Biting into a stick of celery, a carrot, or baked potato grown organically tastes fresh, crisp, and unlike the produce available in a grocery store.

For 20 years, Noël Payne has been involved in bringing organic produce and environmentally friendly products to the table. A fresh bounty or fruits, vegetables and other products are available in Costa Rica at the market Comercio AlterNativo in Escazú, San José.

Originally of English origin, Noël came to Costa Rica to work in the field of sustainable development. At the international level, she worked with the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and then continued with 12 more years in this field in Costa Rica. Noël began the organic market out of her garage near the University of Costa Rica, which has now moved to the location in Escazú.

Comercio AlterNativo is a delight to walk into. It only takes 2 minutes to surmise the total selection, but after 5 minutes, my basket it full. A cooler holds products such as organic butter, goat cheese, other cheeses, and yogurt; shelves display fresh vegetables and a variety of other products such as organic wine and oatmeal, granola bars, soy milk, and natural insect repellent. Buying organic supports local farmers and eating locally also supports a healthy environment.

Costa Rica Organic Store

Noël Payne is a wealth of knowledge and usually on hand at the market to answer questions. She is also working to expand her market into even more natural foods and health products and getting consumer input on what is needed in Costa Rica. Noël took time out of a typically busy day to answer some questions I had about the organic food market in Costa Rica.

When and why did you decide to develop an organic market in Costa Rica?

I started the organic market in my garage in Sabanilla (close to the University of Costa Rica) back in 1996 when virtually no organic products were available to the public. Having worked as an international consultant in the environment and development field, I was not only aware of the abuse in the use of agrochemicals – a legacy of the Green Revolution – but also of the fact that there were many small farmers out there looking for healthier ways to produce food for their families and a few luckier consumers.

Knowing that I was frustrated (and at that time had become an ex-international consultant) and had time on my hands, a group of small organic farmers from Zarcero asked me to help them commercialize their products.

What are the challenges in developing the organic market in a developing country?

The main challenge is that few Costa Rican consumers are health conscious and therefore feel “safer” spending their money on doctors´ bills rather than investing in healthy food. The lack of information available to the consumer is a serious problem. Add to the fact that Costa Rican consumers are very passive and aren’t aware of their rights to healthy food or their responsibilities as parents, caretakers of the elderly, or comprehend their ability as consumers to demand products of a higher quality.


As an example, it has only been over the last few years that Costa Ricans have learned to appreciate good coffee (i.e. espressos, quality brewing, etc.) as a result of the interest of tourists.

Because of the relatively undeveloped market, the businesspersons are not interested in investing in organic production. The national market is too small. All the know-how is in the heads of small farmers who have benefited from technical assistance frequently from donor organizations who have invested in sustainable agricultural practices since the beginning of the 1980´s. However, small farmers are very scattered geographically and are not entrepreneurially orientated which makes Comercio AlterNative’s job of satisfying the demand in town very difficult.

Costa Rica Organic Wines

Is the use of pesticides and chemicals a regular part of farming in Costa Rica? If so, please explain the ramifications of these practices.

Yes. Costa Rica has a reputation for an extremely high consumption of agrochemicals. 1.2 kg per capita on an annual basis according to a study sponsored by the Pan-American Health Organization and carried out by the National University several years ago. Costa Rica also has the dubious reputation of having one of the highest incidences of gastric cancer in the world together with Japan. Some people attribute this to the abuse in the use of synthetic agrochemicals.

However, as a developing country, it has been the recipient of development assistance for many years, and since the end of World War II with the boom of the Green Revolution, much of this assistance promoted the “quick fix” approach to combating pests and diseases which invaded the monocultures that were established in cleared forest areas. The ecological impact has been devastating.

It is interesting to note today the international agricultural experts who did their best to convince Costa Rican farmers to abandon their traditional agricultural practices in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s are now sending their students to revive the more sustainable agricultural practices and specifically organic agriculture.

It takes a long time to implement change within the public sector, so many extension workers within the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock are still promoting the widespread and often indiscriminate use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides – they give much more rapid results – and they are rarely concerned with environmental issues which falls within another scope of different ministry anyway. The ministry of Health is in charge of the health issues.

This is, I am afraid to say, the situation of many developing countries. However, what is particularly ironical is that Costa Rica manages to sell itself on an overseas market as an ecological paradise. Of course, politicians have a lot to do with this.

What constitutes something as an organic product, and what agencies certify that the product is organic?

Strictly speaking, a product can only be labeled and sold as organic in Costa Rica once it has received certification from a certification agency which is accredited by the relevant department in the Ministry of Agriculture.

There are two such national agencies: Eco-LOGICA and AIMCOPOP. The former is much stricter and due to its international accreditation. Enforcing norms and compliance by small farmers is difficult, particularly when this is of an administrative nature. This international accreditation also results in increased costs, which again puts it beyond the reach of small farmers who have small volumes.

The second agency is less strict, has a smaller infrastructure, and therefore lower costs which more small farmers are able to deal with. Overseas certification agencies also send inspectors to visit farms in Costa Rica when their products are destined for export markets.

