For my blog, I am researching the production of Costa Rican pineapple, bananas, and coffee, with a particular emphasis on farming and harvesting. Along with the processes themselves, I’m also analyzing the environmental and societal impacts of these crops while conducting a preliminary, qualitative life cycle analysis. This is the information I have found so far, so you will probably notice some gaps, but hopefully I will have those filled after additional literature review and on-site research.
Pineapple plants are perennial bromeliads that grow from a thick crown close to the ground. They usually reach a height of four feet and their stiff, pointy leaves can grow up to three feet in length. The pineapple fruit is actually a mass of individual berries fused to the central stalk. The leaves at the top of the fruit represent the continued growth of the stalk beyond where the berries are attached (Ombrello).
Figure 1 (left) – Pineapple diagram, retrieved from http://www.geochembio.com/biology/organisms/ananas/
Figure 2 (right) – Cut pineapple stalk, retreived from http://insidenanabreadshead.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/pineapple-harvest-4.jpg
As seen in the picture above from GeoChemBio.com, the pineapple plant is composed of the central stem and several off-shoots. The crown is the shoot on top of the fruit, the slips are side shoots produced below the fruit, and suckers are side shoots that develop lower on the stalk. Suckers that grow above ground are called hapas, while suckers that grow at or below ground level are called ratoons. Pineapples are not regrown from seeds, but any of these shoots can be taken and replanted to grow a new pineapple plant. Different types of shoots grow new plants in different time periods (Ananas comosus, pineapple).
There are over 2000 species of pineapples, which are almost exclusively indigenous to the tropical Americas, with a single species native to Africa (Ombrello).
In Costa Rica, pineapple production is an extremely important source of economic growth. In the last decade, land dedicated to growing pineapple increased by 300% and recent increases (2009-2013) have been due to improvement in yields, not increases in area planted. In 2010, pineapples $678 million in 2010 according to the Costa Rican Foreign Trade Promotion Office and is ranked 2nd on Costa Rica’s list of exports, after bananas and before coffee. The pineapple industry also directly or indirectly provides 135,000 jobs and helps support 550,000 people (Pineapple Producers Reap…).
Costa Rica accounts for 35% of the world’s pineapple production. The US imports about 50% of Costa Rican pineapple exports, while Europe imports close to 47%. Additional recent statistics and articles about Costa Rican pineapples can be found on CentralAmericanData.com:
Now these are some cool statistics, but I know the question everyone wants answered: where on Earth did the name ‘pineapple’ come from!? Well according to Dr. T. Ombrello of the UCC Biology Department, it all began when Christopher Columbus first brought the pineapple back from Guadeloupe. None of the Spaniards knew what to make of this odd fruit, but they thought it resembled a pine cone, so the Spanish dubbed it the ‘Pine of the Indies.’ Meanwhile, the English believed it was better compared to an apple, because of its sweet fruits. Thus, the term ‘pineapple’ was derived from the combination of the Spanish ‘piña,’ for pine cone, and the English ‘apple.’ Isn’t etymology great?
Life Cycle Overview
- Planting: The seed materials used are typically the sucker shoots of the previous crop. During the first year, the plant stores up starch in its central stem.
- Since pineapples are bromeliads, so soil nutrients are only important for the first 1 – 3 months. After this, the plants get nutrients solely from their leaves.
- A nightly drop in temperature triggers flower formation, and the fruit matures 6 to 7 months after flowering (Ananas comosus, pineapple).
- Pineapples don’t naturally produce fruit simultaneously, so it has become common practice to apply compressed acetylene gas, a spray of calcium carbide solution, or naphtalenacetic acid (NA). These induce the formation of ethylene or acetylene, both of which promote uniform flowering.
- Established pineapples require regular fertilization applied to the foliage. Pesticides and fungicides are also added about every month and a half (Brenes, 2015).
