Q REPORTS (Vice.com) “Think of every non-organic pineapple you eat as taking years of your life.” This was not something I expected to hear in my first few days of my soul-nourishing Costa Rican holiday. I’d actually been planning to spend it largely sipping, um, piña coladas, but meeting the agricultural community of Juanilama really put a spanner in the works.
I’m here with Intrepid Travel, a tour company focusing on sustainable, community-based tourism. Not only do they invest in local communities, you get to actually meet them – and and not in a superficial, performative way. Deep in the tropical northern Costa Rican countryside, I stayed in the home of one of the 200 women that make up the village.
As she showed us round her own small-scale, sustainable farmland, she told us about the devastating effects of the large-scale production of pineapples in Costa Rica, where big companies spray toxic pesticides to mass-produce fruits, which in turn hospitalise workers, poison locals, and destroy the environment. Black howler monkeys are turning yellow from eating polluted leaves. There’s illegal deforestation. Chemicals are left in pineapples that you and I eat (but more on this later). “Pineapples in Costa Rica,” she tells me bluntly, “are killing people.”
Most pineapples you’ve eaten are probably from Costa Rica. According to the United Nations (UNDP), Costa Rica dominates the global pineapple market, providing two out of every three pineapples sold in the world. It’s the crutch of Costa Rica’s economy, with official stats stating an export value of $1.7 billion in 2022.
“There’s probably no other market where a single exporter dominates to the extent Costa Rica does,” says Alistair Smith, founder of non-profit Banana Link, which pushes for sustainable banana and pineapple trades. Ninety-six percent of the UK’s pineapples come from Costa Rica – 88 percent including the EU, too, according to the latest 2022 figures from FRuiTROP, the research expert in fruit and veg markets.
Costa Rica has been the leading exporter of pineapples since 2001, and in a real gold rush effect, it only took 15 years to get there. But such accelerated expansion came at a cost. The country is known as one of the most biodiverse places on the planet and is the ultimate ecotourism destination, with nearly 100 percent of its energy coming from renewable sources. Despite this apparent dedication to sustainability, Costa Rica is still one of the biggest users of harsh chemical pesticides per hectare in the entire world.
It all started after farmers ripped out a diverse ecosystem to plant more pineapples for investors in the 80s and 90s, creating large-scale plantations where they’re grown as monoculture crops – meaning the unnatural growth of just one type of crop in a field. The farmers began vigorously applying chemical pesticides to maintain high yields, and prevent the destruction of their crop from fruit-loving pests. After the land is used for growing pineapples, it has little function other than as a breeding ground for environmental problems like soil erosion, sedimentation and deforestation.
A 2022 UNDP report found that Costa Rica uses around 34.45 kg of pesticides per hectare per year – way above the U.S. and Europe (1.75 kg per hectare in 2021, according to a UN agency) and higher than countries with similar agricultural conditions like Colombia, Guatemala and Ecuador.
The report found that the pesticides used in the country are, for the most part, highly dangerous both for humans and the environment, according to UN and WHO criteria. That includes recognising these chemicals as being acutely toxic, causing long-term health hazards like cancer and birth defects, and serious, irreversible harm.
The human impact
Since 2007 to at least 2017, the communities of El Cairo and Milano in the Limón Province next to a Del Monte pineapple plantation, have been forced to rely on government water deliveries for drinking water, after their sources were found to have residue levels of herbicide bromacil around 20 times of that permitted by the EU. On days the truck can’t get to them, the residents are forced to drink the contaminated water, and some older people tired of carrying it back to their homes do this anyway. (Del Monte tells VICE all their pesticides are in compliance with U.S. and EU regulations. They did not respond to the claims of agrochemicals contaminating water sources.)
Ulcers, allergies and respiratory problems are common ailments in El Milano. Those from other rural, agricultural communities experience headaches, vomiting and dizziness, along with various stomach and mouth cancers. Little monitoring has been done on chronic pesticide exposure to prove there’s a sure link, but studies by other countries link the exposure of agrochemicals to asthma, cancer, kidney damage, damage to prostate and female reproductive systems, and more.
More recently, in the Cartago Province of Cipreses, 65 km southwest of El Cairo, the contamination of two rural aqueducts with the agrochemical chlorothalonil – fatal by inhalation and thought to cause cancer – has about 10,000 people receiving drinking water from a cistern since October 2022. This area produces 80 percent of the country’s vegetables, and many believe contamination is widespread, with around 65,000 people relying on similar water supplies nearby. The local authority responsible for the water does not accept it poses a risk, though, and many locals continue to drink it.
In the first seven months of 2023 alone, 46 complaints have been filed with the Ministry of Environment and Energy for contamination of freshwater springs throughout the country and ten complaints for water contamination with agrochemicals.
