Going organic bananas and coconuts

Mayra Velazquez de Leon makes her case at a trade show/Organics Unlimited

Not all bananas are created equal.

When it comes to organic bananas, Mayra Velazquez de Leon knows that for everyone to understand this, consumers are going to have to strengthen their awareness and education about organic agricultural sustainability, the identifiers of true organic foods and environmental preservation.

“Organic really is the whole picture,” she told The Produce News earlier this month. “It is about protecting our earth. We are talking about a whole movement here — to eat healthier and be healthier. What we are talking about is much more than the banana.”

image002-3Mayra Velazquez de Leon makes her case at a trade show.For her, and the company she founded in 2000 — Organics Unlimited, with headquarters in San Diego — it begins with the ever-popular bunched fruit that is 100 percent organically grown and handled, imported year-round to the United States from 15 countries, including primarily Mexico and Venezuela, Panama and El Salvador.

Organics Unlimited ships organic bananas and coconuts throughout the United States, Canada and now in Japan, which in recent years has adopted American philosophies on sustainable agriculture and looking toward consumption of fewer chemicals in their foods, with emphasis on corporate responsibility, Velazquez de Leon said.

“Japan will usually mirror the United States,” she said.

The soil for the organic bananas is highly inspected and regulated. Bananas get nutrients from the tree leaves, so the fruit absorbs whatever is on the leaf, making it highly susceptible to any contaminants. For a banana, organic is very significant to the whole fruit of the plant, which is what is eaten, she explained.

Even the location of the warehouse significantly reduces the carbon footprint. It takes four days from harvest for the majority of the fruit from central Mexico farms to get to the warehouse, differing from ocean freight transport.

As far as merchandising, the company offers a range of support from signage to a blog — Organic Odes, which touts organic recipes and nutritional value.

Demand for organic foods is only increasing, and bananas and coconuts are dramatically strong in the marketplace, she added.

Indicative of this is the company’s plan to expand its farmable acreage in Mexico from 1,225 acres in 2016 to 1,705 acres this year. By the end of 2018, the company expects to have that number up to 1,865 acres. The acreage expansion will account for a 58 percent increase in volume from 2015, she said. Farm sizes range from 74 to 400 acres.

Experience counts

Velazquez de Leon started working in the banana business with her father in 1974. She acknowledged that the trends of organic demand had yet to take root in that era.

“Like so many things with business back then, we took things for granted. We did not really think about what we were doing to the environment,” she said.

She was 13 then. She learned the business side of the industry, especially marketing, which was her father’s expertise. Those skills helped her not only start up the now-multi-million-dollar, international distribution operation but also to develop a foundation through Organics Unlimited that funds philanthropic projects on the individual banana farms throughout South America, as well as in the communities where the farms are.

The company’s GROW program has become a shining example of giving back, she said.

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of each banana case is returned to the farming communities. Scholarships, early education initiatives, housing, a powdered milk program and health care — including dental — are some of the benefits in Mexico, and similar initiatives are in the other countries.

Just last month, GROW was introduced in Japan.

Organic food is no longer just a niche or a trend, she said.

“Younger generations want to know what is going in their bodies. They are thinking about the foods they are eating,” she said. “They expect quality and safety.”

That expectation, however, can easily be let down with packaging that may look organic but really is not, she said. Daily, she added, there are reports of the ill effects of chemicals in growing and processing foods.

Experimental agriculture has her concerned.

“We really don’t know what the effects of these alterations will be. Can there be any easier way? You have a seed. Plant it, and then you have fruit. Some foods don’t even have labels yet. We are now at a point in the United States where somehow we don’t need seeds? What will that outcome be?” she asked.

The company’s attention is buzzing lately — about bees.

“This is going to be on a global scale. We have committed to taking care of bee colonies and making this a part of the GROW program — part of the sustainability line,” she said.

The company role maintains its individual scope in the organic sustainability wave. There are no grand advocacy plans, she said.

“We are just trying to do our own thing, without making too much noise. If everyone of us did something — even some small thing — I am sure we are going to get somewhere,” she said.

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