Figure 4 – Freshly planted pineapples, retrieved from http://antiekllc.com/growing-pineapple-from-top
Figure 5 – Full potted pineapple plant, retrieved from http://wierdling.longboys.net/images/pineapples/pineapple2_6.jpg
- Harvesting: Each plant produces one fruit at the top of its stem, and this first harvest is called the ‘plant’ crop. After the plant crop is harvested, several suckers develop and produce a lower-quality ‘ratoon’ crop after one year. Though more pineapple will develop after the ratoon crop, these usually produce a low yield and small fruit, so the cycle is typically renewed after the first ratoon crop (Ombrello).
- The fruit is thought to be ready for harvest when all the eyes (individual berries) are filled, when the bottom of the fruit has a yellow ring, and when the fruit meets the standards of the buyer.
- Typically, the pineapple crop operates on a 4-year crop cycle with one plant crop, one ratoon crop and 6-9 months of land preparation as the fields are plowed up and replanted.
- Pineapples are harvested by hand and transported to packing facilities for further processing.
Figure 6 – Manual harvesting of pineapple, retrieved from http://archives.thestar.com.my/archives/2006/6/24/southneast/se_06pineapples1.jpg
Processing: Most pineapple processing plants employ automized systems, but some still rely primarily on manual labor (Brenes, 2015).
- First, pineapple come into the plant and are washed in chlorine water to kill bacteria, then rinsed again with pure water.
- Pineapples are sampled from each batch, and sugar content is measured on the brix scale.
- The brix value must be 14 or higher, which is about average for pineapple according to Healthy-Vegetable-Garden.com. Pineapples of lower brix values are sold locally.
- The pineapple color and overall appearance is also analyzed, and calories of the sample pineapples are measured in a calorimeter.
- Next, the pineapples are sorted into first, second, and unacceptable quality.
- Unacceptable quality pineapples are unable to be used whole, but are processed further to make juice or dehydrated pineapple.
- Second quality has some deformation in the crown, so the crown is cut off and the pineapples are shipped that way.
- First quality are perfect and are shipped crown and all.
- Then, pineapples are waxed on the outside to stop transpiration and ensure an aesthetic sheen, and fungicide is applied to the crown.
- The pineapple is ventilated to dry, then separated by weight to be boxed. Each box must weigh 26 lb, but a different number of pineapples may be shipped in the same box to achieve this weight
- For first quality pineapples, the fruits are selected so either 5 or 10 pineapples will fit in each box
- For second quality pineapples, the fruits are selected so either 6 or 8 pineapples will fit in each box.
- Before shipping, the fruit is refrigerated for 4 hours, going from about 20 to 11 degrees C.
- Boxes are designed with specialized holes for ventilation.
- Boxes are stacked to fit in the truck to be transported to the port.
- Usually, 65-75 boxes will fit in one pallet, and around 20 pallets will fit in each truck.
More in-depth descriptions and pictures of the pineapple plant, growing conditions, and life cycle can be found on GeoChemBio.com:
I also found this video on Youtube posted by Del Monte, and I think it provides an excellent summary of the entire pineapple production process (most of which you’ll recognize from our tours):
Environmental and Societal Impacts
Because Costa Rica’s pineapple sector is growing steadily, concerns about environmental and social impact are coming to the forefront. Conflicts between producers and exporters have been mounting due to issues of ecosystem destruction, agrochemical runoff, erosion, waste management, and trade union rights violations.
These interviews, posted by BananaLink, include stories of the environmental impacts of pineapple production on individuals and communities in Costa Rica, and shed more light on the issues that must be addressed:
However, action is being taken on the part of governmental and non-governmental parties to alleviate these problems. One example is the National Platform for the Responsible Production and Trade of Pineapple in Costa Rica that launched in June 2011. This platform seeks to bring together large and small producers, buyers (like Dole, Chiquita, Del Monte, and Walmart), research institutions, non-governmental organizations, and local grass-roots groups to tackle modern environmental issues. Its major themes are sustainable production, responsibility and action of state, and alliances within pineapple supply chain actors. Establishing 12 lines of action to be carried out in the coming five years, this policy will help counteract some of the unsustainable practices plaguing the pineapple industry (Costa Rica: The National Platform…).