Generally speaking, an organic product is one which has been grown, harvested, processed and packaged as the case may be according to norms which prohibit the use of synthetic substances or materials which are considered to have detrimental effects for the environment and for human beings. These organic norms also relate to animal production (i.e. the production of organic meat and other animal products such as honey) and require farmers to manage their farms in an environmentally friendly way. Water quality and soil management is also taken into consideration as are the social aspects relating to the working conditions of farmers and farm workers.

How do you regulate so that a farmer is following the established organic guidelines?

The specific certification agency sends inspectors to ensure that the farmer is complying with the norms of that particular agency (norms vary according to different agencies). After the initial rigorous inspection, the farmer has to renew his/her certification on an annual basis. In addition, surprise visits to the farm can be made without warning.

In the case of Costa Rica farmers, many of them have made the conversion to organic agriculture for health reasons. They have experienced intoxications first hand and have seen the negative effects on the environment. Their motivation is thus quality of life for them and their families. The economic incentive is therefore not the driving force so abuse of the regulations is much less common.

For an untrained farmer – not familiar with the certification process – organic agriculture is, at the outset, simply absence of use of synthetic agrochemicals and the preparation and use of organic fertilizers, repellents, and simple organic management techniques. There are many dedicated small farmers who have incredible know-how and a philosophical orientation, which gives the consumer more confidence.

In the case of large producers and companies which have strong economic incentives, indeed this is more and more the case.With the growth of the organic market, the temptations to take short cuts are great, and Costa Rica as a developing country is still quite lax on monitoring the performance and compliance of the certification agencies. It is the Ministry of Agriculture which is responsible for this.

However, due to the lack of educated/informed consumers who are not defending their rights, this is of concern as there are some companies which have no hesitation in marking their products as organic but which are not providing the consumer with any guarantees as to their organic integrity. The consumer needs to take a much more active role in guiding the development of the Costa Rican organic market.

What does your new store in Escazú, a suburb of San José, offer, and how is business going?

The new store in Escazú, Comercio AlterNativo, is the result of the eight years work with small farmers and the desire to make their products available to the consumer who is concerned with the frequent abuse of agrochemicals on Costa Rican farms.

It offers not only the widest range of certified organic products on the national market, but also complements these with products with those which do not have certification but are in a formal “transition” process towards organic certification. In addition, there are those products that come from organic farms have managed organically for many years but are not yet certified.

Comercio AlterNativo also offers a range of other environmentally friendly products. The owner, a trained organic inspector, has personally visited around 95% of the farms which the products come and can therefore guarantee the quality and integrity of the products on sale. The products on sale are thus classified as “0” for organic, “T” for transition, and “M” for other special environmentally friendly products.

Comercio AlterNativo is also a place where networking takes place among concerned consumers, where a wide variety of information is available. Business is growing but difficult, but with the help of committed consumers, we will consolidate our position as the most reliable source of organic produce on the Costa Rican market.

Comercio AlterNativo has a new volunteer program, what are your hopes for this program?

The VIP program (Volunteer and Internship Program) provides a way in which the consumer can become more actively involved in helping Comercio AlterNativo grow and improve its services to the public.

What is your vision for organic farming in Costa Rica?

Costa Rica is the country with one of the highest incidences of gastric cancer in the world (as mentioned earlier it holds the record with Japan). Although we cannot point the finger solely as abuse in agrochemical use, lifestyles have a lot to do with it too; there are many other environmental factors (e.g. the use of toxic substances in the home, air pollution, etc.), which influence our quality of life.

We need to look at our whole environment and invest in making it a healthier place all around. There is a lot of room for investment in healthy alternatives. Although we have a wonderful array of rich soils and different microclimates, growing organic in the tropics is not easy due to the high humidity and climate patterns, which are increasingly erratic. However, there is a fount of knowledge and experience that many small farmers are prepared to share as well as courses on organic agriculture. Organic agriculture is one of the most constructive ways to ensure a healthier environment for all.

If you’re not a farmer, just by consuming organic you are making a contribution to the movement. By purchasing your produce from Comercio AlterNativo, you can benefit more than 72 families who work to grow this produce and with whom the company works directly or indirectly.

Every time I step into Comercio AlterNativo, I find something or someone new (or old). I meet friends I’ve been meaning to call, or I make a new acquaintance. Occasionally, I find a funny looking new vegetable or fruit I am willing to try (not to mention the new chocolates with cocoa grown right in Costa Rica). Though a small location, the contribution and benefit to consumers and suppliers is enormous.

Comercio AlterNativo is developing their website but can be emailed at [email protected] – Telephone/fax numbers are 228-8803 & 228-8809.

They are open on Tuesday through Saturdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. and Saturday´s until 4 p.m. Technically, they are located in Guachipelín de San Rafael, 1200 meters north of the Paco Commercial Center (or behind the Mall Multiplaza).

Susan Carmichael is a freelance writer living in Costa Rica. She has developed several education curriculums for children and adults. She has also taught journalism. Susan produced and hosted radio programs and documentaries in Costa Rica including a short story program called “In the Moment” and an hour long interview program focused on the issues of women called “A Woman´s Voice”. Six short stories have been produced on audio cassette

About the Author:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *