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First organic bananas from Tenerife, the 20 banana letters

First organic bananas from Tenerife, the 20 banana letters: difference between regular cultivation and organic bananas, firsthand. Health value, ripeness, etc.

Leaves of a banana tree with still immature fruit-arm and flower at the end of the arm.© CC-0 1.0, pdimaria, Pixabay
In 1981, as a banana grower and later as a banana exporter, I heard about the many views alternative groups had concerning the negative side of bananas. I remember reading how the bananas were gassed to accelerate the ripening process. Several other aspects were also criticized, including the fact that bananas were being harvested before they were ripe.

Redaction comment

Perhaps the Canarian bananas from Tenerife have an especially flavorful taste thanks to the volcanic soil. The cultivar Dwarf Cavendish is more wind resistant as compared to, for example, Grand Nain bananas.

For me, these warnings were very problematic as I was a strict vegan raw foodist (Types of Raw Food Diets) and was trying to cure a deadly, practically incurable sickness by radically changing my diet. See my experience with disease.

For various reasons, I chose bananas (dessert bananas) to serve as the important basis for my Erb Muesli. As I am a critical person and either know things or don’t know and want to find out, I decided to do in-depth research on the subject.

Vegan raw food was practically unheard of in the late 1970s. When I told people about how I was changing my diet, they only smiled. And I understood this because before I would have smiled inside as well and pitied the person who had shared this news with me.

1. Why cultivate bananas on Tenerife?

At that time, there was very little variety when it came to fruit in Switzerland and even in the middle and northern areas of Europe. And as a vegan raw foodist, your diet is based on vegetables, fruit, and nuts of all kinds. Subtropical and tropical fruits (exotic fruits) provide for great variety in a vegan raw diet. And that’s why I wanted to learn to grow my own fruits and vegetables, and why I wanted to do this in a climate that would even allow for certain types of tropical fruits to flourish. But I also wanted to live in the same cultural area, specifically in the European cultural region, and I didn’t want the travel time from Switzerland to this place to be very long.

Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. Thanks to Mount Teide (12,198 ft or 3,718 m), it has a range of very different climate zones. An especially tasty variety of bananas grow there. For these reasons and others, I decided to move to Santa Ursula de Tenerife.

My organic finca SA in Santa Ursula supplied Migros, Switzerland’s largest retail company

For at least three years, my organic finca SA in Santa Ursula supplied Migros, Switzerland’s largest retail company, with what are called transitional products (Bio Suisse). These are organically grown fruits that are sold as conventional agriculture products.

Organic regulatory bodies require land to be farmed organically for three years before the produce grown on it can be organically certified.

This is good for many reasons. For example, residues of pollutants from previous production remain in the soil, and it requires a certain amount of time for the land to be free of these. Some of these can be persistent organic pollutants.

There were soon other organic banana suppliers, for example, from Israel, but it wasn’t until organic bananas from Central America came on the market that we were no longer able to offer competitive prices, and I had to give up the entire production.

At the middle or end of the 1980s, an environmental magazine in Germany tested several different organic bananas. Our bananas were the only ones that didn’t have any pesticide residues at all.

Courtyard Finca Rosario, Santa Ursula, comparing 1980 and 1987 planted with the palm.© CC-by 4.0, Ernst Erb, Foundation Diet and Health Switzerland

2. The 20 banana letters

Below, you can read the “20 banana letters”; unfortunately, the letters did not include the date they were written. They are actually circular letters. With the time, we rotated the letters so that after 20 weeks, the customers received the first letter again. We were able to scan the letters and upload them to the site using OCR recognition software. However, it is possible that errors occurred in the process. I chose not to update the text, but instead to leave the statements as they were made at the time, before the Internet existed. I did, however, add the links and terms in curly brackets.

2.1. The beginning and contact opportunities

Dear Customer,

Since the beginning of 1981, we have been growing organic bananas. We first took care of about only 100 plants in our large garden because we wanted to see if it was possible to switch bananas that had been treated with pesticides and chemicals over to organic cultivation. All of the experts we consulted had their doubts.