Another positive force dedicated to sustainability and biodiversity is Rainforest Alliance. This international nonprofit organization offers a rigorous certification program representing a commitment to sustainability and Sustainable Agricultural Network guidelines. This includes a pledge to reduce use of agrochemicals, avoid soil erosion, stop water pollution, manage waste, protect wildlife habitats, and ensure workers are trained in safety procedures and provided with protective equipment. Dozens of Costa Rican pineapple producers have earned the Rainforest Alliance Certified™ seal, which equates to over 18,500 acres of farms. Certification also helps small growers protect their land and workers, since other agricultural development foundations, like Proagroin, support farmers who pursue sustainability. Even large corporations, like Chiquita Brands International, have encouraged their growers to become certified (Pineapple Producers Reap…).
With some additional research, I found an article about a company, Upala Agricola, that seeks to expand its market while ensuring the health of surrounding protected forests. It also goes into some interesting philosophies on the economic side of crop production. The link is as follows:
From my initial assessment after researching the topic and talking to pineapple producers in Costa Rica, I would conclude that a majority of the ecological concerns stem from the growing phase of pineapple production. With the large input of fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides and the large disturbance caused by digging up crop land and replanting every couple years, it seems that growing pineapples could use some engineered improvements to reduce cost to the environment, as well as the producer and eventual consumer. The processing side seems to produce a fair amount of residuals, but these are either fed to cattle, burned, buried, or used in the next planting cycle (in the case of crowns), with a majority used for the former option. While many companies are working to become more sustainable, as shown by approval of agencies like Rainforest Alliance, there is a lot more work that needs to be done to minimize erosion, decrease chemical use and nutrient pollution, and preserve the health of surrounding ecological systems while maintaining economic and social stability.
Ananas comosus, pineapple. GeoChemBio.com. <http://www.geochembio.com/biology/organisms/ananas/ >
Brenes, Mauricio (2015). Groupo Pelon.
Chamber of Pineapple Producers and Exporter (Costa Rica). CentralAmericaData.com. <http://www.centralamericadata.com/en/search?q1=content_en_le:%22Chamber+of++Pineapple+Producers+and+Exporter+%28Costa+Rica%29%22>
Costa Rica: The National Platform for Responsible Production and Trade of Pineapple. United Nations Development Programme. <http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/ourwork/environmentandenergy/projects_and_initiatives/green-commodities-programme/projects/pineapple/>
Costa Rican pineapple company to double cultivation (2011). freshfruitportal.com. <http://www.freshfruitportal.com/2011/11/01/costa-rican-pineapple-company-to-double-cultivation/?country=united%20states>
Ingwersen, Wesley W. (2012). Life cycle assessment of fresh pineapple from Costa Rica. Journal of Cleaner Production, 32.
Ombrello, T. The Pineapple. UCC Biology Department. <http://faculty.ucc.edu/biology-ombrello/POW/pineapple.htm>
Pineapple Producers Reap the Benefits of Sustainable Farming. Rainforest Alliance. http://www.rainforest-alliance.org/sites/default/files/publication/pdf/pineapple_fact_sheet_en_hz_jun11.pdf
Use the Brix Scale Below to Measure Vegetable Quality. Healthy-Vegetable-Gardening.com. http://www.healthy-vegetable-gardening.com/brix-scale.html
The banana plant is the largest herbaceous flowering plant in the world. Because of the plant’s size, it is often mistaken for a tree, but the ‘trunk’ is actually a large pseudostem. And while we’re being technical, the banana is botanically a berry (isn’t that adorable). There is also some confusion between the term ‘banana’ and ‘plantain.’ Though there isn’t a major difference between the two, ‘banana’ is usually used to refer to sweeter fruits that are consumed uncooked, while ‘plantain’ is used to describe starchier fruits that are cooked before eating. For some final fun terms, a single banana on the plant is called a ‘finger,’ and bananas grow in groups of 20 called ‘hands.’ A large group of hands forms a ‘banana stem’ or the well-known ‘bunch’ (The Biology of the Banana). So, little did you know that bananas were a bunch of bent berries blatantly branching off a big bogus beech stem.
