San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Labelling not easy for organic food vendors

From the print edition

On Saturday mornings, in the north-central San José neighborhood of Barrio Aranjuez, the Feria Verde (a farmers market) abounds with succulent mangoes and passion fruit, crisp lemongrass and basil, delicate pastries and coffee. These particular groceries that exchange hands from farmers to patrons come from fruit and vegetable farms that are organic or “in transition” to organic.

But not all of the market’s vendors have a legal organic certification, even if they grow their fruits and veggies without a trace of chemicals. Of the 60 vendors at Feria Verde, 25 sell produce, 25 sell prepared foods like sandwiches and pastries, and 10 others sell things like jewelry and eco-friendly cleaning products. Of the 25 produce vendors, less than half them have received organic certification from the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry (MAG).

Since it opened in 2010, Feria Verde has been trying to get all of its produce vendors certified as organic by MAG. But ministry officials constantly send back paperwork asking for corrections. MAG officials are concerned with the applications’ terminology and how Feria Verde is using a different certifying program that hasn’t yet been utilized by other producers in the country.

In Costa Rica, fruits and vegetables can be certified as organic by two processes: through a handful of third-party certifying agencies recognized by MAG, or via the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS).

Organic certification through PGS is cheaper and requires less paperwork, making it attractive to organizations like Feria Verde that are primarily run by volunteers. Organizations also have the ability to be stricter than national organic requirements.

In countries like Brazil, most organic certification is achieved through PGS programs. Faviana Scorza, the market’s sole full-time organizer who has attended conferences in Brazil to learn more about PGS programs, said the concept is new to many Costa Rican officials. “We want all farms in the market to be certified by the government’s legal organic definition,” said Leland Westie, a Feria Verde shopper and coffee vendor. “There is a common end solution we are all working toward, and that is food security and healthy communities.”

The World Health Organization defines food security as the ability of all people to access sufficient, safe, nutritious food in order to maintain a healthy and active life. This can’t be done with just one small group of people, Westie explained, and he and other market vendors and shoppers want to work alongside MAG, farmers, consumers, nonprofit organic certification agencies and international organizations to take small steps toward creating a healthy, local food system (see stories, Pages W4-5).

Organizers said that while the Feria Verde continues seeking government certification, it will offer high-quality, chemical-free products, even if they aren’t legally organic.

Scorza said Feria Verde is trying to get organic certification through the PGS program, which requires farm visits by vendors and consumers to ensure that organic requirements are being implemented. For Feria Verde, that would require small teams of consumers to become more involved in local food production, and market vendors would have to visit farms to inspect organic practices. 

In general, all organic regulations call for crop rotation, buffer zones separating farms that use chemicals and no use of genetically modified substances, fertilizers or herbicides, among other rules.

Feria Verde President Rolf Ruge said organizers already submitted a third set of corrections to MAG, and they are still waiting for a response.

“The current administration has been very inattentive to our certification attempts,” Ruge said. “But we will continue to work with them.”

Ministry officials said they are supportive of local organic markets and organizers’ efforts to obtain organic labeling. In a press release, Agriculture and Livestock Vice Minister Tania López said she encourages Feria Verde and other farmers markets to move toward their goals. 

Mauricio Chacón, manager of MAG’s National Organic Agriculture Program, said small groups of people practicing organic farming can help change some practices of conventional farming, but organic products won’t become a majority in the national food system.

“Each person can do a little, like buying organic [foods] when they’re available,” he said. “Price shouldn’t be the only value we put on food, but organics will not dominate food systems in my lifetime, because conventional agriculture has at least a 25 percent higher production rate than organic agriculture in most crops.”

Change can also come with education, Chacón said, and this is something Feria Verde is doing well.

“When people understand more about their food and how many chemicals are used in some products, they will likely pay more,” he said. “So we learn and do the best we can; that’s all we can ask, especially of those making a living in agriculture.”

Chacón is currently working on public policy for organic food by collaborating with universities and other sectors to help teach consumers and farmers about agricultural systems and how organic cultivation works.

This month, vendors at Feria Verde began paying a $2 fee to help fund teams of sellers and customers traveling to farms to verify that organic practices are being followed, a requirement of PGS certification.

Every Saturday, from 7 a.m.-1 p.m., organic food lovers flock to the Feria Verde, even if not all vendors are certified as organic. Scorza said Feria Verde already ensures that producers implement “agro-ecological practices,” which she said are stricter than organic certification requirements. Current practices include crop diversification, native and heirloom seed use, biological pest control, reforestation, water protection, humane treatment of animals and farm-generated fertilizers and composting systems.

“Organic doesn’t mean only growing without chemicals,” said Breyner Paniagua, who has been selling vegetables at the market since it opened two years ago. His booth is a favorite for those seeking leafy greens like arugula, romaine lettuce or kale. “We are involved in conscientious agriculture,” he added.

Paniagua and other vendors said they want the fair to be able to market itself for what it is: a collection of family farmers doing the best they can to bring pesticide-free products to the table.

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