Climate change blamed for Costa Rica's national banana emergency

Tuesday the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry’s State Phytosanitary Services (SFE) issued a statement declaring a national crop emergency for bananas, one of Costa Rica’s most important agricultural exports, over the proliferation of mealybugs and scale insects across the country’s Atlantic banana-growing regions.

Experts have had their eyes peeled over the last several years, keeping watch over a growing pest problem that threatens Costa Rica’s multi-million-dollar banana industry as climate change bolsters insect populations.

SFE Director Magda González told The Tico Times Wednesday that climate change plays an important role in the countrywide infestation.

“Climate change, by affecting temperature, favors the conditions under which [the insects] reproduce,” González said, as do changes in rain patterns.  She estimated that these conditions could shorten the bugs’ reproduction cycle by one third. 

“I can tell you with near certainty that climate change is behind these pests,” she said.

SFE estimates that the pests have affected some 24,000 hectares of banana fields to varying degrees from Talamanca to Sarapiquí. 

The insects weaken the banana plant, lowering production, and can cause blemishes on the fruit that exporters might reject. González said that upwards of 20 percent of a banana shipment could be rejected due to quality concerns caused by scale insects.

As part of the emergency decree, producers will be allowed to import and wrap banana bunches with bags laced with the pesticides buprofezin and bifenthrin. The director added that pesticides are not the only solution, and that SFE offers support for farmers looking to use biological control agents — like other bugs — to combat the pests.

González said that falling production could hurt Costa Rica’s ability to meet its export agreements, and worried that banana buyers would look elsewhere for fruit.

Costa Rica exported more than 1.2 million tons of fresh bananas in 2012, valued at more than $815 million, according to statistics from the Foreign Trade Promotion Office.