There are countless more stories of hospitalisations, the most severe cases coming from the workers on these farms. Investigations from the Guardian and Costa Rican newspaper La Voz de Guanacaste have shone a light on brutal labour conditions: One man lost his right leg on a farm when his boss pressured him to clean a high-voltage area. Another worker was fired after founding a union and says many companies blacklist you for being part of one. Sources talk of workers spending long days without water in extreme temperatures and being kept working in fields during thunderstorms, exposed to lightning strikes even after other colleagues have been struck.
Most of these workers are illegal immigrants from Nicaragua – paid around 60 percent less than Costa Ricans, as reported by a 2018 study by the OECD – which leaves them particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Their employers can sack and deport them at any sign of trouble, say, if they complain about working conditions. Data by the UNDP shows that, on yearly average, agricultural workers are exposed to a staggering 74 kg of pesticides, compared to 14 kg in rural communities and four kg in the general population – and even that’s considered high.
“The industry is truly horrible from a workers rights point of view,” confirms Smith, who’s been part of many Banana Link projects supporting pineapple workers. “The pineapple industry is even worse than the banana industry, because they’ve got more to cover up with their environmental issues, too.”
All of this causes huge pressure on Costa Rica’s crumbling government-funded healthcare system. The country has to make huge yearly investments of ₡5,000 million (£7.7 million) for treatments and care related to acute poisonings caused by pesticides.
They do this with little help from the pineapple companies themselves, since there’s practically zero tax on pineapple production. This also means that despite the pineapple trade being worth £1.7 billion, it doesn’t even help the local economy that much. Many plantations are actually owned by overseas companies, like American Del Monte business, which is responsible for over 50 percent of Costa Rica’s pineapple exports. (Del Monte did not respond to requests for comment.)
How this impacts you
So how is this affecting you, exactly? Well, gargantuan human rights violations aside: There are UK entry requirements for fruit, yes, but experts from Pesticide Action Network UK say there’s a real inadequacy of testing and reporting on imports.
“How can we trust pineapples if they’re not organic? You can’t,” says PAN UK staff scientist Dr. Stephanie Williamson. “Most of them will have had some highly hazardous pesticides put on and the residue testing by the government is very, very limited for something like pineapple and on very small sample sizes. They won’t necessarily test every year.”
Pineapples have not been tested since 2018, according to the government’s pesticide residue testing programme. Government agency DEFRA, who runs the programme, tells VICE the latest assessment was in 2023 (yet to be published online) which showed no residues above the maximum level for the 54 samples tested.
“The only thing they really check is minimum residue levels,” adds Smith, “and that’s just what’s on the skin. The real issue is what makes it into the flesh.” He believes there’s a distinct lack of research into this because nobody wants to know the results: “From a health point of view, I’ve always regarded conventional pineapples as a chemical bomb, given the pineapple’s capacity to absorb, and the volumes of different toxics and hormone chemicals applied to it.”
DEFRA says they have strict standards, always set below the level considered to be safe for consumers, and that they operate “a robust monitoring programme”.
Now, if you think we can trust shipments without regular testing, allow me to segue into melons for a moment. A February 2023 shipment into the Netherlands from Costa Rica actually tested positive for banned fungicide chlorothalonil, thought to cause cancer. It was found in a proportion of 0.08 mg/kg, when its max limit is 0.01 mg/kg. Perhaps even more worryingly, this wouldn’t have even been a problem if received by the U.S., given its limit on the fungicide goes up to 5mg/kg.
And what about the plus points of getting your five a day? You can forget about that, too. Research from Harvard University also shows that consuming fruit and veg with high levels of pesticide residues might actually reduce the health benefits of eating them, in terms of protection against cardiovascular disease and early mortality.
The Costa Rican government response
There have been various promises with little long-lasting action by the ever-changing government in Costa Rica. Since 2008, paraquat can no longer be applied as an aerial spray (note “aerial” – it’s not banned completely). In 2016, then-president Luis Guillermo Solis signed a vague action plan for putting sustainable pineapple production into law. In 2017, bromacil was banned. But research from the 2022 UNDP study shows 1,884 pesticides remain on the market with long-expired registrations, or no sign of registration at all – making them illegal, according to the UN.
The current minister of agriculture, Victor Carvajal Porras – appointed in 2022 by newly sworn in President Rodrigo Chaves Robles – told Delfino he entered a “highly contaminated” ministry that was severely lagging behind, and called it a “disaster” on the issue of agrochemical registration. But will this administration be any different?
Alonso Martínez, a Delfino journalist who’s written extensively on the topic, doesn’t think so. “I don’t consider the new government a positive step for the sustainability of the country,” he says. “Although it has new reforms for the registration of new agrochemicals, this is hardly a substantial change to regulate the problem Costa Rica has with pesticides.” The reform he’s referring to came into effect in February 2022 and is actually more about protecting the “recipes” of pesticides as intellectual property, rather than banning them for their toxicity.
