Pesticide Policy in Costa Rica

This paper by Stefan Agne and Hermann Waibel examines the recent history of pesticide use and the political and institutional setting for crop protection in Costa Rica. It provides an assessment of institutional and economic factors that influence crop protection.

A growing market for pesticides
The Costa Rican government has adopted a policy towards sustainable agriculture which includes the promotion of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and non-chemical crop protection. At the same time, pesticides remain exempt from taxes and duties, which inevitably increases their use. A detailed study of direct and hidden pesticide subsidies can assist the government in implementing IPM strategies.
    The value of Costa Rica's chemical pesticide imports increased by almost 50% between 1990 and 1994 (see figure 1). The market for fungicides is expanding most rapidly, with imports almost tripling from US$14.9 million in 1990 to US$42.5 million in 1994. Most of this growth can be explained by the expanding banana production and by the increased applications against the most prevalent fungal disease Mycosphaerella fijiensis (Sigatoka negra), that has become resistant to some fungicides.
    Research at Costa Rica's National University shows that in 1993 about 18% of all pesticide imports (by volume) were in the World Health Organisation toxicity classification categories Ia, extremely hazardous, or Ib, highly hazardous(2).
    Use of the biological pesticide, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) has increased, with imports rising from about US$170,000 in 1990 to about US$262,000 in 1994. Quantities imported during this period increased from 14,509 kg to 44,537 kg. The decreased price, from US$11.72/kg to US$5.88/kg, may have stimulated Bt use among farmers.
    In 1993 the banana sector accounted for 57% of all pesticides sales, despite occupying less than 10% of Costa Rica's agricultural area. Non-traditional horticultural crops account for 10% of the national pesticide market. In both these sectors pesticide use is very intensive, and in some horticultural production systems excessive pesticide use has been well documented(3,4).

Figure 1: Value of chemical pesticide imports to Costa Rica from 1990 to 1994 (in current USD)

Law, enforcement and monitoring
Crop protection regulations, which are advanced for Central America, adequately cover pesticide use and handling, and residue monitoring. Despite these achievements, implementation has been difficult because:

A study by Castro Córdoba in 1995(5) indicated that legislation relating to pesticide monitoring involved too many institutions leading to inter-departmental friction and neglect of duties. Staff in one department may assume that staff in other departments are handling a particular issue, but no consultation takes place. For example, checking pesticide retailers' storage facilities is a monitoring activity which involves four organisations: the Ministries of  Agriculture, Health and Labour, and the Association of Agronomists.

Agricultural credit
In general, banks exercise a strong influence over the choice of farming technology used by those farmers who seek loans. The farmers receive recommendations and often technical assistance from the banks and must submit details of the production technology on the crops they intend to grow. Banks interviewed in Costa Rica did not impose specific requirements for crop protection, but could require the farmer to prove that his or her chosen production technology is viable.

Information on crop protection
On the whole few technical alternatives to pesticides are offered to farmers, although links between research and extension do exist for some specific IPM projects.

Extension methodology
In Costa Rica there is little experience of IPM within the extension service. The most popular form of IPM extension involves inviting farmers to field days where results of research are displayed. Unfortunately, many scientists, government officials and extension workers tend to consider IPM simply as a threshold-based chemical control which may involve a little additional non-chemical control. Some also question the effectiveness of IPM methodology because of the unpredictable nature of pests and the strong influence of farm-specific factors. As a result, IPM training differs significantly from the Farmer Field Schools concept now widely used in Asia(6).

Information dissemination by industry and pesticide retailers
The major source of crop protection information for farmers comes from pesticide sales staff. There are shops selling pesticides across all regions of Costa Rica, which makes it far easier for a farmer to reach a pesticide retailer than an official extension worker. Information is thus disseminated by the pesticides industry sales representatives and advertisements aiming to increase pesticide sales. The profit motive of industry and the pesticide retailers is not compatible with the dissemination of IPM strategies, especially if there is a lack of information on non-chemical alternatives.

Tax exemption for pesticides versus environmental taxation
Pesticides are exempt from tax and duty in Costa Rica. Curiously enough, this has not been seen as a contradiction to the government's objective of promoting IPM and sustainable agriculture. Pesticide policies focus on legislative measures and education, but do not include economic policy instruments. The most promising policy potentially involves implementing an environmental pesticides tax. This would lead to a reduction in pesticide use, and generate funds to strengthen measures such as research and extension in IPM or organic farming, and provide special credit schemes for farmers who produce food in an environmentally safe way. Administratively, the implementation of such a tax in Costa Rica would be possible through a 'selective sales tax'.
    Ideally, an environmental tax should be used to pay for the hidden costs of use.  Because of the difficulties in quantifying these costs, and because of increases in production costs, in an initial phase a relatively low tax should be introduced in order to raise funds to promote non-chemical crop protection, for example, through effective IPM training.

