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Enjoying Organic Food in Costa Rica

Susan Carmichael
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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.

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