Figure 11 – Wild banana tree, photograph by Jackie Thelen
Apart from my annoying alliteration, bananas are native to the South Pacific and, like pineapples, reproduce asexually via shoots. Farmers typically use vegetative propagation, planting the shoots of previous plants to grow the next crop.
Fun fact (are you sick of these yet?) – Bananas, when cooked, are roughly equivalent calorically and nutritionally to potatoes. If you don’t believe me, check this website put out by UCSC on the biology of the banana:
Banana fruit, in addition to being part of a balanced breakfast, can also be used to make banana flour, chips, and even beer (not recommended for a balanced breakfast). Banana leaves can also be used as plates or containers for cooking, or they can be dried and woven into roofing materials or fabrics for textiles (The Biology of the Banana).
The most common bananas grown in Costa Rica are the famous Cavendish—known as the ‘world’s best banana’—and the Gran Enano Valery (Aguilar). There’s actually a bit of interesting history behind the latter species that I’d like to bring up here. According to Carlos Hernandez and Scott Witter (1996), Costa Rica was regularly exporting bananas to the United States by 1879, and production exploded as bananas entered the global market.
However, unregulated exploitation strategies eventually took severe tolls on banana yields. When the infamous Panama banana disease struck, farmers began abandoning their plantations at an alarming rate. In 1956, the Costa Rican government invested in banana production with hopes of shifting the process towards a more efficient and sustainable system. It was at this time that the Valery banana clone was introduced, which was resistant to the Panama disease, produced increased yields, and generated favorable products. However, this species requires immense amounts of chemicals as well as field management and processing. Though the Valery appeared to be the solution to the major issues of the time, its wide-spread use effectively transformed the banana industry from one of low chemical input to one of huge chemical dependency. One can only imagine what kinds of long-term effects this change brought (the suspense).
In terms of economics, banana export represents almost 6% of Costa Rica’s GDP. No other exported commodity has a greater contribution to foreign currency income in Costa Rica, yet less than 1% of the country’s territory is devoted to banana cultivation (Hernandez & Witter). About 48% of this industry is in the hands of small producers, while the rest lies with the large companies we would recognize like Chiquita and Del Monte. Despite being Costa Rica’s top crop export, an article by J. Aguilar of CORBANA mentions that the uncontrolled expansion of the banana industry may be saturating the market. CORBANA is a public entity promoting research of Costa Rica’s banana industry. Aguilar emphasizes that Costa Rica can’t compete with the wages of workers from other countries. He believes that consumers need to be aware of the value added to Costa Rican bananas due to ethical, social, and environmental policies so the national banana market can grow while maintaining good business practices. So, though bananas represent a larger market share than pineapples, the industry seems to be reaching a peak.
Figure 16 – CORBANA ad. Retrieved from https://cr2012studyabroad.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/corbana-main.jpg
Life Cycle Overview
- Planting: Rivers from mountains carry volcanic rock sediments, some of which are ideal for high-production banana plantations, and deposit them in the lowlands like the Atlantic coastal plains. Plantations are located on sites with little or no slope and require complex drainage systems to remove excess water (Hernandez & Witter).
- Bananas grow from a bulb or rhizome, and this process is sometimes controlled by the farmer via vegetative propagation. Bananas grow all year round, with no definite growing season (The Biology of the Banana).
- As mentioned earlier, significant amounts of fertilizer are required to maintain commercial production rates.
- Since plants are genetically identical, major diseases like the Panama Disease and Banana Bunchy Top Virus can be devastating for the entire plantation
- Industrial banana farming is pesticide-intensive. One method is enclosing banana bunches in large plastic bags and adding pesticides.