People tell us that we were pioneers in the field of organic banana production.

But our little experiment worked, and in June 1982, we purchased several acres of bananas through our newly founded organic finca SA and then switched them over to organic growing conditions.

Also in the north of the island is the "Jardín de aclimatación de La Orotava".© CC-by-sa 2.0, Jardin Botanico, La Orotava
The Jardín de aclimatación de La Orotava (or short Jardín Botánico de la Orotava or Botánico) shows the range of plants that can grow in this climate zone. The employees there shared some fruit and seeds with me and also this photo. I planted the seeds and was able to grow about 50 different types of fruit for our personal use.

I would like to share firsthand with you how our products grow and why

You might ask why I am sharing this with you. We have had many customers visit us at our finca (span. for farm), and we can tell that there is often a lack of clarity when it comes to growing methods, transport, ripeness points for harvest and consumption, and the banana’s significant health benefits.

I would therefore like to share firsthand with you how our products grow and why. And in this matter, we are also interested in hearing about your problems as we can only continue to thrive if true understanding and trust exist between the consumers and producer and all of the levels in between.

We have put a lot of effort into building our business up over the last several years, and now that it is beginning to bring us joy, we want to keep it working well.

In the future, we plan to regularly include “letters” with the bananas (and later perhaps also avocados) that contain practical information. We would ask the retailers to distribute these or hang them up in their stores, and the letters would be rotated regularly. The entire collection of letters would provide an overview of our business and products, which so far include bananas, dried bananas, and avocados—all of which are from certified organic production.

Our main topics will be organic production (organic farming), why and how, comparisons to conventional farming, information about us, current news, eating bananas, and, of course, recipes.

Contact information

Tenerife is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination, and at certain times of the year we have visitors almost daily who are interested in our work. People sometimes mistakenly assume that we have lodging for visitors.

Although we don’t offer this, we would be happy to arrange a tour of the plantation and large garden, where about 50 different types of fruit grow. At the moment, we are only able to offer tours one day a week, currently on Tuesdays at 10 a.m. We ask that you call in advance if you are interested in participating. In most cases, the tours are led by our agriculture engineer Annette Pott, or in the garden by my partner Margot.

Please note that I sold this farm more than 10 years ago. There are now new owners, and it is no longer possible to contact anyone there.

We can only answer your letters personally in exceptional cases, but we will answer questions of a general nature in these letters. Even if you don’t receive a direct answer, please know that we have read and discussed your letters.

Please contact us if you are interested in doing an agricultural internship in our garden for a minimum of six months. Internships on the plantation are not possible as highly specialized work takes place there, and we are not able to obtain permission for these from the government.

We didn’t realize that our work would generate such great interest and hope we can answer your questions through this “new medium.”

I wish all of you good health and happiness!, Ernst Erb

Redaction comment

I will not include the greeting or the closing in the following letters as they are always the same.

Bio Finca Rosario was our home, vegetable garden and orchard plus experimental garden.© CC-by-sa 2.0, Bio Finca Rosario, Santa Ursula

2.2. Organic farming as compared to conventional production

Well-meaning, reformist groups have often vilified bananas as food. As an advocate of organic foods, I investigated this question independently using my own resources. The reason. Given my health, I had moved to a climate zone where many kinds of fruits and vegetables grow all year long — including bananas. And before this, I had created a muesli cereal that contained only natural ingredients, and bananas were one of the main ingredients.

However, I was shocked to learn how bananas are grown. Many pesticides are used that are banned in Europe.

In cooperation with the ministry of agriculture, a poster was created that recommended the following products:

Against white louse Organophosphates such as dimethoate, diazinon, fenitrothion ("Folithi.." Bayer), "malathi..", and chlorpyrifos
Against wood worms Aldrin, diazinon, or foxin (Volaton)
Against thrips "Linda.." (!), fenitrothion, or dimethoate
Against red spiders Organochloride substances such as dicofol or tetradifon
Against nematodes Dazomet (DBCP)
As herbicides (weed killers) Animotriazole {amitrol} + Diuron {DCMU}, paraquat, and others

These substances are applied in the form of fertilizer. The entire situation made me decide to search for a closed and natural cycle (nutrient cycle) for bananas.

