Ecuador's pineapple industry confronts slippery snail predicament
The Ecuadorian pineapple industry is battling an unprecedented snail outbreak that threatens to put a large percentage of growers out of business if it can't be controlled. Three years ago, Chilean authorities started sending back shipments of the fruit when the mollusks were detected, but the problem has worsened with 27 containers rejected in 2011. By June this year the figure had already reached 23, but the industry has been working on a solution. Association of Pineapple Growers of Ecuador (Asopiña) president Roberto Castillo tells www.freshfruitportal.com a viable treatment method should be ready by the December wet season but eradication is off the cards.
When the first snails were detected by Chilean inspectors in pineapple crowns the Ecuadorian response identified the wrong species, and understandably so.
An outbreak of amphibious apple snails had already brought damages to the country's rice farmers but had not impacted on pineapple crops. However, imports of Giant African land snails for the cosmetic industry had led to an outbreak in the pineapple-growing Santo Domingo region, and it was widely believed they were the culprit.
"Our original suspicion was that it had to do with the African snail, as there was a blight, and we had never had problems before this snail arrived in the country," Castillo says.
"So with Agrocalidad (Ecuadorian Agency for Quality Assurance) and Asopiña, we started to analyze the issue to see what measures we could take with our technical committee to suggest different alternatives to combat this snail.
"In the process, I took the liberty of calling a malacologist from the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) called David Robinson - he indicated the problem was a bit more complicated than we had thought."
Robinson had actually traveled to Ecuador previously and documented an unclassified Succinea genus of snail that was endemic in the country. According to Castillo the pest still doesn't have an official name.
"We started to try the different treatments for combating the giant African snail, and finally we realized they weren’t viable for our snail.
"There is a trap with bait that is very good for controlling African snails, but for ours it doesn’t do anything. Our snails avoid these traps."
The task was then to study the biology of the snail and different treatment methods.
"We have established some biological characteristics and have progressed in finding control methods; for now we have four methods that are very effective, but there is a problem in the area of application. For example, when fumigate on the field you do so from above, but these snails have learned to put themselves below the leaves to avoid the fumigation.
"We are advancing with this and there are some treatments we know that work well and we are getting closer and closer. I think by December, which is the wet season when there are ideal conditions for the snails to reproduce, we will have a solution to try and contain the snail.
"We cannot eliminate it though and we have to learn to live with it."
The Chilean alternative
Phytosanitary representatives from Chile's Agriculture and Livestock Service (SAG) visited Ecuador two months ago and have established an in-country inspection system with Agrocalidad to prevent further rejections on arrival. In discussions with Chilean authorities, Castillo was assured there was no rejection limit where Chile would halt imports altogether.
"They are very satisfied with the progress we have made. Agrocalidad has worked in a master work plan to combat and control with the treatments we have at hand for snails, for example keeping drainage and paths clean, not leaving decomposing material near crops."
Chile has risen in status as an export destination for Ecuadorian pineapples, increasing its share from around 10% five years ago to around 35% now. The remaining volumes are sent to Europe.
"The reason why Chile is so important for us in Ecuador is that the pineapple is a very difficult crop, and currently markets are oversupplied, which means the trade is very affected.
"In the last five years we have seen a regression of around 50-60% of the cultivated area for pineapples in Ecuador, mainly because in the U.S. and Europe the pineapple trade has been so affected that there was not much business anymore for many pineapple growers in Ecuador to keep sending to those destinations.
"So the amount of pineapple growers decreased and Chile started to become a very attractive market."
Chile's attraction lies in a shorter transit time of around five days, compared to two to three weeks for a shipment to reach Europe. The other advantage is the lack of competition.
"The biggest pineapple grower in the world is Costa Rica, and Costa Rica practically doesn’t have a presence in Chile, so we are basically without competition there, which has made it a very attractive alternative for Ecuadorian pineapple growers who can’t keep shipping to Europe because of the low profitability.
Implications for Northern Hemisphere markets
Castillo says the "curious part" of the situation is that there were only one or two rejections of pineapples shipments in the U.S. last year, while highlighting that these countries are much stricter with imports than Chile's SAG.
"Neither in Europe nor in the United States have we had a significant presence of snails.
"I don’t know if it’s the short transit period to Chile that allows the snail to live, or if the long transit time to Europe and the United States means the snail dies.
"We have researched this issue greatly but we don't have the answer."