The dilemma of organic product certifications in Costa Rica

The dilemma of organic product certifications in Costa Rica

By Fabiola Pomareda García *

According to the XXII Report of the State of the Nation on Sustainable Human Development, as of 2015 there were 11,055 hectares certified as organic crops, which represents 2.4% of the total arable area in Costa Rica [1]. Despite the fact that since 2007 there is legislation in force on organic agriculture, growth in terms of the area occupied by certified organic production has been less than one percentage point.

To date, for a food to be legally recognized as organic in the market and to be labeled as such, it must comply with the regulations that exist in the country according to the Law for the development, promotion and promotion of organic agricultural activity No. 8542. This indicates that there are two ways to have a certification: third party and participatory certification; issued by private certifying agencies and by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAG).

Ten years after this regulation was issued, there is a large sector of small agroecological producers who believe that certification ends up being an unfair invention for the producer who tries to do his job well; and that the great dilemma is the amount of obstacles that are placed on those who work in organic versus conventional agriculture.

Therefore we are facing another dilemma: how can these people differentiate their healthy and agroecological products from others in the market, without depending on a certification? To do this, consult with farmers who have these same concerns, as well as public officials and technicians dedicated to promoting the certification of organic agriculture.

Produce organic

Gabriel Bravo Pacheco and Jemima Picado started the El Tablazo agroecological farm located in Desamparados in 2013. For them, producing organic means, first of all, not using agrochemicals or any other toxic substance in the product; and secondly, to give an adequate treatment to the soil, constantly applying organic matter and biological controllers.

Bravo shows his well-nourished plants and comments:

“In the end, what you want is to create a healthy and biodiverse soil, with a very complex ecosystem value and that, as a by-product, will give you healthy plants. The vivid example of this is that customers come to the fair and say to you: "Mae, this lettuce lasted two weeks in the fridge intact." And me: 'Mae, it's nutrition; I mean, there is no other explanation unless it is that. ' The plant is super well nourished so not only does the product last a long time, but it also avoids a lot of pests and diseases. A well-nourished plant with good mineralization and good health is much less prone to attack by insects, fungi, bacteria ”, says the young man.”

Third party certification and participatory certification

After several years of work and advocacy by producers and civil society organizations in different spaces, in September 2006 the “Law for the development, promotion and promotion of national organic agriculture for people defined as micro, small and medium organic farmers ”.

According to data from the National Institute of Learning (INA), 3,769 Costa Ricans were engaged in organic agriculture in 2015; 36% of this population are women and 64% are men.

But despite good practices and long years of experience producing agroecologically, many producers still find it difficult to certify organic products or do not believe in this system. How does the certification system work?

Rocío Aguilar, Coordinator of the National Program for Organic Agriculture of the MAG, explained the operation of third party certification on the one hand and participatory certification on the other.

In third-party certification, an operator, producer or marketer hires a certifying company, authorized by the MAG to do this work. Service used above all for those who export and for those who sell to supermarkets. There are currently four certifiers: Eco-LOGICA, Kiwa BCS Costa Rica Limitada, Control Union Peru, Primus Labs of Costa Rica to name a few.

Participatory certification, Aguilar said, is created to support the producer who sells in the national market. It is done in a group, before the MAG and seeks to lower the certification costs. Four organizations have it: Las Brumas Organic Producers Association, from Cartago; the Home Creek Organic Farmers Association; Agroecológica Del Valle, by Pérez Zeledón; and the Guanacasteca AgroOrganic Association.

“The certification seeks to ensure the consumer the safety of the product, that is, you can be sure that the product is organic, considering that it has a plus in price. Diay, unfortunately we cannot do it with pure confidence; it is very complicated in our countries. In other countries yes, as in Japan, they are not certified. The producer sells organic and there is confidence that this product is like that. Not in Latin America, ”Aguilar commented.

Regarding the cost, Aguilar said that the cost of each certification could not be specified, because it depends on the area planted, the number of producers in a participatory certification, whether it is a marketer, or for example, if it is a company that packs nearby from San José or if you are in Talamanca and you have to go there for a week.

According to the data of the Accreditation and Registration Unit in Organic Agriculture of the State Phytosanitary Service (SFE), there are currently 81 organic operators, producers and marketers; and 20 farms in a period of transition to organic.

Control and inspections

The standards are the same, both for third party certification and for participatory certification, said Rocío Aguilar. All must comply with the Organic Agriculture Regulation (No. 29782-MAG), to be able to produce under that umbrella. They must register with the office of the SFE, MAG, and from that moment submit a farm plan and undergo an inspection process.

“The producer has to keep a record of everything he does on the farm: what comes in, what comes out, what he sells, what he sows. In other words, you cannot plant something that is not in your management plan, because if you say that you are going to produce organic tomatoes and cucumbers and I go to the stall and you are selling lettuce, then where did the lettuce come from? " Aguilar explained.

According to the aforementioned regulation, organic agriculture is a practice that “promotes the ecologically, socially and economically healthy production of food and fibers, taking the fertility of the soil as a fundamental element for successful production, respecting the natural capacity of plants, animals and land ”. And he adds: “In organic production you cannot use genetically modified organisms or their products. Furthermore, it must be carried out in a unit whose plots, production areas and warehouses are clearly separated from any other unit that does not produce in accordance with the rules of this regulation ”.