A closed and natural cycle for bananas

The existence of many empty cow stalls and old x were confirmation that they had previously had two cows per hectare (2.5 acres) of bananas in order to generate the necessary biomass. The stalls were filled with pine needles, which were removed when there was danger of fire, and at certain times, with Erica {heather}.

I was lucky to meet and work with Manolito Exposito, a young Canarian agriculture engineer {agricultural engineering}, whose family brought more than 30 acres (12 hectares) of land to our joint venture.

As the amount of work grew, agriculture engineer Annette Pott also joined our company {agriculture science}.

For several years, we conducted a series of meticulous experiments that involved collecting the data on hundreds of plants each week and saving this on the computer (PC). We needed quite a bit of capital and time to convert all of the soil for our plants.

Before we discuss the details, here is an overview of our current production methods and the results:

  • We use pine needles and branches from tree heathers as bedding for steer, cow, and horse stalls. Both of these materials can be found in a natural area at more than 3'280 feet (1000 meters) above sea level.
  • At the beginning, we also got new soil here to provide the banana plants with a new environment. Their roots weren’t yet very deep, and they needed all the support they could get. With this step, we were able to neutralize the nematodes {round worms}.
  • The cows and steers receive pseudostems (rolled bases of leaves), storage organs (rhizome), and parts of the harvested bananas as well as feed that we produce ourselves, which is also fed to the horses.

Thanks to this closed biological cycle, we can grow bananas without using any fertilizer at all.

The view from the house Bio Finca Rosario on the mountain Teide with 3717 m altitude.© CC-by-sa 2.0, Ernst Erb, Foundation Diet Health Switzerland

We now have rich soil life {soil biota}, whereas the soil of other plantations contain absolutely no worms or soil biota. Now that we have healthy plants, we have fewer problems with insects and do quite well using only natural means. We will report more on this in the next letter.

2.3. But the banana is protected by the peel!

In letter 2, we mentioned insecticides, nematicides, herbicides, and fertilizers, which are all used in the conventional production of bananas. It is important to note that these chemicals are expensive and are therefore used as little as possible.

In Central America, where most of the bananas consumed in Europe are grown, the chemicals are often applied by crop dusters to ensure that the application is even.

I was very surprised not only at how “chemically” bananas are grown, but also according to analyses, how little of this material is present in bananas, which are protected by the peel.

It’s important to share this here as well.

After we purchased the first piece of land and before converting to organic production, we had several analyses done in Switzerland. The results from April 19, 1982, did not show any phenylurea pesticides, and the analysis of organochlorine residues showed a trace of HCB (hexachlorobenzene, less than 0.1 ppb), 1 ppb alpha-HCH, and 3 ppb "linda.." {persistent organic pollutants}.

The first years were difficult

Perhaps we were particularly lucky with the soil, which we later even renewed by adding numerous truckloads of “virgin soil.” We would be interested in having more testing done on our bananas and also in seeing test results from other bananas. We would be grateful for any tips or advice you might have.

List of recommended pesticides 1980s in Tenerife, then banned in Europe.© CC-by-sa 2.0, Ernst Erb, Bio Finca SA

The first years were difficult, and we had serious losses as it wasn’t possible to transport the bananas to Europe in such small quantities. As we will see, there are a variety of reasons why Canarian bananas are more expensive than bananas from Central America. Organic production also requires more work, and the yield is smaller than bananas “driven” by fertilizers.

However, the nutrient cycle described here strengthened our plants so much that we could normally use plant-based broths to fight insects and only had to use tobacco in exceptional cases.

