While making our film about the pineapple industry in Costa Rica, I interviewed the buyer of one of the major European supermarket chains, who wanted to remain anonymous(they usually do).
He was worried that the most intense production of pineapples is based in Costa Rica's flat Atlantic region where the humidity is highest and pests on the monoculture plantations are the most troublesome. They need more pesticides there than the farms in the hilly, more windy area further west, but without the same economies of scale and with the extra distance from the port, it's more expensive to produce where the environmental cost is lower.
When it came to growing bananas, he wasn't sure Costa Rica was even the right country from an environmental point of view. The humidity of the region meant that 54 agrochemical treatments are typically needed in a cycle compared to only 14 or 15 in parts of Ecuador where the climate is less favourable to the sigatoka fungus that is ravaging the crop around the world.
Agrochemicals are an issue for pineapples too. Clearing old pineapple plants after harvest so that you can replant the next crop again is done fastest and mostly cheaply with very high doses of paraquat. Paraquat is banned in Europe because it is so acutely toxic. Some Costa Rican plantations avoid it – notably those with Rainforest Alliance or Fairtrade certifications, but they then have to plough in the old stalks and wait for the plant matter to decompose. Time is money and if no one will pay a premium for your efforts, it's harder to justify.
Other environmentally beneficial techniques don't come cheap either: buffer zones between the edge of plantations and water ways, protection of rainforest areas, making sure workers who spray agrochemicals only do so for a couple of hours at a time so that they are not out sweating in the heat and therefore more exposed to toxic effects – all these things cost money.
One of the greatest problems is that the transnational traders' and retailers' power outstrips the government's ability to regulate. Costa Rica is more stable, democratic and ecologically minded than many developing countries, which is precisely why it is so attractive to foreign investors, yet its environmental laws remain weak and have barely kept up with an industry that has seen explosive growth.
And, of course, the situation isn't helped by price wars that are driving producers towards the kind of industrial agriculture that takes a heavy toll both on the environment and on the lives of those who live and work in the plantations' shadow.
This blog first appeared on the Guardian's Green Living blog. Find out more about the CI's work on Corporate Social Responsibility.