ORGANICALLY grown foods are no longer the fruits of the labors of idealists, hippies with gardens or impoverished farmers who cannot afford to chemically invigorate their fields.
Reports in Costa Rica of pesticide poisonings linked to cancers, sterility and death (TT, Feb. 6), are prompting farmers and consumers toward organic alternatives.
A drive through coffee plantations in Frailes, an hour south of San José, is a case study in the difference between chemical-free and conventionally grown crops.
The hills bristle with coffee bushes, some grown in the shade of poró trees, others in the sun, but intermittently between vaguely defined plots of land there are oases of towering bushes.
Their leaves are much darker than those of neighboring plants, which look frail and isolated in comparison, and their growth, in straight lines, is as dense as a maze of shrubbery.
THESE are the plantations of one of Costa Rica’s first organic coffee farmers, Emilio Marín.
Marín’s coffee flaunts the conventional wisdom that organic farms produce less than others. While his neighbors cultivate their fields under pesticide sprays, poison weeds among their coffee bushes with herbicides and scatter chemical fertilizer pellets to nourish their battered soil, he spends money only on manure to fertilize his fields.
Birds, attracted by the fruit trees he planted among the bushes, eat the insects that can ruin harvests, and in the rich soil and protective shade of poró trees, the plants are strong enough to ward off disease on their own, he said.
“PEOPLE around here don’t understand,” he said. “They don’t want to understand – it’s easier to spray chemicals, but it’s more expensive.”
Twenty-five years ago he stopped using chemicals on his crops. He said they turned the plantation that his father had given him into a rocky waste of struggling bushes.
Converting his plantations from conventional to organic was an arduous process of three years and long hours with a machete cutting the weeds that herbicides used to kill.
Now, he said, he spends less money each year than his neighbors, produces more and, thanks to new markets for organic coffee, earns about 50% more money.
ORGANIC plantations are not uncommon in Costa Rica, though the overwhelming majority of crops are grown conventionally.
The government has implemented some plans to promote organic farming education and encourage farmers to reduce the use of pesticides.
The National Program of Organic Agriculture (PNAO) promotes the development of organic agriculture in Costa Rica through measures such as the instruction of farmers in organic farming techniques, consumer education, the creation of new laws that help organic farmers with tax incentives and credits, and the coordination of organizations involved in organic production – from government offices to universities and non-governmental organizations.
According to PNAO, the latest statistic on the amount of land in Costa Rica under organic cultivation is from 1998, and was 9,000 hectares.
In 2000, more than 3,500 organic producers were registered with certification agencies, and in 2003 that number increased 13% to nearly 4,000.
SOME of the most commonly exported organic crops are bananas, cocoa, coffee, blackberries and orange juice.
Because there is a growing international market for organic products, farmers can sell their crops for more than what conventional crops can fetch.
Organic coffee, for example, sells for 30-100% more than conventional beans.
Felicia Echeverría, manager of the PNAO program, said “to produce environmentally friendly food isn’t just a fad, it’s a necessity and it’s shaped in national politics. We need consumers to join us, for people to notice what they are eating and for them to know that if they choose organic lettuce (for example) it’s not just any lettuce, but a vegetable that did not harm the environment and will not affect their health.”
TEN women in San Miguel de Chires de Puriscal, southwest of San José, run an association for organic cashew farming with financial aid from the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock.
They dry the nuts in the sun and package and label them for sale in markets throughout the country. To increase profits, they diversified their business to include other kinds of nuts, raisins and wine using the raw grapes and nuts from farms in their community and others nearby.
Their effort has created jobs in that economically depressed region, where the average monthly income for a family is ¢25,000 ($59) according to the Foundation for the Encouragement and Promotion of the Research and Transfer of Agricultural Technology of Costa Rica.
Families involved in their association earn an average of ¢40,000 ($95).
The women, who do not have telephones, were unavailable for comment, but Orlando Jiménez, regional director of the Ministry of Agriculture, said the project “promotes sustainable systems of production that reduce the application of agrochemicals.
It seeks to increase the value of the cashew to those involved by putting its preparation for the market in their hands.”
WHAT effect has the rise of organic farming practices had on Costa Rica’s overall use of agro-chemicals? Rodrigo Mora, director of the Chamber of Agricultural and Livestock Materials, says not much at all.