Since customs doesn’t let any fruit through that has traces of insect infestation, we lost some bananas. Although white louse {mealybugs} and “red spiders” {red spider mites} only suck on the surface, they leave spots on the peel.

We now avoid such losses by using these bananas to produce dried bananas for muesli manufacturers. And we also dry bananas that were ripe early to eat as snacks. I will discuss gentle drying methods later.

We were able to successfully convert three banana farms. Two belong to Germans who have moved here. Converting a farm on the western side of the island was not entirely successful, and the owner decided to start spraying it again. It seems that there are fewer problems with insects on the north side of the island thanks to the colder climate — the island is separated by a mountain that is about 12,195 ft high (3717 m).

However, the yields are significantly smaller than in the south or west of island, and minimal in comparison to the large yields produced in the “banana countries.”

You surely have experienced the difference in taste here? We don’t know of any other banana of the same kind that has a taste comparable to that of our bananas.

We have not yet been able to meet even half of the demand of our buyer. But rest assured, we don’t plan to revert back to conventional production as some have done and thank you for your understanding that we still the need some time to be able to completely meet the demand.

2.4. Our nutritional requirements — not 90% bananas

People today have more than a hundred different types of fruit to choose from. In our garden, we have about 50 different types, including bananas. As the “queen of the fruits,” I would choose mangos, or lychees {litchi}, papayas, cherimoyas — or an especially tasty apple {cultivated apples}. Many fruits, for example, papayas also have special healing properties.

But when the goal is a healthy diet and getting the necessary nutrients, then I would choose the banana over all other fruits.

Market: In many countries is the banana and fruits are most important food. Myanmar 2015.© CC-by-sa 2.0, Ernst Erb, Myanmar bzw. Burma 2015

In some regions in southern Asia and Africa, bananas make up 90% of the diet. However, there they mainly eat cooking plantains and not the dessert bananas we are familiar with. Some nomadic tribes also eat a large proportion of dates, but no fruit can compare with bananas when it comes to amount or proportion. You can see from my initial explanations that bananas are excellent foods; they can be eaten exclusively as the “first and last” fruit.

Our nutritional requirements

Along with the air we breathe and physical activity, our body needs water, calories in the form of carbohydrates or fats, essential proteins for building, dietary fiber (roughage) to support our digestion, specific elements {e.g., trace elements}, vitamins, enzymes, and hormones. Alcohol {ethanol} comes under the category of calories, but is unnecessary. Proteins can also serve as a source of calories.

Even 20 years ago, it was said that we needed about 100 essential nutrients. But the newest scientific books now cite about 50 essential nutrients (Ernährungslehre und Diäthetik, 6 Handbücher [Nutrition science and dietetics, 6 volumes], Thieme Verlag).

Without these, we would show deficiency symptoms in the long term or in the worst case, we would die.

However, our body has a large buffer so that even longer (up to six weeks) periods of less than ideal nutrition or fasting don’t necessarily lead to problems. There is also a large difference between eating raw and cooked foods, and today an increasing number of experts are recommending that we eat a large proportion of raw foods.

The advantage of raw foods

One advantage of raw foods, which are rich in fiber, is that it takes an average of 20–48 hours for them to be digested, whereas “western foods” take 44–144 hours (Wissenschaftliche Tabellen (Scientific tables), Ciba-Geigy, volume 2).

However, you shouldn’t count on this being the perfect solution; digestion is only ideal when it takes place without gas {flatulence} and putrefaction.

We should consume the highest proportion of our energy needs possible in the form of carbohydrates, with up to 80 % being recommended.

But most people consume less than 40–45 % carbohydrates, which over time can lead to metabolic disorders. Fruit, bananas in particular, helps to improve digestion. According to Dr. X. Mayr, it is important to avoid fruit in the evenings.

Bananas can help to relieve constipation and also diarrhea, whereby the ripeness {ripening} of the bananas makes a big difference.

In one of the next letters, you can read about the extent that the substances contained in bananas cover our nutritional requirements. Until the beginning of the 1960s, bananas were used as a means of treatment in many hospitals.

