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  • Food Systems in an Unequal World: Pesticides, Vegetables, and Agrarian Capitalism in Costa Rica by Ryan E. Galt
  • Gary S. Elbow
Food Systems in an Unequal World: Pesticides, Vegetables, and Agrarian Capitalism in Costa Rica. Ryan E. Galt. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014. xi + 291 pp., maps, tables, diagrs., photos, notes, appendices, and index. $55.00 cloth (ISBN 9780816506033).

Reading this book reminded me of a photograph I took around 1984 of a young Indian man spraying snow peas near Chimaltenango, Guatemala. I asked him what chemical he was using and he told me it was a combination of three different products, but he could not identify them. He wore no protective gear and, I suspect, was pretty clueless about the toxicity of the chemicals. A few weeks ago I was in a local grocery store and I saw bagged snow peas for sale. I was tempted to purchase them until I looked at their origin—Guatemala. I did not buy them.

These experiences relate directly to the theme of Ryan Galt’s book, which is an investigation into pesticide use in Costa Rica’s primary vegetable producing area. Based largely on research conducted in 2003-2004, this book challenges the general belief that a positive relationship exists between vegetable exports and intensity of pesticide use. Geographers, however, may be more intrigued by Galt’s account of the intricate relationships among environmental factors, farmers’ access to markets and economic and land resources, and their use of pesticides on vegetable crops.

The study area is Cartago Province, and specifically the Ujarrás valley and Northern Cartago on the southern slope of Irazú volcano. This study area exhibits a wide range of elevation and humidity conditions that contribute to explaining spatial variations in pesticide application. Data to support assertions in the book were gathered using a “multi-method political ecological” approach that incorporated participant observation, interviews, library research, collecting data on pesticide application on different crops, environmental mapping, and other methods. Data were analyzed spatially to detect variations in crop type and pesticide application, which were plotted against environmental characteristics, market destination, contractual relationships, and access to land and economic resources.

The book is divided into six numbered chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion. It also contains appendices explaining the research methodology and providing detailed data on pesticide use collected from interviews with nearly 150 farmers. The introduction is the longest section of the book and discusses the disconnect between Costa Rica’s reputation as a country whose people value and encourage environmental conservation and its agriculture sector standing as “the world’s most pesticide intensive.” The introduction continues, discussing the arguments for and against the necessity to use pesticides in industrial agriculture, and concludes with a review of political ecology as the framework through which the research is structured.

Chapters 1 to 3 focus on the ecological and socioeconomic conditions in the study area and their relationship to pesticide use in vegetable production. Access to pesticides has allowed agriculture to expand into marginal ecological areas, where it would not otherwise be profitable. Thus, farmers become engaged in what Galt refers to as a Faustian bargain in which they become dependent on pesticides to maintain production. In Northern Cartago, this process allowed farmers to convert cloud forest to vegetable production. Continued [End Page 241] production depends on use of increasingly more expensive pesticides in greater quantities, which reduces profits.

However, some farmers who live in the cloud forest zone have sufficient resources to acquire access to land in drier and less plant disease prone areas. Because of the more favorable environmental conditions, the level of pesticide use in vegetable production is considerably lower than for poorer farmers who cannot afford to acquire access or travel to land outside of the cloud zone. This cycle affects production costs and allows the more economically favored farmers to offset higher land costs with increased productivity, reduced pesticide expenses and guaranteed export market prices.

Chapter 3 recounts the agricultural history of the study area. Vegetable production began as early as 1910 in the Ujarrás valley and reached a peak of production for local markets in the 1970s, based on heavy inputs of...


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