Hidden costs of pesticide use
Pesticides cause adverse health and environmental effects for users and communities. Only a small fraction of actual injuries have been documented, making the full extent difficult to assess(7).  Residues in food are an increasing concern.

Health costs
For many years, researchers in Costa Rica have maintained that occupational use of pesticides causes serious poisoning incidents. More than 1,000 banana plantation workers became sterile as a result of exposure to the fungicide DBCP in a well-documented case which provides evidence of the hazards related to pesticide use(8,9,10).
    Doctors who treat poisonings are asked to report every incident to Costa Rica's National Centre for Poisoning Control. Between 1980 and 1994, the number of cases involving pesticides steadily increased from 593 to 1,144. The Centre registers and processes this information and makes it available to the public. As the sole source of information is provided by poison victims and physicians, it can be assumed that the number of registered cases is lower than that of actual poisonings.
    In 1994 organophosphates (233 cases), carbamates (151 cases) and paraquat (128 cases) were the most frequently registered chemicals associated with pesticide poisonings. Most of the pesticides (48%) were ingested, 11.4% were absorbed through the skin, 29% were inhaled and another 10% were concurrently inhaled and absorbed through the skin. Of all pesticide poisonings registered in 1994, 34% were classified as 'occupational', 43% as 'accidental' and 19% as 'suicide attempts'. In 1994, about 70% of people poisoned were male and about 30% were female.

Pesticide residues
The Plant Protection Service analyses about 400 vegetable samples each year for pesticide residues in order to monitor and improve food quality for the national market. The results of these analyses are not available to the public. Von Düszeln(11) published data from Costa Rica's Crop Protection Service on residue analysis in 1992 in which 37% of all samples contained pesticide residues, while about 6% of the samples violated the Costa Rican maximum residue limits (MRLs). In 1993, when the range of compounds analysed was extended, residues were found in 55% of the samples, and 11% of the samples exceeded maximum residue limits(12). Another study revealed that between 1985 and 1991 more than 500 tons of agricultural crops were detained in US ports because they surpassed the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) MRLs(13).
    The Pesticide Program at Costa Rica's National University monitored the effects of pesticide use on banana plantations in north eastern Costa Rica. Residues of various pesticides have been found in the surface water of drainage channels. The most frequently detected compounds were the fungicides thiabendazole, propiconazole and the insecticides chlorpyrifos and terbufos. Cordero and Ramirez,(14) and Thrupp(15) have documented unacceptable levels of copper in soils from the United Fruit Company's banana plantations.

Factors affecting pesticide use
Crop protection experts in Costa Rica tend to agree that there is an urgent need to reduce pesticide use because application rates are often much higher than the recommended levels. Crop protection specialists at an IICA (Instituto Interamericano de Cooperación para la Agricultura) workshop in San José in December 1995 discussed two questions:

Fungicide application in a Costa Rican potato field

The workshop included a presentation on pesticide markets, and institutional and economic factors that influence pesticide use in the country. The issues raised were discussed between representatives of government departments, scientists and private sector representatives including the pesticide industry. Each participant was also asked to answer a questionnaire addressing these issues. After the workshop other experts who did not participate were contacted for their opinion. In total 24 pesticide experts from ministries, national and international government organisations, research institutions and the private sector expressed their opinion in this questionnaire.
    The questionnaire was used as a tool to evaluate which institutional and economic factors affected pesticide use, using a scale from -5 to +5. A negative value implied a discouraging effect on pesticide use, and a positive value indicated a stimulating effect. Factors that do not have an impact at all were given a zero.
    The evaluations showed clearly that institutional factors and information were considered the most important factors influencing pesticide use. Tax exemption for pesticides and fertilisers, and external effects of pesticide use were also considered relevant (even though figure 2 does not reflect the importance attributed to external effects).
    The results of the questionnaires relating to the external costs of pesticide use were almost neutral, as there was little agreement on these factors and participants gave widely different scores. This assessment deviated significantly from the other variables, probably because of ambiguous interpretations. On the one hand, some of the participants considered that 'external costs' resulted from a deficiency in the market system which leads to over-use of pesticides. With this interpretation, existing market prices for pesticides would be considered too low, because they do not reflect these external costs. Tolerating external costs of pesticides by not applying environmental taxes is therefore regarded as an indirect subsidy for pesticides which stimulates pesticide use. On the other hand, it has been assumed by some experts that the mere threat of external effects leads to a reduction of pesticide use. This implies that farmers are minimising pesticide use because they are aware of the risk related to it.
    The workshop participants emphasised pesticide use is stimulated by the need to meet the quality requirements of the export markets for consumers demanding uniform size, blemish-free products, for example. Furthermore, in some cases the competition with neighbouring countries means stricter pesticide legislation in Costa Rica is less likely to be implemented, indicating the need for regional harmonisation.
    In conclusion the participants agreed that there was insufficient research into pesticide policy, non-chemical crop protection and the environmental effects of pesticides. These factors constrained practical improvements in the Costa Rican agricultural sector.

