Sweet, healthy and delicious, and inexpensive to boot, pineapples are one of the world’s most desired fruits. On average, the world eats more than 26,000 tons of pineapples each year.
But hidden beneath their low-price tag lies an industry riddled with heavy pesticide use, water pollution, deforestation and the exploitation of farmworkers, who are forced to work in risky conditions and for low wages. The dark side of the pineapple industry is rooted in Costa Rica, the world leader in pineapple production, producing more than 6.4 million pounds each year.
The featured film, “The Bitter Price of Tropical Fruits,” produced by Arne Lorenz and Petra Pommerenke, explores the true cost of Costa Rica’s pineapple production, revealing how large-scale producers use pesticides and cheap labor to maximize their profits.
The film begins in the early morning hours of a wholesale market in Hamburg, Germany, where pineapple and other exotic fruits from around the world, including melons, bananas, mangos and oranges, make their way into the country. Germany is one of the largest consumers of pineapple in the EU, importing more than 150,000 tons each year, the majority of which comes from Costa Rica, according to the film.
The pineapple and banana trade are inextricably linked. The same handful of multinational companies controls both markets. These companies include Dole, Del Monte, Chiquita and Fyffes. Prices are kept low by the monopoly and the power held by supermarkets. In Germany, consumers pay just €1 to €3 ($1.15 to $3.44) per pineapple, regardless of the brand.
Four Major Chains Control 85 Percent of Germany’s Food Sales
In Germany, the largest purchasers of exotic fruits are supermarkets and discount chains, which sell more than 90 percent of the nation’s imported goods. The buying power held by these retailers makes them important players in the global food trade, as well as the global pineapple trade. This power allows supermarkets in Germany to dictate market prices.
This theory is supported by Franziska Humbert of the international charity Oxfam International, who helped conduct a study on growing pineapples in Costa Rica. She says that small suppliers are blocked by big retailers from selling their goods on the German market.
“That’s the eye of a needle that all of the goods have to get through, and it means the supermarket chains have a lot of power,” said Humbert. “They can set prices and returns to their suppliers.”
The supermarkets’ power has grave consequences for the producers in their home countries. That’s the message Jorge Mora, president of the Central American Regional Association for Water and the Environment (ARCA) in Costa Rica, wants to convey. According to Mora:
“The pineapples in Costa Rica have been produced with many problems. They are using a lot of pesticides that are contaminating the water supply systems of many communities. They are cutting many natural forests to plant pineapple. Also, they have very bad conditions for the workers in the plantations. It’s important the German public know the reality of what is happening in Costa Rica.”
Who Profits From Pineapple Production?
The film breaks down the economics of pineapple production, illustrating who earns what. Supermarkets and discount chains profit the most, pocketing nearly 43 percent of the total profits involved in production. Producers, often the major international fruit companies such as Dole and Chiquita, come in second, earning about 25 percent of the proceeds. Farmworkers earn less than 10 percent.
Can consumers buy pineapple with a clear conscience? The film heads to Costa Rica to find out. A dream destination for many tourists from the U.S. and Europe, Costa Rica is a rugged, rainforest-dense country with untouched beaches that stretch for miles along the coastline of the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean.
Costa Rica’s rich flora and biodiverse rainforests make it a model country for ecology. Costa Rica is doing well economically, too, as it’s one of the richest countries in Central America. Agriculture is the backbone of Costa Rica’s wealth. Its tropical climate is ideal for growing many different kinds of tropical fruit, which can be grown all year-round.
Pineapple is one of Costa Rica’s most valuable crops. More than 43,000 hectares of land are devoted to growing pineapple in Costa Rica. The industry employs 32,000 people and exports 2 million tons of the fruit — worth about $1 billion — each year.
While the world enjoys an insatiable taste for pineapple, small farmers in Costa Rica are suffering. The growing demand for pineapple is creating conflicts between producers and traditional farmers and livestock owners, who are increasingly marginalized by large plantations run by international companies.
Jorge Castro is one of those farmers. Castro has lived and farmed in the area for 35 years. Today, he must cross endless pineapple plantations just to get to his land. He’s one of the few farmers left who has not sold out to the pineapple companies. But living alongside pineapple plantations isn’t easy.
