Prickly issues for pineapple pesticides
Smallholder farmers in Ghana have benefited enormously from cash-cropping pineapple since the 1990s but their livelihoods are threatened by changes in European market requirements and EU pesticide residue legislation.
Seth Gogoe, Angie Dekpor and Stephanie Williamson report on the dilemma between providing safer food for consumers and protecting the income and health of African smallholders.
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Women pineapple farmers from Samsam village rank their different crops according to area, cash generation and household consumption.
Photo Stephanie Williamson
Thousands of smallholder farmers in southern Ghana have joined the pineapple business in the last decade, growing this lucrative fruit for export or local markets. With cash from pineapple sales they have greatly improved their family income and living standards, while maintaining plots of food crops such as cassava and maize for household consumption. Women and young people have benefited from the pineapple boom too – cultivating their own pineapple plots has helped women become more economically independent of their husbands and some young men are now returning from low-paid jobs in the towns to take up pineapple farming as a profitable career. Yet these farmers now feel confused and threatened by the stories they hear about European consumers rejecting pesticides, while at the same time more farmers are complaining that they cannot afford the rapidly rising costs of pesticides and fertilisers. This is especially the case for women farmers, who generally have far fewer financial resources than men, and some women have abandoned pineapple cultivation as a result.
Pesticide residues and pineapple production
New legislation on Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) in the European Union (EU) will reject imports of produce with residues of pesticides not approved under its regulations (see PN 50 pp12-15). This will have an enormous impact on smallholders in developing countries growing fruit and vegetables for export. PAN UK selected smallholder pineapple production in Ghana as one of the case studies for its research on
Progressive Pest Management for Food Security and the Environment. The case study follows work by the UK Natural Resources Institute (NRI) to help the Ghanaian pineapple industry develop an ethical code of practice to improve access for its produce to the high-value, but increasingly demanding, European supermarket supply
chain(1). With partners in Ghana, PAN UK carried out participatory fieldwork with women and men pineapple farmers in three communities in Eastern and Central Regions in August 2001, augmented by interviews with key stakeholders in government research and extension, the pineapple industry and pesticide suppliers.
The critical MRL issue facing Ghanaian pineapple growers and exporters is the use of the chemical ethephon, which is applied shortly before harvest to induce the fruits to change from green to golden yellow colour (known as de-greening). De-greening is standard practice in the Smooth Cayenne variety produced for export, in order to speed up the natural colour change so that fruits meet the required coloration by the time they arrive on the supermarket shelves. Ethrel, the most commonly used ethephon product in Ghana, is sprayed on the pineapple plants by workers of the exporter companies once fruit purchase from a particular plot has been agreed with the farmer. Despite ethephon’s function as a plant growth regulator, it is, in fact, an organophosphate (OP) compound, classified as a pesticide and placed in the US EPA’s top toxicity category for acute dermal and eye
irritation(2). Under good practice, de-greening with Ethrel should take place at least seven days before harvest and when the fruit is fully mature, so that minimum quantities are applied and any ethephon residues degrade well before the fruit is eaten. De-greening decision-making and application does not involve the farmer, apart from those few large-scale growers who also export their own produce.
Horticultural exporters in Ghana have only been aware since early 2001 of the impending changes in EU MRLs affecting their produce, due partly to poor communication by the European Commission. Since then, the pineapple sector has become proactive in tackling the ethephon residue concerns, although awareness is only just beginning to stir of the desirability of safer pest management in general.
When the EU reduced the MRL for ethephon from 2mg/kg to 0.5mg/kg in July 2001, the industry took several tough decisions in self-regulation and agreed to cancel two shipments, rather than risk sending produce which they feared might exceed the new limits and give Ghanaian pineapples a bad name. Recent field surveys by Ghana’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA), in collaboration with pineapple growers and exporters, have revealed that the range of ethephon doses applied varied from 50-300 millilitre per 15 litre knapsack sprayer and, 50% of fruits sampled contained ethephon residues above the new MRL. MoFA trials this year have shown that substantial reduction in Ethrel dosage and de-greening 10 days before harvest is perfectly feasible without compromising colour or quality and enables exporters to meet the residue
requirements(3). Research staff and the pineapple exporters’ associations are now disseminating these findings to all companies to encourage speedy compliance.
The export companies’ concern, and that of European importers, is focused on residue issues. However, exporters believe that the long period between pesticide application in the field and the time that consumers eat the fruit is an advantage for pineapple producers, since residues will have largely degraded (with the critical exception of ethephon). One international company sends fruits each month for laboratory analysis in the UK and has had no detectable pesticide residues found in its samples in the last three years. It has also reduced the list of products which it permits its growers to use and has eliminated the use of nematicides (such as cadusafos), which are the most toxic chemicals used in pineapple production.
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These young men, pictured applying fertiliser, were hospitalised for several days this season after spraying insecticides.
Photo Stephanie Williamson
Pesticide impact at farm level
While the MRL changes have put ethephon residues and consumer risks in the limelight, less attention is paid at either European or national level to reducing pesticide hazards and costs for farmers and farm workers. Ghanaian smallholders use very low levels of pesticides on their pineapple crop compared to the huge plantations run by multinational fruit companies in Latin America or elsewhere in Africa, whose operations continue to cause serious human health and environmental problems (see PN 48 p8 and 47 p3). Nevertheless, some aspects of pineapple pest management in Ghana do pose health risks, mainly the use of the OP chlorpyrifos, which has recently been severely restricted in the US because of its neurotoxic health effects.