The work process inside the farm is the same for everyone, Aguilar said, and involves complying with the regulations and submitting to inspectors' visits. In the case of participatory certifications, producer groups usually have an internal control system, with people who make the visits.

Aguilar recognized the extreme control to which these producers are subjected, compared to the traditional agriculture sector. “The conventional producer does not submit to any registration; But for the organic producer, everything has to be registered, because when you do the inspection, they not only inspect the field, they inspect papers, warehouses, and sales positions. Everything is very controlled and that has a cost and is difficult, "he said.

The experience in agroecological farms

Several agroecological farms in the country cultivate and market healthy products, without having an "organic" certification. What does “produce organic” mean for these producers?

Gabriel Bravo Pacheco and Jemima Picado work on their project at Finca El Tablazo, in Desamparados. This started in April 2013 on an area of ​​almost one hectare. They had previously been trained on organic farms in Southeast Asia and here in agroecology.

70% of the farm is in production and 30% is in reforestation - fruit trees have been planted there, which will eventually bear fruit. They produce almost exclusively leafy vegetables: Chinese mustard, kale, arugula, lettuce, coriander, pak choi, curly parsley and Italian parsley. According to Bravo they take out approximately 150 lettuces per week, 100 mustards and 50 cilantro rolls, approximately.

In another sector they have crops for their own consumption: tomato, chili, aubergine, zuccinis, cherry tomato, celery, medicinal plants, bananas and orange fruit. In the reforestation part they have avocado, guayabita from Peru, pitanga, acerola, nance, achiote and guava.

Felicia Rodríguez is dedicated to agroecological agriculture at Finca Orgánica San Luis, along with her family.

When his father began to work the farm was dedicated one hundred percent to livestock. Then he left it and put the 14 hectares that it measures in total to produce only coffee in a conventional way. In 1996 he started organic farming after receiving training with Japanese. Little by little he was making changes.

Today they produce and market leafy vegetables - lettuce, chard, kale, spinach, carrot, broccoli and cauliflower. In the dry season they plant sweet chili, onion, tomato and potato, because in the rainy season there are many fungi. They offer processed aromatic herbs, such as rosemary, oregano and thyme, and medicinal plants. For this they occupy only 5 hectares. The rest they have with grass and cane for a project to fatten dairy cows; with coffee; and an area under reforestation.

“Dad started with three lots of vegetables, taking advantage of everything on the farm: living barriers, and branches and litter to compost. Mom has been very influential in organic farming. If it hadn't been for her, maybe my dad wouldn't have changed as soon as it happened at that time, ”Rodríguez said.

Currently they themselves pay for the soil analysis every two years. They take advantage of the resources they already have on the farm and take measures to prevent pests in their crops.

“There are many different medicinal plants, many flowers and living barriers here. All this means that there is no five star hotel for any plague. We use all kinds of microorganisms, fungi, yeast, to prevent. Many people don't believe us; but it is like this. What we do is that we respect the climates. When it is winter, no potatoes or tomatoes are planted; because everything rots. We are looking for other alternative products for the rain ”, said the young woman.

An unfair invention

At Finca El Tablazo Gabriel and Jemima do not work with certification. "It's not that I have anything against any certifier or anything, but we simply don't believe in the established certification system, especially the private one," said Bravo.

“The private certifier does not seem like a good strategy to me. I think they are honestly ways to control booming markets. That's how I see it. As an organic farmer they put a lot of obstacles and obstacles here and there; and not a conventional farmer. So that is where the great dilemma is: Why is organic agriculture put so much work and not conventional? ”, Asked the young man.

“I think certifications are important for medium and large scale commercial organic farming projects. Why? Because if I have a farm and I want to sell my organic product to Auto Mercado or Green Center or whoever, I understand that legally they need an endorsement; a legal document that I am producing in 'x' way. So I think that in those cases it is important and I support participatory certification ”, Bravo pointed out, adding:“ Participative certifications seem to us much more supportive and beautiful methods, since it is already a more trustworthy organization between producers and consumers; and it has legal backing, which is good ”.

According to Felicia Rodríguez, "the certifications in the end do not certify anything." "A certified product does not tell me if it has agrochemicals or not," he declared.

The young woman said that she and her family know about the management of the certifiers because about 10 years ago they were certified. His idea was to expand his market a bit. At that time, several NGOs were operating in the country and one of them supported them with a donation to obtain the certification. The inspectors came every six months and only saw the records, he said. They kept her for two years.

"They came every six months for example, but they never noticed when we planted three-month-old products like lettuce or cilantro," he said.

Then they tried to do a participatory certification, because they consider it the fairest that exists; but they couldn't because the rest of the producers were very retired.

“Now we think better of it and we are not going to certify now or ever. It is to please those who invented all these certificates. With so much obstacle that certification puts, in the end I think that the farmer's spirits are lowered because he has to raise the price of his products in order to pay for the certification amount, ”he said.

