Pineapple is 100 percent safe to eat, say industry leaders, pointing out that Costa Rican farmers must comply with a host of international regulations to reach lucrative, foreign markets.
Abel Chaves, president of the National Chamber of Pineapple Producers, or Canapep, arrived at the Tico Times office Monday morning, accompanied by six chamber members, to hammer this point home.
“Science and technology have given us methods of production to provide a fruit that can be eaten without any problems,” Chaves said. “At least that’s the case for the ones produced in this country.”
Canapep board member Christian Herrera dropped a stack of thick files on a small table. The folders contained page after page of regulations from the British supermarket chain Tesco, Global Gap, an international agriculture certification organization and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), among others. Herrera said pineapple farmers must comply with literally hundreds of these foreign agrochemical and environmental regulations before wholesalers will even consider buying their products for export.
“Pineapple is one of the most regulated fruits in terms of pesticides,” he said. “We brought a residue sample analysis that was run in Germany. They run 100 and something active ingredients. They do not just run tests for the ones we say we apply, but they run the whole spectrum to see if we were applying something we didn’t say we used.”
Herrera said pesticide residues are well controlled by the European Union. If growers in Costa Rica make a mistake, European authorities will put pressure on pineapple growers here, something he said growers can’t afford.
“If we mess up, the minister of agriculture here will audit our farms,” he said.
Herrera and Juan Letona, another chamber member, said the external market is so important for large-scale producers because they are virtually unable to sell their products here in Costa Rica.
“[If] two containers [are sold] in the domestic market, then you are going to have the small growers unable to sell their goods because we flooded the market,” Herrera said.
Letona added that if exporters are unable to sell their product in the foreign market, then they are forced to sell it to the juicing industry for less profit.
“The companies that are buying our product, Del Monte, Dole, etc., are not going to risk their commercial reputation because one of their producers is doing something wrong,” Letona said. “When I am a producer, my main focus is to comply with what the buyers want.”
According to information from the Costa Rican Trade Promotion Office, pineapple is now Costa Rica’s most lucrative agricultural export, surpassing both bananas and coffee. During the first quarter of 2011, the fruit generated some $242.9 million, up 4.9 percent from 2010 earnings. To cap things off, the industry has grown a staggering 287.5 percent from 2000 to 2010, with a current total of 46,000 hectares of cultivation, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Of Costa Rica’s 1,300 pineapple producers, 1,200 are small-scale.
An Environmentalist Perspective
Chris Wille, head of Rainforest Alliance’s Sustainable Agriculture Program, agreed that importing countries have their own testing requirements for foreign agricultural products. However, he said claims that pineapple exports are held to particularly stringent regulations are false. On the contrary, he said very few shipments going to the U.S. and Europe are actually tested.
The Rainforest Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit, is part of the international Sustainable Agriculture Network, or SAN. Consisting of non-governmental organizations from across the region, SAN is responsible for developing management strategies that promote environmentally sustainable agricultural practices in Latin America.
Wille led the development of SAN in Costa Rica, working with organizations from across Central America to develop sustainable practices for the banana industry during the 1990s. He said the pineapple industry was so much harder to initially regulate because its rapid growth made it hard for both national and international entities to keep up.
“This was a period of real disappointment for the NGOs, who had worked pretty successfully with governments and banana farms to promote sustainable practices,” he said. “It was disappointing that we missed the boat on pineapple, none of us were ready for the boom. It was a titanic failure for all of us involved.”
About four years ago, awareness of environmental degradation from pineapple plantations began to grow first in Europe and later in the U.S. and Japan, he said. Belatedly, transnational companies Dole, Chiquita and Del Monte began to take responsibility for the sector in order to defend their reputation in international markets.
While it is extremely hard to tell exactly how much and where pineapple crops have expanded without an agricultural census, members of the small communities where pineapple is harvested report crops are getting closer and closer to forests, wetlands and other protected areas, said Nicolas Boeglin, a professor at the University of Costa Rica’s law faculty.
In order to address what many feel to be a growing environmental concern, Rainforest Alliance established its current certification process in 2010. Wille described it as a standard that covers three pillars: sustainability-ethical, environmental and economic. The process requires the restoration of natural ecosystems and reforestation of farmland that is currently unsuitable for agriculture. In addition, aquatic ecosystems must be protected from agrochemical drift and runoff by establishing protected zones on the banks of rivers, among other requirements. There are currently more than 7,500 hectares of pineapple plantations in the country that are certified by Rainforest Alliance.
“Markets in the U.S. and Europe are demanding Rainforest-certified products where the pesticides are tightly managed and where rivers, streams and wildlife and forests are protected,” said Gianluca Gondolino, Rainforest Alliance’s projects manager for sustainable agriculture in Latin America.
In addition, better practices can help farmers control costs, he said. Farmers often get increased production, improvements in quality and reductions in costs when they farm sustainably.
He said the benefits of being certified are becoming readily apparent to large corporations and small growers alike. Recently, both Chiquita Brands International and Dole Fruits Inc., two of the industry’ s largest producers, received Rainforest Alliance’s certified seal.
“Pineapple is something that is seen as an export product,” Gondolino said. “We want people to make an investment in certification. You want to get information across to the consumers.”
Canapep members said building a strong international reputation as sustainable growers is of the utmost importance. Well over 50 percent of pineapple certified by Rainforest Alliance comes from Canapep growers. However, only a handful Canapep associates has received the certification, according to information from Rainforest Alliance.
Unfairly Picked On?
Members of the chamber say that one of the harder challenges they have faced in recent years has been pressure from environmental groups and negative publicity. They claim members of the European community are pressing international organizations to go against Costa Rica’s pineapple industry because of pressure from unions and competing pineapple-exporting countries.
“The accusations unions are using [against us] are complete nonsense,” Canapep’s Herrera said. “This is unfair considering that many producers, such as Del Monte, have 5,000 employees and only 50 are in the union. If you knew the background to the story it would be a non-issue.”
Letona said that as a private company owner, unionizing would be too costly. In addition to unions, the chamber claimed that member companies are under a lot of pressure from French corporations supporting former West African colonies like Ghana and Cameroon for a bigger share of the pineapple market.
“The cheapest way to push African fruit into Europe is to weaken the Costa Rican image,” Letona said. “There is another social, political game going on there as well. A lot of the granting and support for environmentalists is coming from many of the companies that get fruit from Africa.”
Rainforest Alliance’s Wille said that argument doesn’t make sense.
“There is no need for the competing producers to support environmentalists or journalists to look at the problems in Costa Rica,” he said. “Those problems are so apparent and so egregious that you would have to be blind not to see them.”
He went on to say that the media and European NGOs that have been historically quick to criticize the banana sector were slow to pick up on the problems in the pineapple sector. However, once they did, the bad news spread quickly.
Perhaps the most heated accusations against the pineapple industry came in 2008, when pineapple producers Hacienda Ojo de Agua and Fruitex were accused of contaminating the water of four rural communities with chemical herbicides (TT, Sept. 26, 2008). Groundwater in the Caribbean-slope communities of Cairo, Francia, Milano and Luisiana, in Siquirres, were found to have traces of the herbicide bromacil. Although levels of bromacil were never above unhealthy levels as established by the EPA, in 2007, before allegations were made against the companies, the Ministry of Health began supplying area residents with drinking water.
While neither of the companies involved were members of Canapep, the Canapep board said they nonetheless felt the sting of national and international sentiment.
“You just can’t generalize all the industry. You read the news and you get an idea that all the industry in Costa Rica is polluting water sources,” Herrera said.
Furthermore, Herrera said there is no national legislation of bromacil in Costa Rica. “We have nothing,” he said. The board members presented documentation that showed the highest level of bromacil found was less than one-tenth the maximum level allowed in drinking water by Canada.
“This was all a result of someone making a lot money,” Letona said. “I’ve even seen the trucks loading water from the river. It’s the same people saying the same things. Every now and then they say the water is still contaminated, but there hasn’t been any bromacil in there for three years. There are millions of colones [in water] going there, even though the minister said the water is OK.”
In May, an environmental court closed three pineapple plantations in Los Chiles and Guatuso near the Caño Negro Wildlife and Wetland Reserve in the Northern Zone. Agropecuarias VISA S.A., Agricola del Valle S.A. and Agropecuaria PPM S.A were convicted of contributing to the destruction of natural wetlands and tropical forest, burning trees in a prohibited area, the misuse of agrochemicals, digging wells without authorization and building infrastructure in biological corridors.
Sixteen other farms are under investigation for similar problems in the area, according to information from the court.
Judge Yamilette Mata, vice-president of the environmental court, said that, “We are concerned at recurrent damage originating from pineapple plantations in various regions of the country, but especially in the area close to the Caño Negro Reserve, which is now in danger of serious environmental damage.”
Finally, Canapep producers said unfavorable exchange rates, rising costs, and stiff competition are driving the industry into survival mode, despite its highest financial gains reported so far this year. Both Wille and members of the Canapep board said that the industry has reached a ceiling, leaving it no further room to expand.
We aren’t looking for profits at this point, Herrera said, adding that competition and financial conditions are stretching budgets thin.
“We are not chopping down more forest to build more plantations; that’s a big lie. We are just turning old cattle grazing and bananas fields into a more profitable crop,” he said. “Yes there are exceptions, companies make mistakes, but they do not represent the industry as a whole.”
The board members reported that the industry has already lost 7,000 hectares of plantation this year alone and faces increased competition from Panama, which subsidizes the Panamanian pineapple industry.
“The expansion is over, the market can’t take it,” said Chaves.
Wille said the ceiling could potentially be a good thing for the industry. “The pineapple companies are taking sustainability serious,” he said. “We can begin to consolidate instead of expanding and clean up some of the mess.”