- Bananas are sometimes grown in monocultures without crop rotation, which makes them more susceptible to insects and fungal disease (Lunder, 2014).
- Harvest: Farmers replant suckers after a series of fruiting cycles because disease builds up over time and leads to lower yields. The plants are usually harvested by picking teams, ensuring that the bananas are treated gently to avoid bruising and well-washed to prevent contamination. Bananas are picked green to make sure they are evenly colored after shipping (The Biology of the Banana).
Figure 19 – Banana bunch, photograph by Jackie Thelen
- Processing: The bananas undergo minimal processing, besides washing and transport. They are shipped at low temperatures to keep them from ripening too quickly.
Figure 20 – Banana washing (left) and packaging (right), photographs by Jackie Thelen
Environmental and Societal Impacts
As I alluded to earlier, the large amounts of chemicals required to sustain the modern banana crops are beginning to take a toll on the people and ecology of Costa Rica. An article by Sonya Lunder describes the potential effects this pesticide-intensive crop. According to Lunder, banana cultivators use 35 lbs of pesticide per acre to protect their plants from insects and disease. Besides the problems of agrochemical runoff and water pollution, Lunder discusses the risks to workers who have consistent exposure to the chemicals. She references a common insecticide, chlorpyrifos, as a potent neurotoxin that can impair cognitive functions in workers and is especially dangerous to children.
Another author, Kendra Worobetz, explains how the increase in banana production is leading to a decline in the biodiversity of Costa Rica. In addition to the agrochemical issues mentioned above, the growth of the banana industry can impact the environment due to poor waste disposal practices, erosion, and the expansion of plantations into natural habitats. According to Worobetz, the percentage of Costa Rican land covered by forest declined from 80% to 25% from 1945 to 1995. Though Costa Rica represents only 0.03% of Earth’s surface, it holds nearly 5% of the planet’s species. Because its biodiversity density, measured as species per unit area, is one of the highest in the world, the decrease in available habitats has huge effects on global biodiversity.
Figure 21 – Banana plantation (left), retrieved from http://image.shutterstock.com/display_pic_with_logo/341800/341800,1283970344,3/stock-photo-enormous-banana-plantation-at-la-palma-canary-islands-60611869.jpg. Deforestation near banana plantations (right), retrieved from http://college.monster.com/nfs/college/attachment_images/0006/1932/deforestCosta.jpg
These articles provide a few examples of areas where banana production could be improved to reduce its negative impacts on society and the environment.
Aguilar, J. Costa Rican bananas competing in a saturated world market. Freshplaza.com. <http://www.freshplaza.com/article/119001/Costa-Rican-bananas-competing-in-a-saturated-world-market>
The Biology of the Banana. Ucsc.edu. <http://cwh.ucsc.edu/bananas/Site/The%20Biology%20of%20the%20Banana.html >
Hernandez, Carlos E. & Witter, Scott G. (1996). Evaluating and Managing the Environmental Impact of Banana Production in Costa Rica: A Systems Approach. Ambio, 25 (3).
Lunder, Sonya (2014). Banana Cultivation Is Pesticide-Intensive. Environmental Working Group. <http://www.ewg.org/enviroblog/2014/04/bananas >
Worobetz, Kendra (2000). The Growth of the Banana Industry in Costa Rica and Its Effect on Biodiversity. Tripod.com. <http://members.tripod.com/foro_emaus/Growth.htm>
Coffee trees grow in a wide range of climates, with optimal conditions including mild temperatures, frequent rain, and shaded sun. The trees can grow more than 30 feet high, but are often pruned during cultivation. They are covered with dark green waxy leaves growing in pairs opposite each other. The coffee ‘cherries’ grow along the tree’s branches, and it takes almost a year after flowering for a cherry to mature. Because the trees grow in a continuous cycle, it is possible to see flowers, green fruit, and ripe fruit simultaneously on the same tree (All About Coffee).