“Certification ends up being an unfair invention for the producer who tries to do things well. We are not doing anything extraordinary, but the normal, what everyone should do. For us, what really matters is the part of the farmer's conscience ”, added Rodríguez.

Labeling and legal recognition

Currently in the country for a product to be legally recognized as organic in the market and to be labeled as such, it is required to have certification.

For Rocío Aguilar, from MAG, "sometimes people do not understand the cost of certification in non-economic terms."

“The conventional producer can apply what he wants when he wants. If you have a disease in your crop, you go and buy the first thing that comes to mind and apply it as many times as you want. That is why it is said that Costa Rica is one of the countries with the highest use of chemicals in agriculture. However, the organic producer is fully controlled. He cannot use anything that the regulation does not say. With them we work a lot on prevention, improving the soil, crop rotation and techniques to prevent problems. But once the problem is there, like a plague, diay, he crosses himself, ”Aguilar acknowledged.

“We are training conventional producers in the use of bio-inputs because the decrease in the use of agrochemicals is something very important for us. But that means that producers can use bio-inputs; but they can also use chemicals whenever they want. Nothing stops them from using chemicals. But the organic producer is making a huge effort, with higher costs, with a stricter control, to comply with all the regulations. Keeps records, pays every year, they supervise it; if a cake is pulled, they can take away the certificate, which is the work of many years, "he insisted.

Aguilar was asked if he believed that the market and the institutions were discriminating against those who produced organic but did not have certification. Aguilar replied: “The law says that organic products must be certified and comply with regulations. My job is to enforce the law. Those [agroecological] producers are doing well too. But it's like me telling you that I have a doctor with a degree and a person who has a lot of medical experience without a degree. "

They sell under different conditions

People with agroecological farms live their production and marketing experience differently. They highly value the relationship of trust with consumers or other actors in the commercial chain and work to enhance local markets and achieve recognition of this non-certified organic production, which is also marketed under different conditions.

Gabriel Bravo considered that the approach on his farm is different because being small, he does not believe it is necessary or essential to have the certification.

“It is more than creating a consumer-producer relationship of trust, and that is what we did with all of our clients. Everyone already knows you or knows the Facebook page or they have come here or are referred by other people. We have worked with that system and we like it. I know we are outside the framework of the law in that regard; but honestly it doesn't affect us, do you understand me? We do it out of conscience and we are conscious producers; then there is no problem, ”he said.

“I always say that the most difficult part of being a farmer is marketing the product. Growing lettuce is a cake; but going to sell it is the difficult thing. It was very gradual getting the customers and marketing the product. It is a difficult process; but once you find commercial stability, you finally see that it works and that the numbers are giving and that you are progressing ”, commented Bravo.

Currently Finca El Tablazo sells its products on weekends at organic fairs: Saturdays at the Mercadito Azul, in Cartago; Sundays at the Natural Market, in Curridabat. Every 15 days they assemble baskets for home deliveries to a list of 40-50 clients. And sometimes we have clients who come directly to buy from the farm.

One challenge they face, according to Bravo, is that people understand the value of organic farming. “Conventional agriculture is extremely easy: You machines, you pay a peon to sow, you pay a peon to fumigate, you harvest and see the money. On the other hand, a farmer breaks his back more in the field because the labor is more intense, you have to be more on top, you have to be cultivating the soil, which requires a very important effort and energy. So sometimes people say: Why the added value of 15 or 20% or 30% with an organic product? Well, I broke my loin with that lettuce and that energy must be discounted, ”explained Bravo.

Felicia Rodríguez told how they work at Finca Orgánica San Luis: “What we do is that we open the farm and we tell our clients to come and certify themselves. We explain processes such as how we make fertilizers and we are not inventing anything. We have many customers who prefer to come and prefer us for that, they know that we are not lying and I think that is what every responsible consumer should do: see where their food comes from ”.

At present they have three points of sale: every week at the Farmer's Fair, in Greece, where they have had their stall for more than 30 years; every 15 days at La Verbena, in Alajuela; and with baskets for home deliveries in Grecia and Escazú.

Challenges for organic agriculture in the country

In Gabriel Bravo's opinion, the organic agriculture movement is extremely hampered and there is a lack of more organizations and government and private entities to support it with funds.

A factor against it has to do with the cultural part, in your experience. “Costa Rica is world champion in the use of pesticides. Unfortunately, it is thought and brought into the collective unconscious that it cannot be produced without chemicals. That is the strongest obstacle, changing that paradigm ”.

Another factor is that misconception that consuming organic is something for a high-class market. “You have to set fair prices; but competitive. You cannot abuse yourself with prices because you fall into that scheme, ”emphasized Bravo.

“I believe that being an organic producer means being a person with a lot of heart, passion and conscience. I always say that from the farm gate to the inside this is a small revolution. This is where I protest. This is where I make the switch. And I think that for many organic farmers it is the same. Our contribution is from here; definitely.

September 22, 2017

*Journalist. She works in the Voces Nuestro Association and collaborates in the Biodiversity Coordination Network (RCB)

Fernando García contributed to this information

[1] Twenty-second Report of the State of the Nation Program. CONARE, 2017. See here

Source: Agroecologist

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