Castro says a bloodsucking fly drawn in by the harvest waste from pineapple production is killing his cattle. The flies cause a lot of stress when they bite the cattle, he says. This causes them to produce less milk and can even stop them from reproducing.
Castro’s neighbor has lost 15 animals to the flies, and nothing is being done about it, despite making local officials aware of the problem. “The scales have tipped in favor of big business,” he says.
Pineapple Farming Is Polluting Costa Rica’s Water
Flies are the least of their worries in El Milano, Costa Rica, where toxic agrochemicals used to grow pineapple are polluting the water supplies of many communities. The pesticide pollution is so bad that the groundwater is deemed unusable for decades, according to the film.
Locals are forced to rely on state-supplied drinking water that’s dropped off twice a week by tank trucks alongside the road at distribution sites. Every sip of water that doesn’t come from a tank truck poses a health risk, particularly to children.
The film shows El Milano resident Xinia Briceno as she carries state-supplied water into her home. This is the woman’s job, she says. But it’s too hard for some women, who, as a result, use the polluted water and sometimes end up with health problems. “We can’t say for sure it’s the chemicals, but there are lots of miscarriages,” says Briceno.
Despite Costa Rica’s small geographical size and eco-friendly image, it uses more pesticides than any other nation in the world. Costa Rica applies 18.2 kilograms [kg] of pesticides per hectare, whereas the U.S. uses about 2.5 kg per hectare. It also has the longest list of approved agrochemicals, according to the film, and while its lagoons and wetlands are protected, pesticide contamination in the water remains a huge problem.
In certain areas of Costa Rica, the groundwater is contaminated with Bromacil, a weedkiller commonly used on pineapple and other citrus crops. Bromacil, which works by interfering with photosynthesis, is considered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to be a possible human carcinogen.
Animal studies show dogs fed Bromacil experienced vomiting, watering of the mouth and muscular weakness, and sheep died after being fed 250 milligrams/kg doses of the weedkiller over a period of four days.
The Costa Rican Water and Sanitation Institute (AyA) is the authority responsible for supplying El Milano with clean water. Yamileth Astorga, president of AyA, admits that intensive pineapple farming is a big problem in Costa Rica, as it’s forcing more and more towns to give up their water sources. Unfortunately, there’s no sign of change in the near future.
The largest pineapple plantations are located near the border of Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Many of the people who work on the plantations are illegal workers brought into the country from across the border by a subcontractor that passes them on to the producers as cheap labor.
The migrant workers often earn less than the national minimum wage and are forced to work daily in conditions that expose them to toxic agrochemicals. One farmworker interviewed in the film, who asked to remain anonymous, said that workers normally get bonuses when working with toxic chemicals. But he has never received such a bonus.
Costa Rica’s Pineapple Industry Influences Politics
The film crew tried to get the other side of the story from the operators of pineapple plantations, but no one wanted to speak on camera. The Costa Rican Association of Pineapple Producers (CANAPEP) wouldn’t comment, either.
When the film crew showed up for their scheduled interview, they were met with hostility and told not to film the building or its sign. Once inside, the film crew realized they were the ones being recorded. Cameras were set up around the room, recording footage that was being streamed to an unknown location.
CANAPEP criticized the film crew for speaking with employee representatives, and for meeting with Jorge Mora. When the situation threatened to escalate, the film crew stopped the interview. A few days later, CANAPEP published a scathing press release complaining about their one-sided reporting.
The reach of the conventional pineapple industry extends to the world of politics, too. Costa Rica’s former Minister of Agriculture, Luis Felipe Arauz Cavallini, wrote a letter to his ambassador to Germany asking him to exert influence with a TV station and to prevent negative reporting about Costa Rica’s agriculture.
Arauz Cavallini wrote, “I appeal to you to get your offices to sort out and correct this matter with the television station prior to the publication of this documentary.” Critical reporting on workers’ rights and the environmental conditions on pineapple plantations is not wanted, notes the film.
But Costa Rica does have alternatives to conventional pineapple cultivation and its poverty wages and heavy pesticide use. The film shows a plantation surrounded by rainforests that’s trying to use organic farming practices. Pesticides aren’t used on this plantation and the workers are from surrounding villages.
Organic Pineapple Farming
Organic pineapple production can be costly and time-consuming, as the sweet fruit has a lot of natural predators. The film interviews Freddy Gamboa, an organic farmer who says weeding requires the most work.
