Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Why I Choose Pesticide-free Foods: Lessons from Costa Rica

I know what happens when a craving inhibits our capacity to engage in sustainability economics and it is not always pretty. That said, a few recent life-experiences have forced me to put more thought into grocery shopping, whether I’m having a craving or not. Here, I've shared the experiences that taught me why choosing pesticide-free food is the only choice for my health, that of farmers, and of our ecosystems.
Malanga root on the left
My first serious thoughts about eating pesticide-free meals came when I visited a friend's organic farm in Costa Rica. Nuria grows everything from rice and beans to heart of palm and malanga. The farm's location is equally as unique as the foods grown there; on one side it borders protected areas - including Tortuguero National Park - and on the other side it borders a sea of pesticide-laden banana and papaya plantations.

Whenever I travel the road and approach her farm, I am always surprised at the stark changes in the landscape. The journey is not so scenic when I begin near the agricultural town of Guapiles. Mile after mile, all I can see are fields crowded with banana trees and littered with blue plastic. There is no wildlife in sight and the only farmers I can see are covered in hooded spray suits, these so-called banana farmer uniforms are necessary to protect them from the harmful chemicals that are sprayed on the acres and acres of fruits. Fruits destined for our grocery stores for us to buy and eat. As I get closer to Nuria’s farm, forest patches begin to break up the monotonous agricultural landscape. Wildlife and humans freely visit her crops, and this time no hooded spray suits are required.
Organic papaya tree, note rainforest in the background
Upon arrival, I am always greeted with fresh fruit, and if I’m lucky it is organic papaya. Nuria has to pick these fruits while they are still a little green because otherwise the toucans will devour them before she has the chance to harvest them. My first papaya was unforgettable, for the taste but also the story behind it.
Papaya thief
Nuria’s story began with a question, Did you know that I have a friend that works on a papaya farm yet always buys papayas from me? When I asked why he would not simply purchase the fruits from the farm where he works, she told me that he did not want them. In fact, this fellow had sworn to never eat a single papaya from his work because the plantations were laden with pesticides. He told her that anyone who has felt their nose burn and their chest tighten as they inhale pesticides would be a fool to eat a fruit smothered in them. He also told her that anyone who has seen farm workers suffer health complications as a result of their work, anyone who has seen young children living near these plantations with unexplained health issues, would be a fool to eat those papayas. I asked myself silently, if papaya farmers won't eat their papayas, why should I purchase them?

I took a minute to think. Only two years back, I had come to Costa Rica excited about eating papayas and tropical fruit salads. I'd been told by other Canadians that Costa Rican papayas were more colourful, softer, and sweeter than any papaya I would find in Canadian grocery stores. Nobody in Canada talked to me about making sure they were organic. So two years ago, oblivious to the differences between organic and conventional products, I bought the latter.

 On my friend’s organic farm, I began to see the real costs of being naive about where my food came from. These were not only costs to my health but to that of others, that of fathers, mothers, and children who have little say in what pesticides are used at their work or near their homes.

My papaya story was not the first I heard of its kind, unfortunately. A year later but still in Costa Rica, I was working as a teaching assistant for a tropical biology course that traveled throughout the country Although we spent most of our time at field stations, I occasionally found myself wandering away to talk to farmers that lived in whatever area we happened to be visiting.

While in Guanacaste, near Palo Verde Biological Station, I met up with a rice farmer. Rice is an important crop in Costa Rica because it is part of their signature meal, gallo pinto. We talked about rice farming, local food, and Coyol palm wine. He was quick to volunteer that he was out of work because of his health: he had cancer. I felt my heart grow heavy. Because I was familiar with the heavy pesticide use in Guanacaste's rice farms, I suspected this had something to do with his condition. I found out that he shared my suspicion. He told me that cancer, as well as other unexplained health conditions, were common among rice-farmers in Guanacaste. He told me that the farmers of the area knew that the pesticides they were using were causing them health problems but what was a small farmer to do when they had a family to support and an increasingly globalized market eliminated opportunities for diverse farming practices?

After showing me some of the lesions he had on his body (and emphasizing that I could not leave Guanacaste with out trying locally-roasted Iguana), we parted ways. On my stroll back to the field station, I was reminded of a few conversations I had with a couple river gold-miners in the Peruvian Amazon a few years previously. Instead of pesticides the gold miners' poison was mercury. They showed me the ways mercury can burn your skin, kill a rivers' fish, and eat away at the health of their children, who have no choice but to drink the mercury-contaminated river water. Just as the papaya and rice farmers, these people knew the danger of these chemicals but did not have the choice to work without them.

Writing this essay brings back the same bone-chilling feelings I had when I was told these stories. The difference now is that I cannot claim the same naiveté as I did when I moved to Costa Rica. The burden of knowing, as some people would put it, seems so small in comparison of the burden that farmers bear because they have no real institutional support to rid their lives of these chemicals. Let's face it, if we buy fruits grown with harmful pesticides, then companies will continue using them and governments will continue to allow them.

I understand we do not all have the privilege to eat organic because it can be expensive and out of reach to many. But, for those of you like me with a choice, opting for pesticide-free is an important one. It is a choice for healthy people and healthy ecosystems. It is a choice to pressure governments and companies to honour the basic human rights to a life free of harmful chemicals.

Want to eat organic in Costa Rica? Check out the Feria Verde in Aranajuez, San Jose, it is one of my favourite markets.

More on plantation pesticide use in Costa Rica: 

van Wendel de Joode B, Barraza D, Ruepert C, Mora AM, Córdoba L, Oberg M, Wesseling C, Mergler D, & Lindh CH (2012). Indigenous children living nearby plantations with chlorpyrifos-treated bags have elevated 3,5,6-trichloro-2-pyridinol (TCPy) urinary concentrations. Environmental research, 117, 17-26 PMID: 22749112


  1. There is no other good alternative to fresh farm yield, pesticide free food. Organic food are not only a good healthy option for us, but also good the Eco system. You said it absolutely true that, unless and until we stop using pesticides laden food, companies will be continuously using them with government help. Strategic steps should be undertaken by government to increase yield of organic food crops so as to promote the health and holistic in Costa Rica.

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