The way ahead
The Costa Rican government has recently adopted a policy which attempts to establish sustainable agriculture by  reducing pesticide use to, as yet unspecified, minimum levels. Current policies do not sufficiently address this issue as a number of national policies actually stimulate pesticide use.
    There are few economic incentives for farmers to adopt IPM because of the existing tax exemption for chemical pesticides and because of insufficient promotion and support of non-chemical crop protection strategies. The analysis has also shown that institutional factors and inadequate information are most decisive in influencing pesticide use. A change of the institutional framework may take some time. Therefore, more rapid changes could first be encouraged by abolishing tax exemption for pesticides or by applying an environmental tax on pesticides.
    The funds raised by pesticide taxes should be invested in measures to promote non-chemical crop protection such as the expansion and improvement of extension and research programmes in IPM and organic agriculture. Further incentives for environmentally benign agricultural production could be set by subsidising credit for farmers who adopt IPM or organic technologies or by supporting the marketing of their products.

Figure 2: Determinants of pesticide use and their impact according to a survey among experts in Costa Rica

1. Cámara de Insumos Agropecuarios, revised by Dr Bernal Valverde, CATIE, and by Stefan Agne.
2. Chaverri, F. and Blanco, J., Importación, formulación y uso de plaguicidas en Costa Rica. Período 1992-1993, Informe final al proyecto MASICA/OPS, Programa de Plaguicidas, UNA, Heredia, Costa Rica, 1995.
3. Arauz, L.F. et. al., Diagnóstico sobre el uso y manejo de plaguicidas en las fincas hortícolas del Valle Central de Costa Rica. Informe preliminar, Agronomía y Ciencia, 1983, 1 (3):37-49.
4. Hilje, L., et. al., El uso de los plaguicidas en Costa Rica, San José, Costa Rica, 1987.
5. Castro Córdoba, R., Estudio diagnóstico sobre la legislación de plaguicidas en Costa Rica, Ministerio de Salud/OPS, San José, Costa Rica, 1995.
6. Kenmore, P.E. , Integrated Pest Management in Rice, Biotechnology and Integrated Pest Management, CAB International, UK, 1996.
7. García, J., Introducción a los plaguicidas. EUNED: San José, Costa Rica, forthcoming: Dr Jaime García, professor at the Universidad Nacional Estatal a Distancia (UNED), is in the process of publishing a comprehensive review of literature related to external effects of pesticide use in Costa Rica.
8. Thrupp, L.A., Direct Damage: DBCP Poisoning in Costa Rica, Dirty Dozen Campaigner, May 1989.
9. Ramirez, A.L. & Ramirez, C.M., Esterilidad masculina causada por la exposición laboral al nematicida 1,2-dibromo-3-cloropropano, Acta Med. Cost., 23 (3): 219-222, Costa Rica, 1980.
10. Op. cit. 4.
11. Von Düszeln, J.,, Qualitätskontrollevon Pflanzenschutzmitteln aus GTZ-Planzenschutz-projekten, Entwicklung + Ländlicher Raum, 29 (1): 16-19, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1995.
12. Dirección General de Sanidad Vegetal (MAG'S former Crop Protection Service)
13. García, J., Límites máximos de residuos de plaguicidas en productos alimentarios de origen vegetal: situación en Costa Rica, Agronomía Costarricense, 19 (1), San José, Costa Rica, 1992.
14. Cordero, A. & Ramirez, G., Acumulamiento de cobre en los suelos del Pacífico Sur de Costa Rica y sus efectos detrimentales en la agricultura, Agronomía Costarricnse, 3: 63-78, 1979.
15. Thrupp, L.A., Long-Term Losses from Accumulation of Pesticide Residues: A Case of Persistent Copper Toxicity in Soils of Costa Rica, Geoforum, 22: 1-15, 1991.
16. Agne, S., Economic Analysis of Crop Protection Policy in Costa Rica, Pesticide Policy Project, Publication Series No. 4, p.51, Hannover, Germany, September 1996.

Stefan Agne is a research associate of the GTZ/University of Hannover Pesticide Policy Project. Prof. Dr. Hermann Waibel is the director of this Project.

The GTZ/University of Hannover Pesticide Policy Project is funded by the German Ministry of Economic Co-operation and Development (BMZ). The field work in Costa Rica was carried out at Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Ensenañza (CATIE), Turrialba, and in co-operation with a broad spectrum of organisations and individuals concerned with political and economic conditions of pesticide use. The authors would like to thank all of them for their co-operation.

The report Economic Analysis of Crop Protection Policy in Costa Rica by Stefan Agne is available on request from the Pesticide Policy Project, Institute of Horticultural Economics, University of Hannover, Herrenhäuser Str. 2, D-30419 Hannover, Germany (e-mail:

[This article first appeared in Pesticides News No. 36, June 1997, pages 8-10]