It rains a lot here, which is good for pineapples, but good for weeds, too, he says. Since herbicides are prohibited in organic farming, Gamboa’s plantation uses plastic sheets to suppress weed growth. Removing the plastic post-harvest proves difficult, but without it, there would be no organic pineapple farming, he says. Despite the hardships, Gamboa believes in organic farming:
“We need a change in attitude across the whole chain. From the producers to the supermarkets and to the buyers. We all have to change for that to be possible.”
Only 1 percent of pineapple exports to Europe are organic, according to the film. A recent scandal involving fake organic pineapple exported from Costa Rica to the U.S. did not bode well for the industry’s reputation.
American consumers reportedly paid premium prices for more than $6 million in pineapples that were falsely sold as organic. Lawmakers in Costa Rica have accused two certifiers, one in California and the other in Germany, of labeling pineapples “organic” that were farmed with toxic chemicals. Business Insider reports:
“The two certifiers criticized in the legislators’ report — PrimusLabs, of California, and Kiwa BCS Oko-Garantie GmbH, of Germany — approved production of Costa Rican pineapples allegedly grown with chemicals forbidden in organics.
The congressional committee found that Primus violated USDA regulations by certifying farms run by Del Valle Verde Corp. while the company’s processing plant was suspended by Costa Rica for organic production. Lawmakers concluded that Valle Verde’s pineapple operations did not meet organic standards.”
Using Permaculture to Grow Pineapples
The majority of pineapples grown in Costa Rica are cultivated on land that was once rainforest. Even organic pineapple farming can be problematic, as it entails a monoculture that requires land at the expense of the rainforest. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The film features Manuel Mittelhammer, a forester and licensed assessor who checks and verifies sustainable and organic crop cultivation on behalf of various organizations. His specialty is permaculture. Permaculture involves the growing of various food crops in the forest, which is their natural environment.
The film shows Mittelhammer inspecting a permaculture operation where cacao, papayas, bananas, pineapple and other crops are grown together. This creates an ecosystem in which each variety benefits the other — this is the original, natural setting for pineapples.
Here, the ground is green and biodiversity is high. The pineapples are vigorous and strong. It’s clear that chemicals haven’t been used here in years, says Mittlehammer, a good indicator, he adds.
In a permaculture operation, nature regulates almost everything without chemicals or plastic. However, the producers in the rainforest can’t keep up with the pressure of prices put on them by supermarkets. Their returns would be too low and the product much too expensive to supply the European market. Mittlehammer says:
“The pressure on prices comes about because of the huge buyers, and also, our big supermarket chains are among the biggest produce purchasers in Costa Rica. They dictate the price which gives producers a level of certainty.
They say, ‘I’ll buy your product for years to come for this price, and you have to supply us.’ This pressure on prices, that producers get, is passed on to workers. They employ illegal workers who don’t have social or health insurance.”
Pesticides in Pineapples
The film concludes by revealing the results of a water sample taken from the edge of a Piña Fruit pineapple plantation. It tests positive for a cocktail of toxic pesticides, including three that are linked to cancer, and are banned in Europe. When confronted with the results, Grupa Acon, the operator of the Piña Fruit plantation, denies using the pesticides.
Test results for Piña Fruit pineapples purchased in Germany show only traces of pesticides, but the crown of the pineapple is a different story. Test results show the pineapple’s crown is contaminated with diazinon, a dangerous insecticide absorbed by the skin that can damage human DNA and possibly cause cancer.
The lab technician warns consumers to handle the crown with caution, and to rinse your knife, so as to not contaminate the fruit. Diazinon insecticide is banned in the EU. While testing found that the chemical didn’t exceed allowable limits in the fruit, the same cannot be said for the pineapple’s stud.
The maximum levels for the fungicide fludioxonil in the fruit and husk were massively increased in 2015 when the manufacturer pushed to make the allowable limit 700 times higher, according to the film. The EU attributes the decision to easing trade barriers, but for consumers, it means eating pineapple that just a few years ago would have been classified as hazardous waste.
In the end, it’s up to consumers to decide if they’re willing to pay more for organic pineapple. Consumer demand has the potential to incentivize supermarkets to apply pressure to producers to maintain social and environmental standards. But in order to achieve that, consumers will have to pay fair prices, and inspections must be enforced to uphold the standards on farms.