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Food Systems in an Unequal World

Pesticides, Vegetables, and Agrarian Capitalism in Costa Rica

Ryan E. Galt

Publication Year: 2014

Pesticides, a short-term aid for farmers, can often be harmful, undermining the long-term health of agriculture, ecosystems, and people. The United States and other industrialized countries import food from Costa Rica and other regions. To safeguard the public health, importers now regulate the level and types of pesticides used in the exporters’ food production, which creates “regulatory risk” for the export farmers. Although farmers respond to export regulations by trying to avoid illegal pesticide residues, the food produced for their domestic market lacks similar regulation, creating a double standard of pesticide use.

Food Systems in an Unequal World examines the agrochemical-dependent agriculture of Costa Rica and how its uneven regulation in export versus domestic markets affects Costa Rican vegetable farmers. Examining pesticide-dependent vegetable production within two food systems, the author shows that pesticide use is shaped by three main forces: agrarian capitalism, the governance of food systems throughout the commodity chain, and ecological dynamics driving local food production. Those processes produce unequal outcomes that disadvantage less powerful producers who have more limited choices than larger farmers, who usually have access to better growing environments and thereby can reduce pesticide use and production costs.
Despite the rise of alternative food networks, Galt says, persistent problems remain in the conventional food system, including widespread and intensive pesticide use. Facing domestic price squeezes, vegetable farmers in Costa Rica are more likely to supply the national market with produce containing residues of highly toxic pesticides, while using less toxic pesticides on exported vegetables. In seeking solutions, Galt argues for improved governance and research into alternative pest control but emphasizes the process must be rooted in farmers’ economic well-being.

Published by: University of Arizona Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-2

Writing is inevitably a social endeavor—not just because it is communication but also because the author is supported by a large network of people. My largest debt is to the farmers of Northern Cartago and the Ujarrás Valley. Their interest and hospitality was truly remarkable, and I...

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Introduction: Pesticide Problems, Pesticide Paradoxes

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pp. 3-39

Arturo Aguilar1 stands in front of me in his agrochemical storeroom. I’ve just arrived at his farm near Paraíso in Cartago Province, Costa Rica. He takes a swig from an unlabeled bottle full of a brown liquid that he periodically sprays on his vegetable and herb crops. I’m horrified, being well...

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1. Farm Households, Environmental Geography, and Agrarian Capitalism

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pp. 40-66

In October 2003 while I was conducting my fieldwork, Costa Rican news outlets reported a disturbing event: elementary schoolchildren in El Yas, a small town a few kilometers south of where I was living, were poisoned by methamidophos—an acutely toxic organophosphate insecticide...

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2. Socioeconomic Differentiation and Geographies of Nature

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pp. 67-87

Nelson, the farmer who first described the cloud belt to me (chapter 1), is the largest farmer of minisquash in my survey. He resides and owns agricultural land in Cipreses but refuses to plant his vegetable crops in the Cipreses area because of the large quantities of pesticides needed. Instead...

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3. An Environmental History of Agricultural Industrialization

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pp. 88-119

Ernesto is in his seventies and still walks to his farm and works his land every day because he loves doing it. During our discussion, we sit in his high-elevation field overlooking the southern flank of Volcán Irazú, purple cabbages for national market dotting the dark, fertile, friable volcanic...

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4. Policing Pesticides

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pp. 120-151

Ricky Montaldo, a vegetable export firm manager, leads me into the small room packed with papers that serves as his office. He has kindly agreed to talk with me and is interested in my research in part because little precise information about U.S. regulation is readily available to him...

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5. Regulatory Risk and the Temptations of Methamidophos

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pp. 152-170

For one of my first farmer surveys, I was searching for José Méndez, a medium-scale farmer who produces minisquash and green beans for export. I found him working in one of his squash fields. A very cheerful guy, José seemed genuinely happy to meet with me. As I called out to him...

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6. “It Just Goes to Kill Ticos”

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pp. 171-204

On a rare cloud-free morning in 2003 I visited the farm of Manuel, who produces chayote for export and other vegetables sold on the national market. He showed me that he washes his chayote in clean wash bins dedicated solely to the task, as required by the exporter that contracts...

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Conclusion: A Green Agriculture for the Green Republic?

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pp. 205-217

I met Jorge Martínez in his potato field near his retail plant nursery in Pacayas, where he grows starts of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and other crops for farmers in the area. He showed me around his farm, noting the many organic production methods: California earthworms create worm...

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Appendix 1: Study Methodology

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pp. 218-228

My hope in detailing my methodology and precise methods is for others to use them and improve upon them as they seek to understand the ways in which agrarian capitalism, food system regulation, and ecological processes shape and are shaped by farmers’ production practices and livelihoods...

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Appendix 2: Detailed Pesticide Data

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pp. 229-236

Figures A.1 and A.2 show detailed data about farmers’ pesticide use on specific crops. Table A.1 provides the chemical class names specified as abbreviations in the figures. I constructed the figures based on Tufte’s (1983, 1995) principles of data presentation, including allowing for...


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pp. 237-246

Glossary of Pesticide Terms

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pp. 247-250


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pp. 251-283


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pp. 284-291

About the Author

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p. 292

E-ISBN-13: 9780816598908
E-ISBN-10: 0816598908
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816506033
Print-ISBN-10: 0816506035

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 6 photos, 14 illust, 20 tables
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 874965532
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Food Systems in an Unequal World

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Farmers -- Health and hygiene -- Costa Rica.
  • Pesticides -- Government policy -- Costa Rica.
  • Agriculture -- Economic aspects -- Costa Rica.
  • Agricultural laborers -- Health and hygiene -- Costa Rica.
  • Farmers -- Costa Rica -- Social conditions.
  • Pesticides -- Health aspects -- Costa Rica.
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