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Sustainable and equitable agricultural solutions in Meso- America: the case of Costa Rica

Agriculture that delivers healthy products, promotes equity , renewable energy, low environmental impact and is resilient to climate change.

Photo of Alvaro Umana
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Lead Applicant Organization Name

CATIE is an international center of research and higher education in tropical agriculture providing sustainable solutions, reducing poverty.

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

I am a Senior Research Fellow at CATIE, based in Washington DC, but representing the entire CATIE family, which includes the faculty based in Costa Rica, plus national offices in every member country. In this case we would include the expertise of all local personnel and partner organizations, which include community and farmer organizations.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.catie.ac.cr

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 10+ years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Washington DC

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Given prize criteria selected place is Costa Rica, a country of 50,000 square kilometers that has a strong agricultural base and history.

What country is your selected Place located in?

Costa Rica.

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

My name is Alvaro Umana and I am a Costa Rican citizen and environmental scientist and economist who has been working on issues related to agricultural sustainablility and equity. A lot of my research dealing with payment for ecosystem services (PES) was developed and carried out in Costa Rica. In 2009 when I was Ambassador for Climate Change we introduced carbon-neutral coffee developed by an agricultural coop (Coopedota) that lead to a nation wide coffe related NAMA.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Costa Rica is a small tropical country located between Panama and Nicaragua in Central America. It is characterized as an open society with a strong democratic democratic tradition and respect for human rights. It is considered to be one of the upcoming nations in Latin America.

Due to its geographic and morphological conditions it has many different life zones, rich volcanic soils and nearly 5% of the world's biodiversity. Agriculture has played a very important role in Costa Rica's development and its integration into the global trade system. The country started to export coffee to Europe in the middle of the 19th century and small coffee producers in the Central Valley constituted one of the pillars of Costa Rica's democratic system. Later on at the beginning of the 20th century, bananas were introduced in the lowlands by US companies like United Fruit Co. and Costa Rica became an exporter of bananas in addition to coffee. More recently, pineapple cultivation has grown tremendously, becoming the most valuable export agricultural commodity. These three agricultural export products are the backbone of Costa Rica export agriculture, which used to be the primary exports fifty years ago. 

Today, the country has modernized considerably, it became part of the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States, and business services has become the top generator of foreign exchange, followed by tourism and agriculture in third place. In fact Costa Rica has become one of acknowledged leaders of ecotourism and visitors frequently comment on the wide availability of fresh fruits and vegetables. Given that the country is small and the climate mild, agricultural products are available throughout the year.

In addition to export agriculture, there is also a vibrant agricultural sector devoted to internal consumption and it includes a large variety of fruits, vegetables, as well as beef and dairy cattle. Overall, the environmental footprint of agriculture is very large and the country has high levels of  use agrochemicals and pesticides. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture represents nearly 40% of total emissions, second only to the transport sector.  So the challenges to agriculture is how to feed a growing population (presently approximately 5 million) with a relatively fixed land area useful for cultivation, while at the same time reducing significantly the environmental footprint and greenhouse gas emissions.

Given the topography, with mountains up to 3,800 meters traversing the country, there are many life zones and climates, ranging from the drier Pacific lowlands to wet tropical forests, transitions forest and cloudforests. One of the challenges to agriculture are the relatively high temperatures and humidity that make pests, including fungi and nematodes hard to control. This is why there is a heavy reliance on pesticides.


What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

50000

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

500000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The main present challenges to agriculture can be classified in two categories: export agriculture (primarily pineapple, coffee and bananas) and agriculture for domestic consumption which includes fruit and vegetables, poultry, pork, beef and dairy cattle and seafood.  Traditional diets for these have not changed much, primarily based on corn and beans and poultry. Beef and seafood, are expensive and not an alternative to the poorer sectors of the population. In general, people can have healthy diets based on fresh food and grains. In drier area there is a  need to develop more water efficient crop alternatives, like sorghum and tubers or have small plots of higher valued organic crops if they can plant at the right time and have some irrigation.  It is necessary to improve the resilience of agriculture, both in drought as well in excessive rainfall conditions. Weather patterns have change and now there are more extreme weather events. Reinforcing monitoring and early warning systems can be critical. Mitigating the impact of heavy rains and droughts through agricultural best practices can increase the families' resilience and adaptation to the present climate compromise that may force them to migrate.

