised today, was gradually adopted by producers.
Unlike their competitors in Central America and Africa, growers in the French West Indies are subject to European legislation, which is the strictest framework in the world in environmental and social terms. To defend their commercial interests, they decided to join forces, founding the Union des producteurs de bananes de Guadeloupe et Martinique (UGPBAN) in 2003. The union, a merger of five or six previous structures, was intended to be a much more powerful lobbying instrument. It rapidly became a vital partner for CIRAD.

Starting over, on a healthier footing: the Plan banane durable

The year 2007, a bad one in many respects for the banana value chain, with cyclone Dean devastating plantations and the chlordecone scandal breaking, also saw the launch of the Plan banane durable (sustainable banana plan), which was to revolutionize the chain.
The fact that France was holding its Grenelle de l’environnement multi-party debate at the time served to fan the flames of the health scandal, and growers came under fire. "In 2007, relations between growers and the research sector were not good", says Sébastien Zanoletti, an agronomist who was working at the time to support banana growers and is now a consultant IT2 and UGPBAN. "Growers felt that research had lost touch with the grass roots, and the results did not really meet their needs." It was in 2007 that CIRAD and UGPBAN launched the Plan banane durable (PBD), with financial support from the local authorities, the State (Michel Barnier, the Minister of Agriculture at the time, was very involved), and the European Union. The PBD had two aims: on an economic level, to sustain high production and jobs, and on an environmental level, to develop an alternative production system for the region, centring on agroecology (AE).
In terms of research, the subsequent innovations have not merely been agronomic. They have also extended to partnerships. CIRAD and the professionals in the chain were aware that an intermediary was required between research and producers, and set up the Institut technique de la banane (ITBAN) in late 2008. The organization, which was rapidly opened up to other tropical crops to become the Institut technique tropical (IT2), is in charge of interactions between researchers, technicians and producers, and has driven the sector's agroecological transition. On an agronomic level, the plan rests on two pillars: black Sigatoka control and the creation and breeding of varieties resistant to black Sigatoka and the various Fusarium strains. On a technical level, the PBD has meant a system of set-aside and replanting with healthy plants; using plants as soil cover in banana plantations; and enriching the soil with organic matter by promoting appropriate cropping methods – low-till, green fertilizer growing during set-aside, and use of compost. The total budget for the PBD was 180 million euros (50%-funded by the authorities), including 3 million euros a year for research between 2008 and 2014, and the plan, which was to be followed by a second PBD, made the banana value chain in Guadeloupe and Martinique one of the least pesticide-intensive in the world.


French West Indian bananas in a few figures

  • 10 000 direct, indirect and related jobs
  • 9 800 ha of Cavendish bananas (including 3 200 of set-aside) in Martinique and Guadeloupe
  • 250 000 t produced each year
  • around 600 producers


From plot to consumer, agroecology has spread

More than 95% of producers have now adopted crop protection practices based on combining soil decontamination strategies and healthy planting material. While they still use fungicides against black Sigatoka, they do so rationally (fewer than ten ground-treatment rounds compared to 35 aerial treatment rounds in equivalent environments in Colombia and Ecuador, and more than 65 in Costa Rica).
Moreover, agroecology is also making headway with consumers, with substantial demand for the healthiest possible products, supported by downstream schemes (multiple certification schemes).
CIRAD has been contacted by major distributors, which are keen to secure supplies. It helped to draft the "Filière Qualité Carrefour" (FQC) specifications for bananas (see box 1). According to Denis Loeillet, an economist with CIRAD, "research was right too soon, but it has paid off. By publishing in journals, taking part in inter-trade bodies, etc., CIRAD has been noticed, and the major distributors, which are under pressure from consumers and shareholders, are keen to work with us". Denis Loeillet is delighted that "relations between research, producers and distributors have changed. Research, which has traditionally been called upon to address specific issues (banana diseases, etc.), now has an equal place in a tripartite, multi-partner relationship. CIRAD now acts as an intermediary between producers and downstream players, by helping to draft specifications like those of Carrefour (see box), it can block demands from downstream if it does not think they are realistic (even if consumers wanted us to, we are not about to produce pink bananas with green spots!), and set the value chain on the road to progress. Research does not have all the answers, but holds technical truths that can answer market demand if used appropriately."

