Costa Rican pineapple volume climbs even higher

11/21/2008 12:00:00 AM
Tom Karst


Randall Arias (left), spokesman for Agromonte SA, Pital de San Carlos, Costa Rica, describes environmental measures the company has put in place to Alfonso Murillo, representative of Foreign Trade Corp. of Costa Rica, based in San Jose. The company uses extensive environmental buffers and drainage techniques to minimize erosion and environmental impact from pineapple cultivation.

(Nov. 21, 1:55 p.m.) European and North American consumers have contributed greatly to the gold pineapple’s popularity, leading to a rapid expansion in acreage in Costa Rica, a major supplier of the MD2 variety.

Now growers and marketers are working to make sure the explosive growth in pineapple production doesn’t strain Costa’s Rica’s pristine environment.

Costa Rica’s Environmental Tribunal raised an alarm this year that pineapple acreage — estimated at more 100,00 acres in 2007 compared with 30,000 acres in 2000 — could tax the country’s biodiversity and create pesticide residue in streams and rivers.

However, Costa Rica pineapple and agriculture industry sources say that producers are aggressively implementing sustainable agricultural practices to reduce erosion and continue reducing the carbon footprint of pineapple production.

Marty Ordman, marketing director for Dole Food Co. Inc., Westlake Village, Calif., said the company implemented carbon-neutral banana and pineapple programs in Costa Rica last season.

Abel Chaves of Agromonte SA, Pital de San Carlos, Costa Rica, and president of the National Pineapple Producer and Exporters Chamber, said of his company 4,940 acres 741 acres are used as environmental buffers. Chaves said members of the exporters’ group have signed on to 11 principles of social responsibility.

Manuel Sanchez, Agromonte general manager, said the company works with the Rainforest Alliance on environmental safeguards.

The expansion of pineapple production in Costa Rica has attracted some opportunistic players, said Dennis Christou, vice president of marketing in North America for Del Monte Fresh Produce Co. NA, Coral Gables, Fla.

“In particular, some new players might have chosen a quick financial return at the expense of the environment and local communities,” Christou said in an e-mail Nov. 20.

Christou said Del Monte’s Costa Rica operations were the first to be certified by independent third-party auditors for the ISO 4000 environmental standard.

Since 1998, he said Del Monte has participated on a voluntary basis in several national environmental programs, including Bandera Ecologica, a Costa Rican environmental compliance program sponsored and monitored by the Ministry of the Environment.

Eric Mora, researcher at the San Jose-based University of Costa Rica in San Jose, said conservationists are troubled by the fact pineapple needs to be managed with no natural ground cover. He said that use of herbicides on the crop has also raised concerns.

With the rising awareness of environmental issues, Mora said growers are becoming stricter with production practices, and organic acreage is growing.

“Organic pineapple is in a good position,” said Roger Vargas, controller for Proagroin, marketer of Costa Rica organic pineapples.

He said 35% to 40% of the company’s acreage is organic but there are plans to convert it all to organic within several years. The firm markets seven to 10 containers of organic pineapples a week, and about 60 of the company’s 100 growers are producing organic pineapples.

Pineapple boom

Fueled by the popularity of the MD2 variety — developed by Coral Gables, Fla.,-based
Fresh Del Monte Co. Inc. and now widely produced throughout the industry — U.S. per capita consumption of fresh pineapple has increased from 3 pounds in 1999 to 5 pounds a person in 2007.

The MD2 variety was developed in Hawaii by Del Monte, and the variety was first planted in Costa Rica during the late 1980s by Del Monte. Now available to all growers, it dominates exports from Costa Rica.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Costa Rica’s fresh pineapple exports to the U.S. increased from $80 million in 2004 to $372 million in 2007.

The U.S. accounted for 52% of Costa Rica’s1.8 million metric tons of pineapple exports in 2005, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Most pineapple industry leaders say that growth is expected to continue.

European demand for Costa Rica fruit has been growing rapidly, and current stats show the European market takes about 55% of Costa Rican pineapples compared with 45% for the U.S., Chaves said.

Chaves said acreage appears to be up 15% to 20% this year, and another 10% to 15% increase is possible next year.

While the industry may consolidate, he expects production to continue to trend upward for the foreseeable future.

Chaves said pineapple acreage has nearly doubled in less than five years, to 111,000 acres of pineapple.

However, Roberto Obando, director of an association of agricultural agronomists in Costa Rica, said there are reasons to suspect pineapple acreage growth will taper off in coming years.

Slower economic growth in the U.S., a renewed emphasis in Costa Rica agricultural policy on production of corn and beans and environmental pressures and possible new regulations on pineapple growers are factors that could slow acreage growth, he said.

Christou said the lack of expertise and financial backing for some new growers, combined with the credit crunch and economic slowdown, would likely accelerate their exit from the business.

Despite the economic challenges, Christou said Del Monte — the largest pineapple producer and exporter in Costa Rica — is well-positioned for future growth in demand for the Del Monte Gold variety, and he said Del Monte is also producing organic pineapples in Costa Rica.



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