Mealybugs are the key insect pests in pineapple in Ghana since they may transmit serious bacterial wilt disease, and cause heavy yield loss. Our research showed that smallholders growing export varieties apply chlorpyrifos on a preventative basis by dipping the suckers prior to planting, followed by two to three soil drenches of liquid fertiliser mixed with chlorpyrifos after planting. One company recommends up to five calendar applications of chlorpyrifos drenching.
Since Ghanaian farmers apply chlorpyrifos at least 12 months before harvesting, residues of this insecticide are extremely unlikely to persist until consumption stage. The exposure and risks to farmers and farm workers, however, may be much higher, especially if they do not use suitable gloves when dipping suckers by hand in drums of the diluted insecticide. Handling spiny pineapple foliage causes frequent cuts and abrasions to the hands, increasing substantially the risk of skin absorption and blood contamination via open wounds.
While none of the smallholders we interviewed had experienced any acute poisoning when using pesticides in their pineapple plots, both young male workers we talked to from the spray team on a large-scale commercial pineapple farm had been hospitalised in the previous 12 months, following insecticide application. They had suffered stomach complaints and each had taken three days off work (their medical treatment and sick pay was covered by the farm management) and they regularly experienced skin irritation when using chlorpyrifos and other insecticides. The workers said they would like the company to provide them with proper overalls, although they admitted that they had been given nose masks but did not always use them.
Chlorpyrifos use is also expensive, currently costing 50,000 cedis (about £5) per litre, compared to daily agricultural wages of 6,000-10,000 cedis. The women farmers with whom we developed a rough pineapple production budget estimated that they applied 8.6 l/ha per production cycle. Their total insecticide and herbicide use (including their own and/or hired labour for water haulage and spraying) amounted to over 1.4 million cedis/ha, almost 13% of their production
costs(4). Yet entomologists from MoFA, as well as agronomists from the more progressive pineapple companies, agree that mealybugs can be controlled effectively without the use of any insecticide at all. Straightforward cultural and physical control methods can be used instead, such as: proper maintenance of pineapple mother plots for sucker production; exposing newly cut suckers to sunlight which dries out the mealybugs; avoiding heaping suckers in large piles where mealybugs can survive in humid conditions; and careful selection of suckers before planting.
Environmental risks of chlorpyrifos are also significant as most farmers use surface streams for filling and washing knapsack sprayers and mixing drums.
To move towards safer, profitable and more sustainable pineapple production requires not only change in farmers’ knowledge and practice, but also throughout the supply chain. Some progress is underway as certain pineapple companies in Ghana attempt to change their growers’ production practices to comply with the
Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) protocols developed by the European Retailers’ Association,
EUREP(5). Many smallholders remain outside these schemes, however, and we believe that investment in intensive, season-long farmer training along the Farmer Field School approach is needed to shift from their current dependency on chemical control methods towards integrated pest management (IPM). Guidance on pesticide use outlined in current GAP protocols, use criteria such as ‘protection of crops…must be achieved with the
appropriate minimum pesticide input…’(our italics)(6). How do you actually measure this at farm level? Should the continued use of hazardous pesticides, such as chlorpyrifos, even if applied ‘safely’ and in minimal quantities, be acceptable under GAP in cases where cultural controls are equally effective and much safer?
The burden of change, however, should not be carried by hard-pressed pineapple growers and exporters alone. Consumers need to appreciate the difficulties faced by producers and the consequences of insistence on high cosmetic standards or supply during periods when weather conditions may entail more pest or disease problems.
Importers and retailers, in particular, should recognise that poor communication in fruit marketing can lead directly to inappropriate pesticide use, which increases health risks for workers and consumers. Last-minute orders for fruit means that exporters are forced to de-green pineapple within only three or four days before harvest, requiring higher doses of ethephon and thus leaving higher residue levels. This is a common problem experienced by Ghanaian export companies.
Chlorpyrifos use should be phased out as soon as possible, given its cost, health hazards and environmental risks. Several export companies are now training their workers on pesticide hazards and least hazardous handling procedures but far more information and education, including support for IPM training on alternatives, must be provided for all growers.
PAN UK calls for closer dialogue between the separate links in the export horticulture supply chain, from producer to consumer. We urge all European stakeholders to take positive action to invest in long-term support for African smallholders to move towards sustainable production systems, which will deliver health, income and environmental benefits at both ends of the supply chain.
1.Facing the challenge: Applying codes of practice in the smallholder sector, Report of the NRI and Ethical Trade Programme workshop held in London on 21 May 2001, NRI, University of Greenwich, Chatham, UK.
2. RED Facts, US Environmental Protection Agency, EPA-738-F-95-004, 1995.
3. Report on field trials for MRLs of ethephon and carbendazim for certification by the EU, M. Kyofa-Boamah, MoFA, Pokuase, Ghana, 2001.
4. Farming community study, Samsam women pineapple growers, near Nsawam, Eastern Region, PAN UK unpublished report, 2001.
5.Ghanaian horticulture Code of Practice – where to from here? Report of NRI and Ethical Trade Programme workshop held in Accra, NRI, 5 June 2001.
6.EUREPGAP protocol for fresh fruit and vegetables, EUREP/Eurohandelsinstitut, Cologne, 2001.
For more information, contact: Mr Seth Gogoe, Post-Harvest Specialist, PO Box 14060, Accra, Ghana. Email:
[This article first appeared in
Pesticides News No. 54, December 2001, pages 4-5]