(Dec. 14) WASHINGTON, D.C. — Lingering cool and rainy weather, combined with increased austerity measures by corporate growing and marketing agents, have served to whack away at banana production estimates.

One U.S. marketing expert said conditions in Central and South American growing regions are creating as much as a double-digit reduction in the banana crop.

Certain events also have engendered an upward shift in prices for product headed to European and North American markets.

DOWNWARD TREND

Weather has played a significant role in a downward trend in production, said Tim Debus, vice president of the Alexandria, Va.-based International Banana Association.

“In talking with a lot of people, it seems pretty common across the growing areas that, due to the weather, which has had unseasonably cool temperatures and wetter conditions of late, we’re seeing a reduction of production,” said Debus, who attended the Intergovernmental Group on Bananas and Tropical Fruits Dec. 4-8 in San Jose, Costa Rica. “At least, it isn’t as robust as it has been in the past.”

The meeting, the second of its kind since May 1999, organized and sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, focused on promoting market transparency through the sharing of information on production, consumption, trade and prices, as well as the problems and/or trends emerging in the global markets for bananas and tropical fruits.

OVERWHELMING REDUCTION

The consensus that production was off, particularly in Latin America, was “very overwhelming,” Debus said.

“I could sense a tightening a little bit of supply,” Debus said.
Steady demand and persistent adverse weather have “remained firm through most of 2001,” according to the FAO.

But the organization also noted that production cutbacks by major growers in the region had contributed to stronger prices.

“Things have really tightened up,” said John Loughridge, vice president of marketing for Coral Gables, Fla.-based Del Monte Fresh Produce NA Inc. “I think we’re seeing probably two effects. One is that a lot of companies, including Del Monte, took certain actions to focus on our most efficient farms.”

Monthly averages for per-box prices for Central American bananas bound for U.S. East Coast markets in 2001 were higher than in the previous two years, ranging from a high of $13.25 in July to a low of $8.78 in November. The yearly average price, through Dec. 12, was $10.47.

DOUBLE DIGITS

Loughridge declined to provide precise production estimates for the upcoming year, but he described anticipated production slippages for the near term as “fairly significant.”

“We’re talking probably a couple-of-digit percent decline from some of the normal levels,” he said. “Short term, things are particularly tight. I haven’t heard anything out of Ecuador, but it’s primarily the Costa Rican and Colombian growing areas.”