“In general terms, the amount of money spent on chemical imports has decreased lately,” he said. “We could say by about 10% between 2001 and 2002. But the organic market doesn’t even have 1% of the national market.”
He attributes the decline to poor sales and a decrease in production.
Coffee sales have decreased, for example, so less money is spent on the chemicals used to grow coffee, he explained.
ORGANIC fruits and vegetables are not readily available to consumers in Costa Rica. The newly opened AutoMercado in Santa Ana, west of San José, offers locally grown organic vegetables and a few fruits. Más x Menos supermarkets have a paltry selection – its branch in downtown San José near the Plaza de la Democracia offers only organic carrots, for example.
Organic produce is available at some weekend farmers’ markets, including those in Pérez Zeledón, Moravia and Turrialba, and through Comercio Alternativo (see separate story).
Despite food-labeling laws in the United States that do not allow organic foods to bear statements about their effects on health, the health benefits of organic foods have been documented.
The United Kingdom-based Soil Association, for example, reviewed more than 400 research papers and determined there is substantial scientific evidence to support the claim that organic food is safer and healthier for the body than food grown with chemicals.
Where to Buy Organic, Transitional Products
BIOLAND: Prepared organic foods (snacks, soy products, etc.) personal-care products with organic ingredients (see separate story). Info: 279-1111, email@example.com
Alfaro Ruiz Association of Organic Vegetables: Organic produce orders by phone. Juan Paniagua (463-2960) or Henry Guerrero (463-3057).
Finca La Esperanza, Platanares de Coronado, offers cheese, sour cream, pork, worms and organic fertilizer. Info: Anselmo and Patricia Rodrí-guez, 292-2158, 229- 1310.
Finca Los Nacientes, 500 meters south of the Berlín School of San Ramón, Alajuela, coffee, tomatoes, chiles, jams and sauces. Info: Efraín Sánchez, 453- 4655.
Finca La Armonía (Toledo de Acosta): Medicinal plants, oranges, limes, lemons, mandarins, Saturdays. Info: Francisco Sibaja 226-8791.
Comercio Alternativo S.A., in San Rafael de Guachipelín, Escazú: offers delivery of organic produce and products, (see separate story) orders by Internet (www.comercioalternativo. com) Info:
Noel Payne, 253-5507, 393-5314.
Hiedras Orgánicas S.A.: Organic products importer from the United States, also sells products from certified local producers. Info: Laurel Anderson, 383-0407.
Pérez Zeledón, at the market around the corner from the Red Cross post. Thursdays 11 a.m.- 8 p.m. Info: 737-0043, 771-4737, 741-1460.
Tico Orgánicos S.A., diagonal from the western side of the regional campus of the University of Costa Rica, behind El TremedalChurch in San Ramón. Fridays 1 p.m.-8 p.m., Saturdays 6 a.m.- noon, Info: 445-7585.
San Isidro de Coronado, at the market under the roof of the Centro Agrícola Cantonal, 75 meters west of the bus station. Sundays 6 a.m.- noon, Info: 292-1516.
Turrialba, beside the Catholic Church. Saturdays 6 a.m. to noon, tel: 556-6438, 556-5293
Guápiles, at the farmers’ market Saturdays 5:30 a.m.- noon, Info: 824-0446, 710-3153, 710-2749, 226-8791.
Zarcero, the Santa Lucía shop, on the highway in front of the Tajo El Espino. Monday through Sunday 8 a.m.- 5 p.m. Info: 463-3648.
Bioproductos Oro Verde, in El Trueque fair ground, Barrio El Carmen de Paso Ancho, San José. Monday through Saturday 7:30 a.m.-noon, Info: 226-8791, 227-5332. www.cedeco.or.cr.
Vegetable stand, downtown Cartago, 50 meters north of the Pharos restaurant on the highway to Paraíso, plans to reopen in April. Info: 591-6538.
Finca San Luis, in San Luis de Grecia, 1.5 km northwest of the school. First Sunday of each month: 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. Info: 494-4523.
Centro Cultural Ecológico Gaia, in front of Playa Chiquita Lodge, 5 km south of Puerto Viejo, Limón. Saturdays 10 a.m.- noon, Info: 750-0385.
Organic foods catering service: ALISERSA Catering Service (Alimentos Servidos S.A.). Info: Alexandra Praun or Allen González, 236-9456 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org