There has been pressure from external markets for cleaner production systems, including waste management, as well as the  development of organic options. Carbon-neutral coffee was introduced by Costa Rica ten years ago at the time of the Copenhagen Climate Summit. This tendency has also been present in bananas, and the largest remaining problem is pineapple, which has a heavy environmental footprint and has impacted water supply sources with bromacil, a dangerous herbicide that can seep into the groundwater.

The main future challenges deal with providing a healthy diet to almost 7 million people by 2050, while reducing agriculture's environmental footprint, primarily carbon, nitrogen and pesticides. Agriculture needs to be based on renewable energy solutions and wastes generated in agriculture are an important part of the strategy. This will require a revolution in food crop productivity since the best soils are already under cultivation, as well as a deeper understanding of the interplay between sustainable food production and natural ecosystems. 

Many of the technologies needed to achieve these goals are presently available in seed banks, tissue culture technologies and other traditional methods that do not have to rely on genetically modified foods (GMO's). Two examples developed at  CATIE are a coffee variety that has very good quality and is resistant to heavier rainfalls that would normally make the grains fall before they are mature. Another one are cocoa varieties with great flavor and resistant to fungi and nematodes. These varieties can be grafted into existing coca trees.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

The main challenges to be addressed are:

Decoupling yields and environmental footprint of agriculture by introducing renewable energy technologies, reduce agro-chemicals by developing more efficient delivery methods and more extensive use organic pesticides.

Change diets so that people eat lower in the food chain and consume fresh and healthy products. Costa Rican staples of rice and beans are already a good basis for a healthy diet, but more widespread production of  healthy fruits and vegetables is possible

Promote activities like farmers markets where organic products can be sold directly to consumers as a way to promote more equitable markets.

Develop more resilient plant varieties and make them available to producers.

Develop organic certification and greenhouse emission-reduction markets for agricultural products

Extend crop insurance mechanisms and develop modern forecasting networks so that growers can now what to expect, for example an El Nino event.

Develop small plot agriculture in urban and peri-urban areas, and throughout the school system.

Create a culture of constant technological innovation in universities and research institutes.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

The high level vision is inserted in Costa Rica's overall efforts in climate change, focused on decarbonization of the economy and agriculture is key because of its high share of greenhouse gas emissions (40%).

Costa Rica has successfully tackled the deforestation trend, which reached a low below 30% of forest cover and has risen to 52% in 2020 and 60% in 2050. This has been done through reforestation, prohibitions for land use change, payment for ecosystem services and private forest reserves, which by 2050 have reached over 1000. Cattle growers are devoting around one third of their lands to living fences, reforestation and forest growth.

Agricultural soils are conserved and improved through soil carbon enrichment and management for resilience, using channels, terraces and reservoirs to deal with extreme weather events. Pesticides use has decreased dramatically, substituted by organic alternatives and biological methods of pest control. Fertilizers are applied by highly efficient methods, for example timed-release options to reduce emissions, primarily methane and nitrous oxide which have very high greenhouse impact.

Export agriculture has continued to prosper, following the example led by coffee where small plots of high quality product can be traced to its origin and production methods, and is sold at auction internationally in organic and carbon-neutral markets. The use of blockchain technologies becomes widespread in the export agriculture sector and also starts to be adopted by local growers that want to reach higher valud markets. Agricultural incomes rise.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

(Unfortunately the full vision statement that I drafted and saved last night is not here and i do not have the time to re-write it. Please check if there was a failure in the system . If requested I can provide a detailed vision later. What follows is an executive summary)


An agricultural system fueled entirely by renewable energy, with zero-net emissions as a goal, managing above-ground and below-ground carbon, valuing and paying for ecosystem services to provide greater equity. A system with a larger genetic base and alternative crops depending on the water regimes, hoping to extract more crop per drop, reducing agro-chemical inputs and maximizing use of biomass waste. There is decisive governmental action in creating certification for organic products and emissions markets for agricultural greenhouse gas reductions. Blockchain technologies become widespread to trace the origin of high valued agricultural products like coffee. Preventive water management, collection and rainwater harvesting, above and below ground storage, aquifer recharge. Use of effective communication and weather forecasting technologies and networks. Emergency planning, hydrological data collection and distribution. Diets based primarily on vegetable protein, eating lower in the food-chain to reduce water an environmental impacts. Extensive use of farmers markets to reduce transaction and transportation costs and create greater equity.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Website

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Thank you so much for the Food Extension Initiative.

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