The demand for organically produced food has been growing in the area as well as nationally and internationally. Weekly organic markets are now hosted in Samara and Nosara, and both towns also have organic stores as well as some restaurants that tout offering organic food.
As the demand for organic products grows, however, so have concerns about suppliers, with occasional accusations cropping up that some sellers who can’t produce enough may be tempted to meet demand by reselling fruits and vegetables that they have bought elsewhere and that may not really be organic.
The Voice decided to dig deeper into the differences and the potential benefits of organic produce, which is grown without synthetic or chemical pesticides or fertilizers, and to find out what it takes for a farmer to obtain organic certification
In September of 2000, the Executive Decree 29782 was published by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAG), to promote and regulate organic production in Costa Rica and establish guidelines for internationally-recognized certification processes. The decree acknowledges “that organic agriculture is of the utmost importance for the country in relation to the health of the population, conservation of the environment, generating employment sources and improving the quality of life of human beings.”
Organic, Certified or Not
One of the companies in Costa Rica that provides organic certification is Primus Labs. Humberto Gonzalez, who oversees the lab, explained, “The process [of certification] depends on the reference standard and the type of crop. Under the national regulation, the producer should complete the three-year conversion period or document the non-use of prohibited substances during this time, request the certification from a certifier, complete the form and pay the fee. The price depends on the certifier and the standard. For example, we have a project of 14 producers whose final cost is $1400 in total, including expenses. We have individual producers that pay $500. The price is annual.”
That price, however, is an impediment for local small-scale growers. For example, Cheri Takaki has been growing organically for the past 7 years in Santa Teresita of Nosara, but she isn’t certified. She sells kale and a salad mix of different kinds of lettuce, as well as growing a few other things for her own personal use.
“Guanacaste is not the prime area for growing what I grow,” she related. “Rice, corn, beans and fruits like papaya and banana grow well here, but lettuce likes a cool climate.”
Because this is not the ideal climate, Takaki said she has to plant a lot more to get a small amount. She also has to harvest the lettuce while it’s young. Otherwise, because of the heat, it will wilt or die or will have a bitter taste. Another challenge is the time it takes to water her crops by hand since she doesn’t have an irrigation system installed. This can take her two to three hours a day, so she recently decided to cut her production in half. With limited production, she sells mostly to individual clients who live in the area year round.
Eden Akerson’s mother has run an organic market for the past 15 years in Tambor, Montezuma and Malpais, in the southern part of Nicoya Peninsula, and two and a half years ago, Akerson started an Organic Market in Nosara in response to requests from some people in the area. It is currently held on Tuesdays near the entrance to Guiones Beach. She also supplies organic food to clients and businesses in the Nosara and Samara areas.
Akerson specified that much of her supply comes from farmers in Escazu who are certified under the Feria Verde or Apodar labels. In these cases, the growers work in cooperation with the company that ensures that they are producing organically by checking their water and soil for the presence of chemicals.
For fertilizer, organic growers use techniques such as organic composts and mulch, and they use non-chemical remedies that don’t damage the plants to control pests such as ashes for slugs or cayenne and garlic for lizards and grasshoppers, explained Akerson.
Other than the certification label, Akerson pointed out some visible differences that characterize organic produce. For example, she said she never has green bananas because organic produce is generally picked ripe. Her providers pick their produce on Monday and she receives it on Monday night or Tuesday morning. Therefore, produce that is not in season should never be available as organic. For example, she warned that anyone selling “organic” mangos when they are not in season is “faking it.”
Other differences she, and her daughter Jazmin, pointed out, are that organic apples are much smaller, organic pineapples have smaller eyes around the surface and nonorganic cabbage leaves are looser and shinier because they are artificially ripened.
Cooler climates tend to foster more successful organic production, since there are less lizards and bugs to eat the crops in these areas, such as Escazu, Cartago, Zarcero, Turrialba and Tilaran. Besides, the land in these parts of the country did not suffer as much from cattle farming and burning like in Guanacaste. “Some are 100% certified, some are not because of costs,” she asserted. “There are local growers that I know are organic but they’re not certified and they’re never going to get certified.”
Cost Versus Benefit—Why Go Organic?
Organic production is more time-intensive and the yield is lower, which can result in higher prices, although representatives from local organic stores and restaurants recently told us that they are working to change the perception that organic is too expensive. For example, Angelina Phillips, the owner of Samara Organics, commented, “We try to keep our prices low, which means that there isn’t a lot of profit in what we do, but we think it’s important that this food is accessible to all.”
Likewise, Akerson said that most of her clients are foreigners because Ticos think the prices are more expensive, but her goal is to change that by keeping her prices low.
Despite the slightly higher cost, many prefer organic food for a variety of reasons. For example, Takaki summarized her four main reasons: “Basically to treat the earth well, not to be poisoning nature and of course I feel that it’s healthier to eat organic as much as possible plus it tastes better.”
When it comes to nutritional differences and health benefits, however, scientific proof is limited. A study by researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in September of 2012 found little evidence that organic vegetables and fruits are significantly more nutritious than conventional produce, although the researchers did note that consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
From a professional and environmental standpoint, Gonzalez of Primus Labs, noted that organic cultivation “reduces the consumption of agrochemicals, stimulates a cleaner production, supports small producers and above all reduces the environmental impact of production.”
When asked what the difference is between organic and conventional produce, what makes it better, Akerson walks away and goes into the kitchen, where she arranges a plate of a variety of organic fruits and vegetables to sample. The apple in the center of the plate is small but bursting with flavor. The pea pods and peppers are crisp and tangy, and the carrot is noticeably sweeter than a normal carrot. She has proven her point: “You can taste the difference.”
Which Fruits and Veggies Have the Most Pesticide Residues?
According to the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA), the fruits and vegetables that have the most pesticide residues, even after washing them, are strawberries, apples, celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumber, blueberries, potatoes, green beans, Kale and other greens. Therefore, it might be a good idea to buy organic varieties of these foods.
This article has been modified from its originate version. The article mentioned that Eden Akerson held the Rainbow Organic Market in Nosara on Tuesdays near the entrance to Guiones Beach. Akerson, who owns Rainbow Organic S.A., recently changed the name of her market to Eden Organic due to confusion between her business and that of her former associate, Terry Blumes, who is managing the website rainboworganic.cr, with delivery service in several communities around Nosara.