CIRAD, the mainstay of the Filière Qualité Carrefour banana specifications
The Carrefour website is quite clear: "Our Filière Qualité Carrefour Cavendish bananas from Guadeloupe and Martinique are grown without synthetic insecticides or postharvest chemical treatments. They were developed in partnership with CIRAD. This is the first time agroecological bananas have been grown on a large scale". The collaboration between CIRAD and Carrefour bore fruit at record speed. The group first met with researchers in late 2018, and by January 2020, the first agroecological bananas were on the shelves in Carrefour's shops. Since then, 8000 t of "Filière Qualité Carrefour" bananas have been sold each year in France. The group based its label on specifications drawn up with the help of CIRAD, setting out what defines an agroecological banana: zero postharvest chemical treatments, zero insecticides, zero nematicides, and a limited number of fungicide treatments. For Sylvain Nicolosi, Head of "Filière Qualité" operations at Carrefour, the collaboration between CIRAD and the global retail giant was prompted by two interests: Carrefour's need for sound expertise in terms of agroecology, and CIRAD's interest in working with a distributor at the end of the chain to gain a clearer picture of possible development levers. S. Nicolosi considers that "CIRAD served as a channel linking Carrefour's interests and those of producers".  He congratulates the researchers involved for their flexibility, saying that they "succeeded in striking a compromise between the usual long-term perspective of research, over 10-15 years, and the ultra-short-term vision of retailers (one to two years), to find realistic solutions that could be rolled out in today's market".

Other banana growing regions worldwide are also turning to AE, with CIRAD's support. in particular, the organization is working with the Compagnie fruitière, the leading exporter of African bananas (Cameroon, Ghana and Ivory Coast).
Lastly, on a global level, CIRAD launched a global alliance, the World Musa Alliance, in February 2020, to fight TR4 fusarium wilt (also known as Panama disease), a deadly threat to banana production that has traumatized production zones in Latin America. The alliance associates private players, with a view to generating the knowledge required to develop new varieties and production systems and to breeding varieties resistant to TR4.


Relations between research, producers and distributors have changed. Research, which has traditionally been called upon to address specific issues (banana diseases, etc.), now has an equal place in a tripartite, multi-partner relationship. Research does not have all the answers, but holds technical truths that can answer market demand if used appropriately.

Denis Loeillet
economist with CIRAD

Bats have made a comeback

Actions and words in favour of a new way of producing reflect the profession's commitment to agroecology. However, for CIRAD, it is important to put the environmental, economic and social added value of the transition into perspective. A roadmap was drafted in 2019, with the dual aim of building scientific knowledge and renewing what CIRAD has to offer in terms of expertise, to be able to produce dessert and plantain bananas in an agroecological, sustainable way within ten years (see box 2).

False start for "Pointe d’or"
Finding a black Sigatoka-resistant variety was one of the tasks set by the PBD. It had to be similar to the Cavendish in terms of shape and flavour, resistant to the disease and sufficiently high-yielding. Twenty years of research involving crossing more than 2000 wild varieties resulted in variety 925, christened "Pointe d’Or", which is naturally resistant to black Sigatoka. It does not require any phytosanitary products, and was launched on the market in 2020.
However, its launch proved complicated. Pointe d’or had a major defect in consumers' eyes: the skin blackens rapidly once on sale, and consumers do not buy black bananas. This prompted Carrefour to take it off the shelves. Sébastien Zanoletti feels that this was really bad luck. "We could have developed eco-friendly packaging to protect Pointe d’or against damage, but it was launched at the very time that all packaging was banned." He goes on to say: "However, we should not give up on the variety. It is 100% organic and tastes great; the only snag is its appearance. It could find its niche on the market one day, if consumer standards change."
research is ongoing, and Pointe d’or's younger siblings, 964, 965 and 966, are currently being field tested.

The Martinique frog (Eleutherodactylus martinicensis) occupies the upper storeys of banana plantations (DR)

In the medium term, for dessert bananas, there is talk of producing a "zero chemical pesticide" banana. In the meantime, there have already been undeniable, concrete effects on an environmental level. Biodiversity has returned to banana plantations at a speed that has taken everyone by surprise. "This is beyond our wildest dreams. It is tangible proof of the ecological good health of banana plantations", says Sébastien Zanoletti. He adds: "A study in 2015 showed that biodiversity had made a spectacular return*. Naturalists have recorded seven new bird species, 214 insect species, and frogs such as the Martinique frog (Eleutherodactylus martinicensis). Four species of bats have also reappeared, one of which has made banana plantations its main habitat. A new equilibrium has gradually been achieved, after a few hiccups (notably spider and ant invasions), and has also benefited soils (195 earthworms per m2 on average). Banana weevils, which used to be a catastrophe for banana plantations, have become a prey, with ants eating large numbers of eggs."

Biodiversity has made a spectacular return. Naturalists have recorded seven new bird species, 214 insect species, and frogs such as the Martinique frog. Four species of bats have also reappeared, one of which has made banana plantations its main habitat.

Sébastien Zanoletti
agronomist, consultant to IT2 and UGPBAN



* Évaluation et Suivi de la Biodiversité dans les Bananeraies Guadeloupe et Martinique