Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT: Organic Farming Takes Root in Urbanised Puerto Rico

Carmelo Ruiz

SAN JUAN, Jun 3 2005 (IPS) - Farmers are switching to organic production on this highly urbanised Caribbean island, shunning chemical pesticides, animal antibiotics, and polluting technologies to appeal to a burgeoning and increasingly health- and environmentally-conscious consumer market.

Puerto Rico imports around 90 percent of the food its residents eat. What little is produced locally – mostly coffee, bananas, dairy products and poultry – mostly is grown by conventional, highly polluting methods.

Although they get virtually no acknowledgement from the Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture, nor from the Farm Bureau, the organic or ‘ecological’ farmers’ numbers are rising and they are setting up farmers’ markets all over the island to sell their produce directly to consumers.

The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), an umbrella group claiming a membership of 750 organisations in 108 countries, defines organic as ”a holistic system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity.”

”Certified organic products are those which have been produced, stored, processed, handled and marketed in accordance with precise technical specifications and certified as organic by a certification body,” it adds.

Raul Noriega, who has an eco-farm in the town of Aibonito, is a U.S.-educated professor, lifelong farmer, and fervent advocate of organic farming. He and his family grow medicinal plants like aloe, garden balsam (also known as carpenter’s grass) and black nightshade; aromatics like rosemary, mint and garlic weed; and food crops like eggplant, squash, beans, and onions.

Noriega identified two reasons to go organic. ”The first one is rather selfish: I eat what I harvest. If I farm with pesticides and other toxic agrochemicals, then that’s what I’m going to eat. I am the first consumer of my product and I want to eat well,” he said.

”The second reason is that organic production is the healthiest for the land”, he added. ”The Creator made this world perfect and balanced. Each insect, each worm and each plant has a meaning and a reason, even when we do not see it. We must admit that as long as it has existed, the Earth has been feeding us, without needing synthetic chemicals.”

Organic agriculture’s viability cannot be measured with conventional economic indicators, he said, because these are biased in favor of cost reduction and exclude social and ecological considerations.

Several miles to the west, in the town of Jayuya, is the Harmony Experimental Farm. Founded in 1991 by Rebecca Perez-Rossello and Juan Jose Sainz, this organic farm is nestled in the northern shoulder of the 4000-foot-high Cerro Punta, Puerto Rico’s highest mountain. It is practically within walking distance of the mountain’s summit, and borders with the tropical Toro Negro state forest.

Perez and Sainz grow organic beets, radishes, tomatoes, celery, peppers, broccoli, oranges, bok choi greens, edible flowers, mustard, beans, lettuce, mint, cucumbers, carrots, bananas, and much more.

They are part of a worldwide trend. According to a recent IFOAM report, such small-scale eco-farmers in 36 countries have brought more than 50,000 hectares under organic cultivation. In total, more than 26 million hectares of land are certified organic worldwide, generating over 25 billion dollars in revenue in 2003. IFOAM estimates that 558,449 farms in 108 countries have been certified as organic.

Research has shown that organic farms can be as productive as conventional ones but without using agrochemicals, according to University of California, USA, agro ecology professor Miguel Altieri. Organic farms consume less energy and save soil and water and evidence suggests they can produce enough food for all from one generation to the next without depleting natural resources or harming the environment.

In Puerto Rico, the subject of organic certification is causing concern among eco-farmers. Certification is of central importance to organic farming because of the need to establish criteria to filter out charlatans who try to sell conventional produce as organic.

What is organic? Who defines it and under what criteria? And who determines those criteria? Given Puerto Rico’s current status as a territory of the United States, the U.S. government has the last word here. Since 2002, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has controlled the definition of organic and insisted that no farm or firm in the USA or Puerto Rico can sell any product as organic if it does not have the ”USDA Organic” seal.

The USDA authorises certain institutions to carry out the work of inspecting and certifying organic production. These USDA-accredited institutions, which include state universities as well as for-profit laboratories, have the power to grant or deny certification.

Farmers including Noriega fear that the process of inspection and certification could potentially impose enormous costs that will force them to raise the price of their produce.

Pablo Diaz-Cuadrado, an organic farmer from the town of Orocovis, said he is fundamentally opposed to USDA certification, arguing that the United States government has no business intervening in any aspect of what he sees as Puerto Rico’s internal affairs.

According to Perez-Rossello, however, certification could serve a valid purpose. ”There are some farmers around here who believe they are organic but in reality do not know what organic means,” she said.

And while a number of farmers said they feel uncomfortable about the idea of non-farmers walking onto their land, passing judgment on them, and telling them how to do their job, all farmers interviewed for this article agreed that consumer confidence in their products is essential if organic farming is to prosper here. Certification, they acknowledge, albeit mostly implicitly, could prove a valuable service.

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