Frustrated fruit lovers are driving a blackmarket in backyard bananas. Yes, you read that right. Just as the prohibition days of the 1920s drove US residents into underground gin joints, sky-high banana prices are driving Australian lovers of the golden fruit to seek alternate sources for their daily fix.
In a press release titled “Consumers urged not to plant backyard bananas”, the Australian Banana Growers’ Council warns citizens to think twice before planting a private banana crop lest they contribute to the spread of the world’s most devastating banana disease, the banana bunchy top virus.
While acknowledging it is not illegal to plant bananas in one’s backyard, the council is keen to assure would-be competitors that prices will be down again before backyard crops are ready to fruit.
The banana lobby holds great sway, representing, as it does, the interests of thousands of growers. Indeed, Australia has one of the most highly regulated and protected banana growing industries in the world.
Growers are protected from foreign competition by tough import restrictions and quarantine laws.
During times of banana plenty, this is great news for consumers, who enjoy some of the best-quality, disease-free fruit in the world.
But restrictions on imports leave us vulnerable to supply shock events such as cyclone Yasi, which devastated 95 per cent of the banana crop in the Tully and Innisfail region of far north Queensland in early February.
The federal Minister for Agriculture, Senator Joe Ludwig, quickly reassured banana growers the government would not relax food quarantine lprohibit foreign banana imports.
Which is good news for banana growers but bad news for banana consumers, who have been shelling out about $15 a kilogram for bananas – about $2.50 a banana – ever since.
Banana growers mobilised quickly to squash a suggestion by the economist Saul Eslake that temporary imports of bananas be allowed to curb price rises.
But while Australians are told to savour their rolled-gold, sweet, disease-free bananas, foreigners are chowing down on supercheap alternatives from countries such as the Philippines and Costa Rica.
My international spies on Facebook and Twitter bring reports of prices as low as 99¢ in Doha, $1.01 in London, $1.09 in Northern Ireland, $1.20 in Bangkok, $1.40 in Singapore, $1.98 in New York and $2.20 in Rome.
All of which tells me two things: 1) my friends take more holidays than I do and 2) we’re paying too much for bananas.
Even before cyclone Yasi, Australians were paying about $2.99 a kilo.
This week’s inflation figures show how the prices we pay for many imported goods – TVs, clothing etc – have been falling, even as the things we make domestically – electricity, healthcare – have become more expensive. Australia has relatively high labour costs, while the higher dollar has made imports cheaper.
Free trade unlocks opportunities for countries to produce what they are most efficient at – can produce at lowest cost – boosting living standards for all. Moves to dismantle import tariffs in the 1980s and 1990s, while tough on domestic competitors, helped create the low-inflation world we now enjoy.
Feeling cheated by paying $15 a kilo for bananas? You should be.
THE IRVINE INDEX
Price of bananas in Sydney this week
*Prices quoted are per kilogram, unless otherwise stated.
Costa Rican bananas retailed for €1.69 at the Billa supermarket in Rome this week.
Singaporean residents paid $S1.85 for a bunch of five to six bananas.
Residents of the Northern Ireland town of Derry paid this much at their local Tesco (73 pence).
Price of Fair Trade bananas in Sainsbury’s supermarket, London (68 pence).
Price of bananas from the Philippines sold at a Carrefour supermarket in Doha (4 riyals).
Price for three bananas in Tokyo (¥150).
Price paid by residents of Greenwich Village, New York ($US2.18).
Banana price in Bangkok (39 baht).
Sources: Australian Banana Growers’ Council; finance.yahoo.com/currency-converter; a terribly informal survey of my Twitter followers and Facebook friends.