The truth about Costa Rica's pesticide use

Agrochemicals are one area in which Costa Rica isn't so eco-friendly.

Costa Rica promotes itself as an environmentally friendly country, and in many ways the country deserves that reputation. One area where Costa Rica isn’t quite so green, however, is its use of agrochemicals.

A 2011 report from the United Nations, citing the World Resources Institute, said Costa Rica is the world’s largest consumer of pesticides:

In terms of the environment, Costa Rica paints itself green, like a fresh broccoli, before the international community. However, the overwhelming presence of pesticides in their agriculture demolishes that image.

The National University (UNA) reported in 2011 that Costa Rica had imported 184,817 metric tons of pesticides from 1977 to 2006. Per UNA:

Despite the recognized fact of the risks that the use of synthetic chemical substances pose to health and the environment, their number, far from diminishing, is increasing. … Costa Rica imports 12 million kilograms of active ingredients annually.

Since those studies, there are indications that pesticide use in Costa Rica has dropped. In 2017, the National Phytosanitary Service (SFE) said new regulations had halved agrochemical use to 10.2 kg per hectare, though the country’s State of the Nation Program deemed this “inadequate” and “not monitored by any institution.”1

The OECD, in a 2017 review of Costa Rican agriculture policies, highlighted agrochemicals as an area of necessary improvement:

Extensive use of agrochemicals – which are often obsolete – is one factor underlying soil degradation, a significant barrier to sustainable productivity growth. … Nevertheless, the country has increased its efforts to curb the overuse of inputs and to decrease their impact on water and soil.

Health concerns with pesticides

Agriculture plays an important role in Costa Rica’s economy, contributing more than 4% of GDP in 2019. Agrochemicals help to prevent unwanted pests and plants and are a necessity to many Costa Rican farmers who operate on razor-thin profit margins.

At the same time, many agrochemicals are associated with health concerns, from acute reactions (nausea, dizziness, etc.) to chronic diseases like certain types of cancer.

Given Costa Rica’s high pesticide use, what effect has this had on the country’s health?2

In 2017, the share of Costa Ricans with cancer reached 1.34%, above the average for Latin American countries (0.84%) but essentially at the global level (1.31%).3 4 Life expectancy in Costa Rica (79.6 years) remains well above the Latin American average (74.9), and, for that matter, the United States (78.9).

Even if population health isn’t apparently too seriously affected, acute cases are persistent and alarming. In 2010, 146 people in Costa Rica were treated for “accidental poisoning from exposure to pesticides” (and 12 died). More than a dozen schoolchildren were poisoned in 2019.

The UN in 2011 warned of possible chemical contamination in Costa Rica’s drinking water, a prediction which has come true numerous times5. In at least one instance, Costa Rican authorities didn’t alert the public after detecting high levels of Bromacil — a possible carcinogen — in drinking water.

If you eat Costa Rican produce, this affects you, too. A 2019 study of fruits and vegetables found that one-fifth (19.5%) of those grown in Costa Rica exceeded maximum permissible pesticide content. In comparison, just 0.7% of produce imported to Costa Rica was non-compliant.

What to do about it

If you live in rural Costa Rica, contact your local water association (ASADA) to inquire about recent water-quality studies in your area. Urban households are more likely serviced by the Acueductos y Alcantarillados (AyA) network, which runs a lab that monitors water quality.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends the following for reducing pesticide intake:

  • Wash and scrub all fresh fruits and vegetables under running water. Running water has an abrasive effect that soaking does not have.

  • Peel fruits and vegetables when possible to reduce dirt, bacteria, and pesticides. Discard outer leaves of leafy vegetables.

  • Eat a variety of foods, from a variety of sources, to reduce your likelihood of exposure to a single pesticide.

And, of course, keep yourself, your children and your pets away from areas being treated with pesticides. Which, in Costa Rica, is just about every hectare of farmland.

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1

This story was updated after its publication with this paragraph, which is based on a 2017 OECD report.

2

No conversation about pesticide use in Central America is complete without exploring the impacts caused by U.S. fruit companies. In the 1960s and beyond, these companies exposed tens of thousands of people in Costa Rica to dangerous chemicals even after they had been banned in the United States. But that’s an article for another day. 

3

Proving a direct link between agrochemicals and population health is difficult, especially when it comes to cancer. After all, “cancer” encompasses more than 100 different diseases, and genes, lifestyle choices and environmental factors all play a role.

4

It’s worth noting that Costa Rican farm workers — who come in closer regular contact with pesticides — have been shown to have higher cancer rates, leading to an “increased cancer incidence in the most rural areas of Costa Rica” per a 1997 study.

5

Among the most recent incidents: In 2020, more than 2,000 people were without running water for two days after a study found unsafe levels of the banned agrochemical Bromacil in their drinking water. New imports of Bromacil have been banned since 2017, but the government has allowed companies to finish using their existing reserves.