Currently in Costa Rica – despite complaints of school children being poisoned – there’s still no proper regulation on the minimum required distance between plantations and public places. The director of the State Phytosanitary Service, Nelson Morera Paniagu, actually told Delfino he doesn’t believe agrochemicals are bad. Instead, he argues that their misuse is what causes them to be harmful.
“I do not believe that Chaves and Carvajal have the initiative to confront the pineapple companies,” continues Martínez. “The environmental issue is not a priority for them, so the issue of pesticides and their contamination will be a problem for a long time to come.”
What’s the solution then?
Obviously, a future without harmful agrochemicals is the ideal scenario here. But pests, diseases, and weeds are a daily reality for farmers. Asking them to abandon pesticides overnight would lead to huge crop loss and economic hardship, so many charities believe slowly phasing them out is the only option.
There are natural alternatives, though. A PAN UK project on phasing out HHPs (highly hazardous pesticides) in Costa Rica with the National University’s Institute for Research on Toxic Substances found that non-chemical alternatives were just as effective as the pesticide ethoprophos, and actually cheaper. PAN UK’s more recent 2022 paper also shows that agriculture without paraquat – one of the most acutely toxic herbicides in the world – is feasible without loss of productivity.
Some pioneering pineapple farms in Costa Rica are already phasing out HHPs: “Fertinyc came to our pineapple project workshop and seem to be doing some good work on soil health and use of biological products,” says Williamson. “Their own in-house microbiology labs now help produce some of these biological agents.”
Another farm is Nicoverde, which has replaced 80 percent of its former pesticide use with biological alternatives. “They no longer use paraquat at all and 100 smaller scale pineapple producers they’ve worked with no longer do either,” Williamson adds. “Instead, they’re chopping up the pineapple foliage after the fruits are harvested and breaking it down with microbes. This gets the waste to rot down much quicker, which means it’s no longer a suitable place for stable flies to breed.”
Another good start would be for Europe to stop producing and exporting toxic pesticides they’ve already banned for use in their own countries. Italy, Belgium, Denmark and the UK have all exported chlorothalonil to Costa Rica since passing domestic bans on the substance in 2019, according to official Costa Rican customs data analysed by Unearthed and Public Eye. In 2020, the UK actually shipped more than 10,000 tonnes of banned pesticides overseas – including paraquat, chlorothalonil and propiconazole, known for harming babies in the womb.
The Swiss-headquartered pesticides giant Syngenta accounted for more than a quarter (26 percent) of all the chlorothalonil products imported into Costa Rica between 2020 and 2022. The company – which has a UK paraquat factory in Huddersfield, despite being banned for UK use since 2007 – is currently facing hundreds of lawsuits in the U.S. from farmers who developed Parkinson’s disease after using their paraquat. The herbicide causes tens of thousands of poisoning deaths worldwide and Unearthed’s investigation found that this UK factory sends most of its paraquat to the U.S.
The European Commission recently promised to end its exports of banned pesticides, but the UK has remained silent. Prior to Brexit, the UK was by far the EU’s biggest exporter of banned pesticides, and despite government promises to maintain standards post-Brexit, we are falling behind by permitting the use of 36 more pesticides than the EU do, according to PAN UK.
What can we do?
Ultimately, us consumers really do have the final say. If we decide we no longer want chemically grown pineapples and stop buying them, the producers will have to adapt to the market.
Making sure you only buy certified “organic” means no synthetic pesticides are used whatsoever. But actually, none of the major supermarkets seem to stock organic pineapples at all – with supermarkets Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, the Co-op and Morrison’s confirming this to VICE.
To source pesticide-free ones, you’re better off going to your fancy local organic shop or Whole Foods. You buy online, too, with Ocado stocking brands like WholeGood and PACK’D.
Unfortunately, the organic label doesn’t necessarily cover the workers’ rights aspect. Williamson recommends checking for certifications like Rainforest Alliance (Co-op) and Fairtrade (M&S) for this, which also have lists of certain dangerous pesticides that cannot be used no matter the legality in the country of production. Other good certifications include Certified Sustainably Grown (Waitrose) and GLOBAL.G.A.P (Waitrose).
PAN UK’s pesticide ranking of ten UK supermarkets is a good way to suss out who to support when you need shopping convenience, too – with Waitrose and M&S at joint first place for the most positive progress, followed by the Co-op. Because, of course, as with any suggestion of buying organic, there’s a money and even class issue at play. We’re in the middle of a cost of living crisis, and most people have never been able to afford to shop at Waitrose anyway. But in the UK, where pineapples are seen as an infrequent luxury, would spending a few pence more really affect your wallet that much?
It could be tempting to pick up a Del Monte from your local offie on a hot day, but it’s genuinely as simple as just deciding to never buy non-organic ever again – like many of the Costa Ricans I met do.
Another very serious point to consider is, well, piña coladas taste fucking delicious. But is it really too much to choose something else instead? And if that really is just out of the question, why not BYOP (bring your own pineapple) – the pain of carrying it can be testament to your magnificent, superior conscience.