From the print edition
Sooner or later, things will have to change. According to sustainable agriculture experts, Costa Rica’s current agricultural system is threatening its own future through farming practices that over-exploit the natural resources on which production depends in order to maximize short-term profit. Even solely in economic terms, for a country that depends on agriculture for about 6.5 percent of its gross domestic product and to provide work for 14 percent of its labor force, this a serious issue.
The situation here reflects growing worldwide concern for maintaining the ecological foundations that support food production. At the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development held recently in Rio de Janeiro, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) presented a report entitled “Avoiding Future Famines” that included the alarming fact that 925 million people around the world are malnourished. The increasing demand for food combined with diminishing natural resources on which food production depends, the report states, is pointing toward a potential global crisis.
In Costa Rica, sustainable agriculture advocates say that the mass production of cash crops for export such as pineapple, bananas and coffee, which depends on the use of copious amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, likewise threatens the resource base on which the future of agriculture depends.
Consequences of this type of monoculture – or the growing of single crops in extensive plantations – include contamination of freshwater, depletion of soil (through degradation of soil diversity and nutrient cycling), and deforestation and loss of biodiversity due to clearing lands to make way for the expansion of plantations. Other problems that arise in this type of intensive monoculture include overexposure of workers to chemicals and other harsh working conditions, and negative effects on the health of nearby communities, including indigenous reserves in some parts of the country.
Amid the crisis, things are slowly changing. There is growing interest in, and practice of, organic and other sustainable farming systems in Costa Rica and worldwide, including application of more elaborate philosophies such as Biointensive and Biodynamic farming (see box). An important draw for a growing number of small farms is the personal satisfaction felt by farmers in producing healthy and nourishing food that is also good for the earth. Gina Borrero, a member of the sustainable farming collective Finca Agroecológica Amalur, explains that what compels her is the opportunity “to live and eat sustainably, where you can consume what you produce, and have control over the quality and effect on the environment.”
Sustainable agriculture is an approach to producing food that is beneficial to the environment, consumers, animals and producers. It recognizes the importance of minimizing waste, conserving natural resources, economic viability and ensuring productive continuation over the long term.
Below is a basic description of some of the more important movements in sustainable agriculture, including the different types of certifications available for producers.
Organic farming has become increasingly popular in Costa Rica, with local and international certification options available as well as opportunities to sell produce at the Feria Verde (Green Farmers Market) and in other venues, including some supermarkets. Organic agriculture relies on techniques such as crop rotation, natural fertilizers and biological pest control. Manufactured pesticides and fertilizers are prohibited, or must comply with very specific standards. In the case of exports, since there are country-specific organic certifications, it is important that growers know the requirements of each country to which they will be exporting.
Gabriela Soto, from the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) explains that the process of organic certification begins by contacting one of several agencies, which will send a questionnaire that determines whether you qualify for the certification that is right for you.
The cost of the certification, including inspection and office fees, differs according to farm size, but usually runs about $600. The certification must be renewed and the same fee paid every year. A strategy for small farms is to apply for the certification in groups in order to make the cost more affordable.
For those selling locally, Soto suggests another option: “There is also participatory certification, where small growers are organized by a group such as Feria Verde to achieve a collective organic certification.” Such certification is done according to standards agreed upon locally.
The prospects for sustainable agriculture
UNEP reports that barriers to sustainable agriculture include lack of information, lack of access to start-up capital and a delay on return on investments, and lack of conducive laws and regulations. Although certification is important for accountability and ensuring correct practices, it is difficult for many small farms to afford. Changes in government policies can help surmount these obstacles, but for this to occur there must be increased demand on the part of a population educated about sustainable agriculture.
•Feria Verde (Farmer’s Market): Held every Saturday from 7 a.m.-1 p.m. Located inside the sports center in Barrio Aranjuez, 300 m north and 200 m west from Santa Teresita Church. More information at www.feriaverde.org or call 2280 5749
Biodynamic farming practices include the use of preparations made from herbs, minerals and manure to revitalize soil, efficient water cycling, crop rotation, organic pest and weed control, and the use of compost and green manure.
•Demeter Biodynamic Certification: www.demeter.net.
•Costa Rican Biodynamic Agroecological Movement: www.biodinamicacostarica.blogspot.com or call 8301-4377.
•Education: Finca Luna Nueva Lodge is a certified organic biodynamic farm in San Isidro. Offering workshops, retreats, biodynamic activities and lodging. Details at www.fincalunanuevalodge.com or call 2468-4006.
The Biointensive method is an organic, low-input and high-yield system of agriculture that has roots in ancient practiced Asian, Greek and Mayan cultures.
•Biointensive Certification: Ecology Action www.growbiointensive.org
•Biointensive Resource Center: www.cultivobiointensivo.net
•Education: Finca Acroecológica Amalur (Mother Earth Farm) located in Concepción de San Isidro de Heredia, is a collective that practices biointensive farming and offers hands-on courses. The next course will begin Aug. 26 for five consecutive Saturdays. Information at www.facebook.com/amalur.agroecologica or call 8822-8512.