The present and future of sustainable agriculture

From the print edition

Food matters. It’s as  essential as the air we breathe and the water we drink. Your health is also a reflection of what you eat. Eating industrially processed food that’s missing nutrients and full of chemical residues will eventually cause chronic health problems.  Many people today are still unaware of this cause and effect principle. 

Industrialized food corporations use the media to sell food for taste and pleasure, instead of health and vitality. Children are one of the biggest advertising markets for processed, unnatural food products. They are lured by seductive television programming, which “educates” them to choose the wrong foods for their diet. Adults aren’t excluded from the hypnotic advertising that tricks them into making unhealthy dietary choices.  

Fortunately, there are a growing number of people in Costa Rica who are concerned about eating healthy foods grown naturally in harmony with the environment. Some people, like me, have decided to grow a garden to ensure a healthy food source. There are also a growing number of farmers who no longer want to use dangerous chemicals, which directly threaten their lives, and contaminate the soil and water on their farms.  Universities in Costa Rica have also made advances in studies, which open up new methods for growing food without harmful chemicals. The National Training Institute (INA) also offers farmers courses in sustainable and organic agriculture, and the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry has a department dedicated to technical assistance for organic production.  

I’ve been part of the sustainable agriculture movement for more than 30 years in Costa Rica, and it’s good to see the progress that’s been made. But why is sustainable agriculture still growing so slowly? I believe the following are some of the reasons: 

• Sustainable agriculture receives so little airtime on television, radio or in newspapers.  

• When only a small portion of the population is consuming organic food produced in a sustainable way, there is little demand for expanding the market.  

• Farmers still find modern high-tech methods convenient and labor saving, compared to the organic methods.  

• Organic food usually costs more due to increased labor costs in the production of natural fertilizers and the cultivation of crops without herbicides. During these days of inflation and high unemployment, families try to cut costs whenever possible. Little do they realize that cheaper food may eventually lead to chronic health problems and increased medical bills.  

Most likely the rhythm of sustainable development will pick up its pace as our volatile and uncertain economy continues to falter. A continuing rise in petroleum prices linked to dwindling reserves and growing global demand will be directly related to increased food costs. Researchers have estimated that our modern food- production methods consume 10 calories of fossil fuels to produce 1 calorie of food energy. This astounding and revealing statistic shows how dependent we are on fossil fuels in agriculture. Due to our highly developed global trade network, food often travels between 1,500 to 3,000 miles before it reaches the dinner table. Sooner or later we’ll be obligated to take the course of sustainable development.

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning the case of Cuba. Due to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, Cuba was faced with a dramatic decline of half of the imported petroleum that was used to run the island. The economy fell apart, and people were faced with learning how to survive the crisis. After three to four years of difficult adjustments, Cuba began to come alive with sustainable agriculture. Home gardens sprouted up everywhere, and small organic farms and cooperatives appeared as the Cubans learned how to grow food naturally.  As the soils became rich and fertile, people gained food security without a heavy dependence on fossil fuels. This poignant example of how a society can readjust to living with less fossil fuel may help us face the inevitable chapter that lies ahead of us on our planet. 

Costa Rica has many similarities to Cuba. We are a small country dependent on imported oil and we have a tropical climate that permits year-round agriculture. Costa Rica also has a political climate that favors cooperatives and community development, a neutral political foreign policy, no army and an educated population with a well-developed social infrastructure, all factors which favor sustainable development. 

We can all begin to support sustainable agriculture by making healthy choices when we buy the foods we eat. It’s a win-win situation. You also may want to try your hand at growing some of your own food at home or in local community gardens. Working with nature can be a very rewarding experience on many levels.

If you’re looking for an investment project, why not look into sustainable agriculture? There are appropriate technologies already available that can be utilized to create highly productive hydroponic-aquaculture systems that have shown high returns in successful models now in operation in Europe, North  America and Asia.

And finally, give a hand by educating others. Pass the word about healthy foods that will help families improve their health – the greatest wealth of all.  

Life’s a garden.

Ed Bernhardt, N.D. writes the Home Gardening column for The Tico Times. He owns a small herb farm where he teaches courses on medicinal plants, permaculture and natural health care.  He is the author of  “The Costa Rican Organic Home Gardening Guide, Medicinal Plants of Costa Rica’s and Natural Health Care Therapies for Tropical Living.” For more details contact: www.thenewdawncenter.info.