Exploring the Challenges Facing Pineapple Producers
It’s easy to see why pineapples have become one of the world’s most popular tropical fruits. Millions enjoy their sweet and tangy taste, but few understand the pressure pineapple producers face to meet rapidly growing demand.
A Spike in Pineapple Production
Over the last decade, pineapple production has increased by 300 percent in Costa Rica. Today, pineapples are Costa Rica’s second biggest export and the country ranks third in world pineapple production. The bulk of Costa Rica’s pineapples are sold to North American and European markets where consumers demand an almost perfect fruit.
This demand for perfection is an enormous challenge for Costa Rican pineapple farmers. Every year, they must discard huge volumes of pineapple that have been infected by Thecla basilides, a common pineapple pest. Thecla basilides is a borer produced by butterflies which incubates and grows within pineapples, damaging their pulp. Farmers say that buyers will return an entire shipment if just one pineapple is infected with Thecla basilides.
A Persistent Pest
In recent years, Thecla basilides infestations on pineapple farms have become increasingly common. In 2010, 52 percent of Costa Rica’s pineapple pest reports listed Thecla basilides as the offending pest.
These infestations are not just bad news for farmers; they are also bad news for the environment. Traditionally, a “zero tolerance” agrochemical application method is used to combat infestations of Thecla basilides. If one plant is infected, chemicals are applied to the entire harvest area.
Carbaryl is one of the main agrochemicals used to combat Thecla basilides. Unfortunately, carbaryl is an indiscriminate agrochemical, killing beneficial insects along with pests. It is also believed to have “carcinogenic potential.” Its use is prohibited on Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms in accordance with the Sustainable Agriculture Network Standard.
A Plan for Pineapple Growers
Recognizing that pineapple farmers need a sustainable alternative to carbaryl to fight Thecla basilides infestations, the Rainforest Alliance recently hosted a conference in conjunction with the National Platform of Responsible Pineapple Production and Trade in Costa Rica. The conference was attended by an assortment of major industry players, including scientists, government representatives and producers.
“We are working to implement a project in Costa Rica called ‘Promoting Sustainable Pineapple Production in Costa Rica’ supported by The New York Community Trust,” explained Sandy Vargas, a member of the Rainforest Alliance’s sustainable landscapes team, at the conference. “Our strategy is to look for existing sustainability initiatives in Costa Rica and work together to find a solution to Thecla basilides infestations.”
Throughout the meeting, the group discussed a variety of options for combating the pest. Gerardo Agüero, a technical services supervisor at the Caribbean’s Agribusiness Banana Plantation, noted “[Applying one agrochemical] is not always the best control.” His plantation has been working to fight Thecla basilides by installing red screens, which attract the borer-carrying butterflies.
A number of other suggestions were made, including:
- Applying safer agrochemicals in rotation.
- Using repellents, such as Surround WP (a sustainable organic pest control product).
- Releasing parasitoids (parasites which eventually kill their host).
- Limiting the presence of heliconia (which play host to the hecla basilides-carrying butterflies)
- Using biological pest controls. With this method—which has been effective in combating other pests–the butterfly’s pheromones and allelochemicals would be insulated as a means of control.
- Introducing microbial controls.
“We have to remember that these insects adapted to the pineapple monoculture when their habitats began to decrease,” emphasize Helga Blanco, an entomologist from the Center of Investigations on Culture Protection at the University of Costa Rica. In other words: we created the very problem that we are now working to remedy.
The meeting offered a number of potential solutions, but there is still much left to be discussed and decided. For farmers, the real feasibility of these solutions will not be known for some time. The Rainforest Alliance plans to convene another meeting soon to continue the discussion.
Learn more about the Rainforest Alliance’s work in pineapples.