|Thinking twice about your fruit salad, or the banana in your lunchbox?|
Luckily, despite other concerns about the levels of pesticides found on and in the fruit and vegetables you eat, you are not likely to suffer from any of the side effects on the right.
Unluckily for the millions of farm workers who grow these foods for you - they may.
The bitter aftertaste
Much of the fruit we eat in the UK every year comes from Costa Rica. Millions of boxes of it, in fact. So many bananas now leave their shores that Costa Rica is the world’s second largest exporter of bananas. Familiar names like Dole, Chiquita and Delmonte, all own plantations there.
Not quite the green and tropical paradise of the tourist brochures, Costa Rican plantations rely on large amounts of chemical pesticides to keep these high yields going.
Banana bunches dangle from the trees wrapped in plastic bags impregnated with harmful insecticides. Planes swoop over the trees 40-60 times a year spraying them with fungicides, some of which are suspected to cause cancer in both animals and humans. Not much fun if your village is next to the spray path (sometimes as close as 4 metres), if your crops grow there and your animals graze close by, or if you and your children use the water sources at the plantation edges. Local farmers complain of respiratory problems, allergies and serious chronic dermatitis. Local communities have seen their cattle lose their hair and their unborn calves after eating contaminated pasture. They’re concerned that they are drinking and washing in water affected by the same chemicals.
The chemicals used to deal with pests in the soil are extremely toxic. And plastic bags coated in chlorpyrifos that cover the fruit are sometimes just thrown away, to finish up in the rivers and sea, poisoning or choking turtles and other animals. In January 2003 fish, followed by the birds and reptiles feeding on them, were killed along a 12km stretch of river. Pollution incidents caused by pesticides have caused mass wildlife deaths.
Costa Rica’s other eye-catching fruit, the pineapple, is also not so sweet for the men and women who grow it.
Grown mainly in the south, it’s another crop with a juicy history of health and environmental problems. The Pineapple Development Corporation – or PINDECO – is part of Del Monte Fresh (90% owned by an Arabic group), is important to the economy. A huge operator, it provides several thousand jobs and produces half of the country’s pineapples.
However, those who work in the pineapple fields, pesticide sprayers on their backs, are highly exposed to dangerous chemicals. Good protection is nearly impossible in sweltering tropical conditions. Face masks, rubber gloves, boots, aprons, hats and overalls (when issued) make the work unbearable. Most workers have no information about the dangers of the pesticides they handle.
Respiratory diseases, asthma, babies born with defects, spontaneous abortion and male sterility are higher in the pineapple zone than anywhere else in Costa Rica; health problems linked to pesticide poisoning. Casual workers can be easily dismissed when they fall ill, and are forbidden from joining a trade union to fight for better working conditions.
Over the last 20 years access to clean water around pineapple plantations has become a severe problem. Pesticides have contaminated fresh water, while irrigation has diverted the flow of rivers, and reduced water supplies for local people. Although not sanctioned by law, the company has leased land for pineapple production in the indigenous Indian People’s reserves, cutting down virgin rainforest and causing soil erosion.
PINDECO says that it is supporting economic development in one of the poorest parts of Costa Rica. The local communities certainly don’t want them to close their operations, but they don’t want to be forced to choose between jobs and their health.
What can I do?
What price a kiwi fruit?
Chile is another important exporter when it comes to filling our fruit bowls in the UK. Popular fruits such as apples, grapes and kiwis.
Chilean growers takes great pains to convince their buyers here in Europe of the high quality of their produce. Yet the health and welfare of the thousands of farm workers on whom they depend seem of less concern. PAN partners in Chile estimate that 2,000-3,000 workers are made ill by pesticides each year, 70% of them women.
Only recently, 73 people working in an apple orchard were taken ill with vomiting, nausea, serious skin irritation and breathing difficulties. The trees had been sprayed with the nerve toxin, chlorpyrifos (the same chemical you will find on the bags covering banana trees). In another incident 22 seasonal farm workers became ill while harvesting beans (October 2004). Mainly women, they suffered severe burning and sores on their skin, from handling plants still wet with pesticide spray; several had to be hospitalised. Some of the women continue to suffer severe dermatitis over much of their body and are unable to work in the field.
One Chilean member of parliament stated “It’s shameful to admit that such conditions exist in Chile in the 21st century. Today an apple or a kiwi fruit is valued more than the workers who produce them”.
What can I do?
Not only in developing countries ….
