San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Organic Agriculture Program Struggles

While the Legislative Assembly is considering a bill to advance organic agriculture in Costa Rica, the one state program that promotes the health-friendly type of farming is struggling to survive in the Ministry of Agriculture and Cattle (MAG).

Despite the insistence of many farmers and organizations that organic products provide not only health and environmental benefits, but better financial stability for producers, MAG s National Program of Organic Agriculture (PNAO) could see its small budget cut.

Reports of this situation have generated concern among organic agriculture advocates, as has information that the program has already been downsized and moved to smaller offices.

But Jesús Hernández, director of the Ministry s Plant and Animal Health department, which oversees the organic program, called the situation circumstantial. He explained the program s original budget request was rejected because of procedural problems and said a new request has been submitted. Officials expect a response in the coming days from the Comptroller General of the Republic.

Regardless, if it is not approved the ministry is prepared to cover the program s expenses. It will not be shut down, Hernández said.

This is not a tragedy, or much less, he said. The ministry has worked to promote organic agriculture and we are not going to stop.We believe in the importance of organic agriculture. Every day there are more products and more organic farmers and we need to support that.

Hernández also minimized the significance of a recent move of the program to a smaller office and a reduction in the staff size. The program was using an office meant for three people, and it only has a staff of two director Miguel Castro and his secretary so it was moved to an office for two, Hernández said. In addition, Castro, who declined to comment on the issue, now shares the secretary with an office across the hall.

Limited Support

Regardless of how great or small the changes, the government should be strengthening PNAO, not cutting it, according to Gustavo Blanco, director of the Education Corporation for Costa Rican Development (CEDECO), which has promoted organic agriculture here for 21 years.

PNAO s functionaries have tried but there has been a lack of commitment on the part of the state. They have very few resources and very few materials, he said. A country that values the environment should show more support for organic agriculture on the part of the Ministry of Agriculture.

More than 9,500 hectares of national territory have been planted with certified organic crops, more than half in the Caribbean province of Limón, according to MAG statistics.

Past statistics have suggested more than 2% of national production is organic, athough this could include non-certified crops. Banana, cacao and coffee are among the main organic products produced here.

The PNAO budget is approximately ¢7 million ($13,900) per year, according to the daily La República. By comparison, the ministry s total budget is ¢22 billion ($44 million).

Although Hernández did not provide a specific amount to The Tico Times, he said the budget is minimal and covers only operational expenses such as supplies and gasoline.

The salary of director Castro is paid separately.

The program mainly trains organic farmers and funds activities to promote organic agriculture. Furthering organic agriculture here requires much more, according to Blanco.

Organic agriculture had been growing in Costa Rica, but it has recently started stagnating because of various factors against the small farmer, he said.

These factors include lack of available credit, economic costs of transitioning into organic agriculture, high costs for certification and overall lack of government support, Blanco said.

The answer to these deficiencies, according to Blanco, is a proposed new law to promote organic agriculture.

Proposed Law

The proposed law would promote and strengthen organic agriculture in Costa Rica through a variety of mechanisms. Among other things, it would offer significant tax breaks to organic farmers; open lines of credit for organic farmers; help organized groups of organic farmers; and support farmers during the transition period to organics. In addition, it would reduce high certification costs by allowing MAG to certify organics. Right now certification is a public-private process with MAG responsible for inspections but actual certification coming from one of several private international companies.

While legislators say the bill has strong support among them, as well as among organic agriculture organizations, such as CEDECO, lack of time could prohibit its approval by the Legislative Assembly before legislatures terms end May 1, particularly considering they will break next week for Easter Holy Week.

The legislature s agriculture commission is discussing motions made by the full assembly regarding the bill. If no more motions are submitted, the assembly could vote and approve the bill before May 1, according to commission president, Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) legislator German Rojas. However, more motions could paralyze the bill.

One of opponents main points of contention is a section of the bill that would prohibit genetically modified crops (transgenics) from being planted near areas where organic crops have already been established.

Castro supports this measure. It is known that transgenic crops contaminate, and we cannot permit this to happen to organics, he said.

The bill also promotes organic agriculture among small and medium farmers, but omits large-scale producers. Some legislators say large farmers should also be included.

Castro said if the bill isn t approved in the next four weeks, PNAO will have to start all over lobbying new legislators and explaining to them the value of organics.

The bill comes as the Comptroller General s Office has issued a scathing report highlighting the Agriculture Ministry s lack of control over the use of pesticides and other agro-chemicals in traditional agriculture (TT, March 3). The comptroller has concluded Costa Ricans eat various vegetables that have higher concentrations of chemicals than is safe for human consumption.

Furthermore, the report states that farmershave gone from using 4,000 tons of pesticides in 1990 to using 10,000 tons of pesticides in 2002, and the types of pesticides used are increasingly toxic.


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