The Pesticide Paradox: The Political Ecology of Vegetables and Global Food Regulation in Costa Rica

This project examines pesticide use and residues in the context of Caribbean Basin non-traditional agricultural exports (NTAEs) and national market integration. It is based on field studies in Northern Cartago and the Ujarrás Valley, Costa Rica. Quantitative and qualitative methods were employed, including 148 farmer surveys and produce buyer interviews. The project employs political ecology’s chain of explanation. Export firms interpret pesticide residue regulations seriously and control their contract farmers’ pesticide use through both advice and enforcement. Export farmers’ pesticide use practices in relation to residues are far more cautious than the literature suggests. Export farmers typically select the less residual synthetic pyrethroids and maximize time between spraying and harvest. Farmers producing exclusively for the national market are also more cautious concerning pesticide residues than the literature suggests. However, since there is minimal enforcement and residual pesticides are more effective, some national market farmers use pesticides proscribed for export on a regular basis, especially methamidophos, likely resulting in dangerous residues. The work identifies and explains the “pesticide paradox,” which is the finding that export crops are generally less pesticide intensive than national market crops in the study site. The agro-environmental history of the area reveals that national market vegetables were pesticide intensive by the 1950s, decades before the start of export production. Comparisons of pesticide intensity on the same crop produced for the national and export markets show that four export crops (carrot, chayote, green bean, and squash) are less pesticide intensive, while one export crop (corn) is more pesticide intensive. Findings demonstrate that markets and variety-pest interactions codetermine pesticide intensity. A geographical perspective on pesticide intensity shows that it varies over short distances in mountain environments and is especially high in cloud forest areas. Resource-rich farmers who live in the cloud belt move production out of it to lower their costs. An ordinary least squares regression analysis of crop- and field-specific pesticide intensity shows the joint importance of agency, structure, and agroecology in determining pesticide intensity. The work explores lessons for geography and political ecology, and makes policy recommendations in a number of venues.

Lead Investigator: 
Reciprocal Interactions
political ecology
Northern Cartago and Ujarrás Valley, Costa Rica
Temporal Scope: 
Spatial Scope: 
100 sq km + extra-local analysis
Natural System: 
land, soil, water, climate, etc., agriculture
Human System: 
agriculture, crops, markets, land access, regulation, pesticides, fertilizer