It’s not just in developing countries that pesticides can harm farmers or farm workers. Farmworker families in North Carolina, US, took legal action against their employer, Ag-Mart Produce, after three babies were born with severe deformities. One baby had no arms and legs and another had no visible sex organs. While official report drew no definitive conclusions about the link with pesticide exposure, it raised significant concerns about the effects of pesticides on pregnant women in general and questioned whether the three women in the report faced overexposure in Ag-Mart Produce fields.
Inspectors say the company exposed workers to dangerous chemicals, some linked to birth defects. Although one of its most toxic pesticides was applied over three times the legal limit, they allege that Ag-Mart had failed to train its workers to handle pesticides safely, or to supply them with proper safety equipment and adequate water to rinse their eyes. They add that it also allowed employees to work in newly sprayed fields - fields that weren't safe to re-enter for up to a week after. At least one study has linked the soil fumigant methyl bromide to cancer in farm workers, and by law they should not re-enter a treated field for 48 hours after its application. Inspectors spoke to one worker who said he had been out in the fields while the methyl bromide was being applied.
In Europe, one in five farm workers say they have suffered some form of ill health as a result of working with pesticides. PAN UK has cases in its database of almost 1,000 people adversely affected by pesticides in Britain. Some effects are short-lived, others include long-term, debilitating illnesses such as multiple chemical sensitivity and chronic fatigue syndrome. Many of these incidents have affected people living near sprayed fields. Others include farmers, farm workers or people who work handling ornamental plants.
What can I do?
Everything must go…..
The fierce competition between supermarkets is part of the problem. Prices are driven so low that suppliers can hardly make a decent living from producing food, limiting their ability to invest in safer farming methods. If this is to change we need international fair trade practices, with proper implementation. Practices that ensure fruit and vegetables are not produced under conditions that harm workers’ health, expose their families to danger, damage local wildlife and pollute rivers.
Trading practices are needed to ensure that small and medium family farmers are not squeezed out of the system. New ‘food assurance’ schemes (designed by the retail giants to inspire confidence) can cripple small–scale farmers in the UK and overseas. Smaller growers have to complete the same heavy paperwork requirements as large growers, creating unfair burdens. The production requirements can be onerous for small producers. These problems are magnified for small-scale farmers in Africa, growing pineapple, green beans, sugarsnap peas, mango and other crops for export.
Around 45 million people in Africa and the Caribbean, mainly women, earn their living from growing fruit and vegetables for export to Europe. Our food system should help, not hinder, them in safer and healthy farming practices. It’s up to all of us (as consumers) to tell the supermarkets that we don’t want cheap food at any price.
What can I do?
* Make it clear to your local supermarkets that you’re not prepared to accept cheap fruit and vegetables if it comes at a cost to the welfare of the people who grow it. Ask that the companies, who make the real money out of the food business, including the supermarkets, pay their fair share to support safer farming. Click here to write to your local supermarket
* Be prepared to pay a little more for your food so that it can be produced without harm to workers and the environment.
* Let your supermarket know that you don’t demand cosmetically perfect produce. Crazy though it sounds, an entire delivery of fruit or vegetables may be rejected because of a few tiny blemishes. A shocking 30-50% of fresh produce supplied to supermarkets may be wasted as a result. Many farmers are forced to spray harmful pesticides to avoid the risk. Supermarkets say that they can’t change because we, the consumers, are now demanding cosmetic perfection. If asked whether you prefer taste, good nutrition and healthy farming over an unblemished carrot what would you say?
* Choosing organic food is also an effective way of making sure that our food hasn’t come from farms where pesticides are sprayed regularly, and where workers’ health might be at risk.
Click to find out more about African smallholder farmers struggling to make a healthy living in export crops
Sources for this text
Tesco – the new green chameleon? Friends of the Earth Press Release, 25 April 2006 (food wastage figures and cosmetic demands)
Chilean farmworker poisonings. M-E Rozas. Pesticides News No. 71, March 2006, page 16
Grower faces record fines for pesticides. The state wants to know whether use of the toxic chemicals led to birth defects in workers' babies. The News & Observer, Feb 19, 2006 (North Carolina newspaper on tomato company bad pesticide practice)
Bananas- the slippery road to sustainability. T. Lustig. Pesticides News No. 68, June 2005, pp.14-15
Harmful aerial spraying provokes protests in banana zones. Pesticides News No. 67, March 2005, page 11
EU pesticide legislation – friend or foe of developing countries? M-K Chan. Pesticides News No. 50, December 2000, p12-13
The price of pineapples. Interview with Patricia Blanco of the Costa Rican Popular Front against Pollution. Pesticides News No. 48, June 2000, page 8
Health and safety concerns from European survey of operators. Pesticides News, No. 36, June 1997