My trip to Costa Rica didn’t just alert me to the sad condition of our sea life. The issue of large scale fruit production – specifically pineapples – and the havoc it brings to the people and environment, also came to my attention. I’m a runner so I eat a lot of pineapple to keep inflammation at bay. I’m always looking for a deal on the fruit when I’m in the supermarket, $2 is a usual price if they’re on sale, which they seem to be frequently during the summer.

I kind of knew that $2 per pineapple wasn’t enough, and that if I was paying this price then somebody, somewhere down the line, was being treated poorly. Being made to work in bad conditions, not getting paid enough, that sort of thing. But I turned my face from that feeling, I didn’t investigate the facts. I cared about the plantation workers and the environment, but not enough.

Until I began hearing things on the trip, just in passing, about the troubles workers face there on the plantations, the poisons being introduced into the environment just so we can grow enough fruit to feed the demand of people like me. Maybe I was ready for change, perhaps that was one of the motivators that made me go on this trip. Whatever the reason, I came back to Canada eager to try to do the right thing. After some searching I found this article online. It’s about pineapple farming in Costa Rica, it’s extensive and cites all its sources and as such seems credible to me. Check for yourself here

I don’t want to cherry pick info from it too much, it’s worth a read in its entirety, but for those of you who don’t have time, here are some grim ‘highlights’ that I think everybody should know about.

“Large-scale pineapple production in particular has come under recent scrutiny with respect to many issues. Deforestation and wetland destruction for the development of plantations, intensive agrochemical application, workers’ rights abuses, lack of erosion control, and the impact of large transportation vehicles (on both the roads and communities through which they pass) continue to both harm the environment and jeopardize the health of local people. Irresponsible practices have been implicated in poisoning soil and water supplies, damaging air quality, reducing biodiversity, and endangering the area’s long-term future food security.

Since 2000, pineapple production has increased by nearly 300% in Costa Rica. Between the years of 2001 and 2007 alone, the total value of pineapple exports exploded in value from $142 million USD to nearly $485 million USD. Pineapple production now brings in more than $800 million USD annually to Costa Rica, and has overtaken both coffee and bananas in becoming the nation’s largest agricultural export. Unfortunately, the pineapple industry’s rapid growth has far outpaced labor and environmental regulation, with largely detrimental effects on the environment and Costa Rican inhabitants.

Pineapples require a significant amount of time in order to produce fruit. Even utilizing high quantities of synthetic fertilizer, producers generally collect only two fruit from an individual pineapple plant every 18-24 months. Faster growing hybrid varieties are cultivated with the use of harmful agrochemicals, including bromacil, diuron, and glyphosate, which are toxic to humans.

Unfortunately, plantation workers and their families continue to suffer most acutely from the health consequences of persistent chemical exposure related to pineapple production. The use of organophosphates and organochlorines on the pineapple crops, chemicals labeled as hormone disruptors, carcinogens, reproductive toxins (substances known to cause birth defects), and other persistent pollutants that can remain in the environment for years are broadly applied.

Workers for the PINDECO Company in the southern Pacific area of Costa Rica complained of increased incidences of allergies, migraines, nausea, feelings of weakness and lethargy, chronic gastritis, and influenza as a result of weakened immune systems. There are also reports among plantation workers and their families of skin and eye damage and irritation, respiratory problems, nervous system disorders, birth defects, and psychological illnesses, including anxiety and depression.

Other workers have complained of dizziness, vomiting, fainting, the appearance of white splotches on the skin, coughs, thyroid irregularities, and the disintegration of their fingernails as the result of handling of poisonous chemicals.

Despite the severe health risks associated with the work, pineapple laborers are paid little for their efforts. In 2005, a report found that pineapple harvesters generally earned between $1-2 an hour, working 10-12 hours a day, 6-7 days a week.

In addition, pineapple work is often seasonal, with workers being hired for harvests and then fired immediately following them until they are next needed, at which point they are re-hired later (generally later in the year in time for the next wave of harvesting). This “hire-and-fire†system keeps workers in constant fear of not being re-employed, discouraging them from joining unions or speaking out against low pay and poor working conditions. Additionally, nearly 70% of workers in the industry are Nicaraguan, and many are illegal immigrants. Without official papers or visas, Nicaraguan migrants feel unable to protest unfair and inhumane treatment for fear of deportation, undermining their power to assert access to basic human rights.

Companies make it difficult for workers to voice their complaints or campaign for improved labor conditions in other ways as well. Hiring people as contract workers (of which 77% of those workers producing pineapple supplied to Dole are) prevents the vast majority of the workforce from having the legal right to organize into unions.

A member of the plantation workers’ union SITRAP had recently been persuading fellow workers to petition the company for independent union representation on its “permanent committee†that handles relations between employees and management. But everyone who had signed the petition had just been sacked. In 2007, there was a mass sacking, or “liquidacionesâ€, and rehiring at wage rates reportedly 40% lower than previously. Union members were rehired only if they agreed to give up their affiliation.â€

The first step for me, having read this, would be to see if there are any pineapples being sold in Canada that are not from either Del Monte or Dole. Some may say, well, maybe these companies are bad but if you buy the fruit they produce which is good, it’ll encourage them to do produce more good fruit.

But my view is that these companies know exactly what they are doing, they just make a choice to value profit over their fellow humans and the environment we all live in. They’ll go where the money is, and whenever a company does that there is no stability. To do any business with them is like Chamberlain doing a deal with Hitler, waving a paper of agreement whilst knowing really that it’s worth very little, if anything at all.

To find out more about buying fairtrade, organic pineapples from decent people I started my search at the Canadian Fairtrade website

They led me to a few companies, the first being Chas Organics.

But 6 cans of pineapple chunks for $34? I’m not saying the price is not justified, but does this mean that pineapple now becomes something I eat on special occasions only, like Christmas, or Birthdays? Perhaps so.

For more info I clicked on a link that was supposed to take me through to a Costa Rican organisation. Instead it was an Argentinian website. Pretty good but no info there about pineapples.

Then I came to Equifruit

These are another company listed as maybe being of help. But they only do bananas right now.

Bomarts are a fairtrade pineapple producer, but their site looks like it’s just for wholesale. Perhaps a business opening for me, to import sustainable pineapples.

So the next step it seems is to physically walk around all the health food stores, the grocers and the organic sections of all the supermarkets in Toronto and check out what’s on sale. I’ll report back. And of course if you, reader, have any insight that might be of help, please do let me know.

I hope this hasn’t put you off trying to source your own favourite foods properly. It’s a hassle compared to the way we are used to doing things, but then again, the way we did things isn’t good enough any more. Maybe it never was.