Pining for a Better Pineapple
Short, spiky, and succulent, pineapples are popular the world over. They top pizzas and piña coladas, and also serve as a motif for home decor, reminiscent of warm days, tropical breezes, and refreshing drinks. Far from being a rare treat enjoyed mainly in warm climes, pineapples can be found at your local grocery store in large quantities, in fresh, frozen, or canned form. How did such a unique tropical fruit become so common on the shelves of Canadian supermarkets, thousands of miles from where they’re grown?
Pineapples are one of the world’s most economically significant crops. Close to 25 million tons of the fruit is grown on a yearly basis, with Costa Rica, Brazil, and the Philippines leading the pack in annual production.
Having started with bananas, Equifruit, a Canadian-based Fairtrade-certified fruit importer, is looking to change the status quo for this delicious fruit by introducing Fairtrade pineapples to the national market. It’s not as much of a leap as it may initially seem. Believe it or not, the banana industry is closely linked to pineapple cultivation and harvest. Some of the biggest names in conventional pineapple exports—like Dole and Del Monte—are also banana producers. Pineapples are often grown on land previously used for banana cultivation, and companies use similar distribution methods to bring pineapples to North America. And like bananas, conventional pineapple production is rife with exploitation, with large corporations taking advantage of workers and the environment.
Challenges in Conventional Pineapple Production
Tending pineapple crops is a backbreaking task. Workers spend the day hunched over—since the plants grow low to the ground—without the benefit of tree cover to bring relief from the sun. Because of the difficulty involved in pineapple cultivation, in Costa Rica, these duties are usually left to migrant workers with limited employment options, many of whom have come illegally from neighbouring Nicaragua. Wages are low, jobs are insecure, and unionizing is strongly discouraged. These vulnerable workers are unlikely to speak out, regardless of poor working conditions, out of a fear of being laid off or deported.
Pineapple cultivation also requires a heavy dose of pesticides. In Costa Rica, pineapple growers apply toxic agrochemicals, to which repeated exposure can cause health issues and damage to the environment, effects that can extend beyond farms. There are reports of contaminated drinking water, with elevated rates of birth defects and serious illnesses, in areas surrounding pineapple plantations. In some cases, the government has had to supply affected communities with clean water.
By following standards for chemical use and employment conditions, Fairtrade pineapple farms strive to reduce the negative impacts associated with conventional production. Unfortunately, due to low demand and limited awareness, Fairtrade pineapples are mostly sold on the market at conventional prices. This means despite their commitment to producing a better, more responsible product, Fairtrade pineapple farmers are deriving no economic gain from these efforts.
Equifruit plans to change that. The company is currently working with an exporter in Costa Rica that purchases their fruit from farmer co-ops and distributes them through a major Canadian grocery chain.
“We want to make sure people are treated well across the supply chain,” says Michelle Gubbels, who manages Equifruit’s supply chains. A soft launch was completed in Quebec in May 2019, with plans to eventually expand across the country. But Equifruit isn’t stopping there. It’s also taken on the role of promotion, spreading awareness and touting the benefits of this great fruit when it’s fairly produced.
Along with ensuring better standards for workers and promoting Fairtrade pineapples, Equifruit has another mission: providing an option for shoppers. Consumers can’t be empowered to choose a better product if they don’t have the choice to begin with. So to that end, says Gubbels, “we want to give all Canadians access to Fairtrade fruit.” Equifruit hopes that with more awareness and the right options available, customers will reach for ethical, fairly traded fruit every time.
Author: Kimberly Leung is a Toronto-based freelance writer with a special interest in sustainable and ethical living.