Costa Rica is the 13th largest producer of coffee in the world, with about 1.5 million bags produced each year. About 90% of this coffee is exported, and the revenue accounts for about 11% of export earnings. Fair trade organizations, like Fairtrade International and Rainforest Alliance, work to get better rights and salaries for small farmers while promoting environmental, social, and economic sustainability (Coffee in Costa Rica).
Despite their efforts, coffee production is decreasing. In 2000, Costa Rica was producing 30 bushels per acre, but in 2013, their production dropped to 23 bushels/acre while the global average remained 30. According to an article posted by Nacion.com, this is most likely due to the age of the coffee plants. Well-maintained plants have average productive life spans of 30 years, and 40% of hectares of Costa Rican coffee plants are over this age. Some changes will be required if the coffee industry is expected to recover from this slump (Fall in Coffee Productivity…).
Life Cycle Overview
- Planting: Most coffee is grown in the San Jose, Alajuela, Puntarenas, Heredia, and Cartago provinces. These soils are volcanic, slightly acidic, and very fertile, and the climates are ideal for coffee (Coffee in Costa Rica).
- Unlike the previous two crops, coffee trees are reproduced by seeds (unprocessed coffee bean)
- It takes 3-4 years for newly planted coffee trees to bear fruit. The coffee cherries are bright red when ripe.
- Harvesting: Most coffee cherries are handpicked from plants, with usually one major harvest per year. The berries are taken to beneficios (processing plants).
- Processing: The coffee cherries are first washed and the pulp is removed. Afterwards, the beans are dried in a machine or by the sun (All About Coffee).
- If dried by the sun, the cherries must be raked and turned throughout the day and covered at night or in the rain to prevent spoilage. This process could continue for several weeks per batch.
When the moisture content drops to 11%, the dried cherries are moved to storage
- The beans are then sorted based on size and shape and sealed in bags for export. These are usually referred to as ‘green coffee.’
- Generally, 100 lbs of coffee cherries produce about 20 lbs of coffee beans.
- The beans are roasted in the import country to ensure the best flavor for consumers. They are continuously stirred in the roaster to prevent burning. In this process, called pyrolysis, the beans reach an internal temperature of about 400°F, turn brown, and release caffeol. This oil is responsible for the flavor and aroma of the coffee.
- After this, the beans are ground or brewed
- For more information and pictures, see the Santa Maria de Dota day blog
Here is a cool flow chart of the general coffee-making process (click to enlarge):
Environmental and Societal Impacts
An article by the Multilateral Investment Fund discusses an environmental issue of coffee production that had not surfaced to the same degree in the previous two crops studied: greenhouse gas emissions. Coffee farming generates 25% of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions in Costa Rica, and 9% of the country’s total emissions. To reduce this impact, a new technology package for farmers has been introduced that includes improvements in fertilizer application, denser agroforestry systems, spraying systems with smaller greenhouse gas emissions, and the use of gasification instead of firewood to fuel coffee dryers. The program even includes climate adaptation activities, such as increased tree cover and soil conservation to account for global climate change.
Another report by the Natural Resources Defense Council breaks down individual environmental effects of coffee production, though this information is not specific to Costa Rica. The report URL is below:
All About Coffee. National Coffee Association USA. <http://www.ncausa.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=67>
Coffee in Costa Rica. Anywhere in Costa Rica. <http://www.anywherecostarica.com/travel-guide/coffee>
Fall in Coffee Productivity in Costa Rica (2014). CentralAmericanData.com. <http://www.centralamericadata.com/en/article/home/Fall_in_Coffee_Productivity_in_Costa_Rica>
New technology for the Costa Rican coffee sector will be good for the environment and for productivity (2013). Multilateral Investment Fund. <http://www.fomin.org/en-us/HOME/News/Press-Releases/ArtMID/3819/ArticleID/903/New-technology-for-the-Costa-Rican-coffee-sector-will-be-good-for-the-environment-and-for-productivity>