Some Pesticides With Your Gallo Pinto?

An Agricultural Double Standard In Costa Rica


By Alexandra Tydings

Originally Published by Rainbow Organics



When Ryan Galt, an agricultural professor at UC Davis, visited farms in Costa Rica while doing research on his dissertation, he found a surprising dichotomy between the food that was grown for domestic sale and the produce that would be exported. One farmer was using two different bins for washing vegetables: the chayote that would be exported to the U.S., Canada and Europe had to be washed separately from the beans that would be sold locally. The local beans were washed in a 50 gallon drum that was also used for mixing pesticides. The farmer was confident the drum had been rinsed well before he used it for the beans, however he would never use the same drum for washing the chayote. The pesticides were not permitted on export crops and if residues were found on the chayote, he would be in violation of pesticide standards of the importing countries. The farmer would only risk pesticide exposure on food that would be sold in his own country, to a market that doesn’t have such high standards for poison on its produce.

Often fruits and vegetables grown in Costa Rica are separated into two groups: “Export Quality” is in compliance with international standards for chemical use and of a high enough quality to be shipped overseas, whereas “National Quality” is reserved for inferior produce which may have been exposed to significantly higher amounts of pesticides. 9-30% of Costa Rican produce grown for local market violates residue standards for agricultural chemicals, whereas only 4.4% of that grown for export to the U.S. are found to be in violation. Of all the organic, pesticide-free food grown in the country, over 90% is shipped out of the country to the U.S. and Europe, and half of all organic bananas are bought by one U.S. baby food producer alone. U.S. mothers can feel good about the imported organic bananas they feed to their babies... as long as they don’t think about the families of the farmers who grow them.

Costa Rican agriculture has a history of international double standards. In the 1940s, Shell Oil and Dow Chemicals discovered a chemical called Dibromo-chloropropane (DBCP), a pesticide that kills insects that can cause blemishes and soft spots on bananas. In 1977, after DBCP was found to cause sterility, the chemical was banned in the United States. However, U.S. federal law allows for the continued export of industrial chemicals even after they have been banned domestically. Shell and Dow sold its remaining inventory of DBCP to countries in Central and South America, where banana workers were regularly exposed to the chemical without knowing of its toxicity. It has been estimated that 2,000 men were involuntarily sterilized while working on Costa Rican banana plantations that used DBCP. When the chemical was finally outlawed in Costa Rica, the Standard Fruit company simply sent the rest of its stock to plantations in Honduras.

Surprisingly, Costa Rica, a country famous for its green landscape and biodiversity, still has one of the highest rates of industrial agricultural chemical use in the world, and still uses pesticides that have been banned in other countries. Paraquat, a fast acting herbicide, can cause renal and liver impairment, lung damage, heart failure, and a recent NIH study found a link between its use and Parkinson’s disease in farm workers. Endosulfan is a controversial insecticide that can damage the reproductive system and has been known to cause permanent neurological impairment and death. Both are still widely used in Costa Rican farming.

Once these substances are released into the environment, heavy Costa Rican rains carry them to streams and rivers where they can disrupt and damage local wildlife. Pesticides seep into the ground and then show up in drinking water. They accumulate in fatty tissues of animals and make their way up the food chain, eventually showing up in humans and passing through breast milk. Every human tested in the U.S. has been found to have pesticides in their fatty tissue, and newborns (who have never been exposed to chemicals through drinking, eating or breathing) are being born with pesticides already in their bodies. One of the pesticides currently found in the bodies of newborns is DDT, a pesticide that has been illegal for decades. These chemicals get into the environment and they persist, making their way into our bodies and our genetic code. Some studies have suggested that genetic changes caused by pesticide exposure can be passed down through several generation of offspring. It could be possible to develop Parkinson’s disease from pesticides that your grandmother was exposed to, which were banned before you were born. Unless you were born in Costa Rica, in which case maybe they are still legal.

Pesticide exposure can also result from chemical drift – when agricultural chemicals move through the air onto nearby populations, farms, and of course schools. Many of these chemicals are fat soluble, meaning they are absorbed through the skin and into the blood stream. Organophosphates and carbamates made up 34% of pesticide poisoning in one year, and 15.4% of pesticides imported to Costa Rica. They are neurotoxic pesticides, related to the nerve gases that were developed during World War II. Conventional agriculture, quite literally, is spraying the air with chemical weapons and then growing food in it.

A new article by the American Association of Pediatrics raises the concern of serious health risks due to even low level, every day exposure to pesticides, especially for children. Researchers pointed to problems ranging from cancer to ADHD, including preterm birth, low birth weight, congenital anomalies, pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive and neurobehavioral function, and asthma that can result from low levels of exposure to common pesticides.

The article stated that diet may be the most important source of exposure to agricultural chemicals, and cited a 2006 study that showed a dramatic drop in pesticide levels among children who ate primarily organic food. Pound per pound, children consume far more food and water than adults, and their developing brains and bodies are much more susceptible to damage from exposure to toxicity. The study concluded that eating organic food provides immediate and considerable protection against pesticide exposure. Other studies have found that pesticide levels in children who eat a primarily organic diet is 6-9 times lower than those of children who eat a conventional diet.

Costa Rica has only 11,000 hectares of certified organic land, less than 2% of its possible farm land. Of the organic food grown there, 90% is shipped overseas, while local people are sold food that has been sprayed with toxic chemicals that are illegal in much of the world. One pesticide, Methomyl, causes 50 deaths per year in Costa Rica, and is the leading cause of poisoning in the country. There is no evidence that regulation, either from the Costa Rican government or overseas, is sufficient to protect people from such insidious and persistent poisons. Yet it has been estimated that organic food production could reduce overall pesticide exposure by 97%. And market forces are powerful. If there is a strong demand for local organic food, farmers will most likely find a way to provide it. In a country that is celebrated for its ecological beauty, whose motto is “pura vida,” it is outrageous that the vast majority of its organic food is shipped overseas while local people are working, living, and eating in a broth of chemical toxins too dangerous to be sold in so-called first world countries who unloaded them here in the first place. There are many reasons why supporting a local organic food system makes sense. Along with taste, nutrition, health, climate change, ecosystem resilience, and childhood illnesses, add resistance to decades of agricultural imperialism to the top of the list.


For Further reading:

American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement: “Pesticide Exposure in Children”:

Bittman, Mark. “Pesticides: Now More Than Ever.” NY Times,12/11/12. more-than-ever/?smid=fb-share

Galt, Ryan E. “‘It just goes to kill Ticos:’ National market regulation and the political ecology of farmer’s pesticide use in Costa Rica.” UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute

Lu C, Toepel K, Irish R, Fenske RA, Barr DB, Bravo R. “Organic diets significantly lower children’s dietary exposure to organophosphorus pesticides.” Environ Health Perspectives. “Pesticides and Herbicides in CR – no other country uses more pesticides per person.” 10/14/12 2/6

2/4/2014 Some pesticides with Your Gallo Pinto? An Agricultural Double Standard in Costa Rica on

Oriana Ortiz Vindas, for, “Costa Ricans consume 3 kilograms of agrochemicals per year.” Voice of Nosara.

University of Michigan Environmental Justice Case Study. “Costa Rican Banana Plantation Workers Suffer from Exposure to Toxic Pesticide.”
TED Case Study. “Pesticide Hazard in Costa Rica.”

World Health Organization Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety. “Acutely Toxic Pesticides.”