2.5. Where did bananas originally come from and what is their story?

Bananas were grown in India as early as 327 BCE; the reports from soldiers of Alexander the Great showed that they were quite impressed. Thanks to Arabian traders, bananas were soon being grown in Eastern Africa, and in 1482 (or around 1510) Portuguese sailors brought them from Guinea to the Canary Islands and in 1516, from there to the Caribbean. In the sixteenth centuries, bananas were available in many areas near the equator.

In 1848, the first banana shipments were sent from Madeira to England and in 1850, from Panama to the United States.

Starting in 1884, with the construction of a harbor for steamboats, the English brought tourists to the Canary Islands and bananas from here back to England.

Bananas were first imported to Germany in 1892 by the Hamburg fruit merchant Richard Lehmann and then in 1902 by the fruit dealer Gustav Scipio, who was from Bremen.

The trade of bananas stopped in 1936 because of the Spanish Civil War and Second World War. Up until the beginning of the 1960s, Canarian bananas were imported to Europe in a limited scope, but had to compete with the large bananas from Central America. They were soon pushed out of the market by these cheaper fruits. But Spain doesn’t import any type of bananas other than Canarian bananas.

Bananas are one of the first fruits that humans domesticated

The origin and history of this most commonly eaten fruit on earth are fascinating. Bananas are one of the first fruits that humans domesticated.

We find them on many cultural objects (vases, frescos, and everyday objects) and in many legends of the ancient Chinese, Greeks, and Romans.

Their therapeutic effect was also recognized at a very early point in history.

The musaceae family was named after Antonio Musa, the physician for the first Roman emperor Octavius Augustus (63 BCE–14 CE). The genus musa includes about 50–60 species and was originally found only in the Old World. T

he center of origin of our bananas musa acuminata (type A) lies in Malaysia/Indonesia and that of musa balbisiana (type B) around the Brahmaputra River (Bangladesh).

The plant itself is in the group of perennial herbaceous plants whose pseudostems are formed from overlapping leaf sheaths.

The tallest herbaceous perennial is likely musa ingens, which is about 50 ft high (15 m) (Heinz Brücher, Tropische Nutzpflanzen [Tropical domesticated plants, Springer Verlag).

Dessert bananas {Musa x paradisiaca} were originally classified into two species and have a triploid genome, or three complete sets of chromosomes. The fruit develops without fertilization via parthenogenesis.

Banana varieties achieved through pedigree breeding are male-sterile and seedless. The plants undergo a type of asexual reproduction called vegetative reproduction.

It is estimated that there are about 300 varieties of bananas that have primarily developed from natural crossings of wild varieties to triploid hybrids.

Natural crossings of both varieties include, for example, Latundan bananas (type AB, also called silk bananas and apple bananas, and Fr. figue pomme), cooking bananas (type ABB, also called apple plantains, and Span.: majoncho), and Malaysian cooking bananas (type ABBB, pisang batu).

The name “banana” comes from the Arabic and means “finger.”

All common types of bananas originate from the species eumusa.

There is also a species called australimusa that has its center of origin on the Maluku Islands. These cooking bananas are long and thin bananas used in Tahiti that are called Fe'i bananas.

Fiber bananas (Musa textilis, called Abacá or Manila hemp) are in the same seedless species (Brigitte Kranz, Das grosse Buch der Früchte [The large book of fruits], Südwestverlag).

Strelitzia (bird of paradise flowers) are also in the musaceae family.

Blossom of the bird of paradise flower, Strelizia reginae with green strelizia leaves around it.© CC0, Berthold Werner, Wikipedia

We also grew Streliziea reginae (bird of paradise or crane flowers). This photo shows not only the blossom, but also the close resemblance the leaves have with bananas. According to Wikipedia, the plant comes from South Africa, but several varieties are also found in Indonesia/Malaysia. I have the feeling that Strelitzia only later migrated to Africa.

2.6. Information about banana plants and their reproduction without seeds


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