Costa Rica – Day 2 – Organic farming and peri-urban agriculture

My group's contribution to peri-urban agriculture.  From left to right: Carla, Catherine, me, Kevin.

My group’s contribution to peri-urban agriculture. From left to right: Carla, Catherine, me, Kevin.

Today we toured the organic farm and animal husbandry area of Earth University.  The farming is done organically without special inputs and chemicals.  The crops are highly diverse, with a variety of vegetables grown right next to each other.  Wastewater was processed through a series of ponds which used natural plant life to remove impurities.

The chicken coop at the animal farm at Earth University.

The chicken coop at the animal farm at Earth University.

The animal husbandry was inspiring.  I have never seen such happy animals in such natural settings. The chickens had dirt to scratch in, plenty of bugs to eat, and nest boxes to lay eggs in. They walked right up to us very curious who we were and why we were there.  They also had an adjoining yard to wander around in.

Pig nursery at Earth University.

Pig nursery at Earth University.

The pigs had lots of mud to root around in.  The pregnant sows had a large muddy enclosure and didn’t fight, as you so often hear they do in American agriculture. The moms and babies each got their own enclosure – no farrowing crates. They all kept their tails and teeth. They all also had a large grassy area with little wooden houses. Our guide Mario explained that these pigs have no stress in their lives – they are living as nature intended pigs to live. So there is no problem with the piglets chewing each other’s tails or the moms sitting on the babies. He also said the meat tastes much better this way.

Gardens are bordered with discarded materials.

Gardens are bordered with discarded materials.

Earth University grows all its own food, including any meat that is served in the cafeteria. The fruits and vegetables and totally fresh, and everything is healthy. Can this be done on a large scale? Not a large monocrop farm. But the UN has a recent report saying small scale agriculture is what will feed the world. This kind of agro-ecology is exactly what we saw today at Earth University. Developing countries like Costa Rica don’t need to be importing agriculture inputs including expensive chemicals from us. They can grow their own and feed themselves.

How to fit a lot of food in a small space.

How to fit a lot of food in a small space.

In turn, we could be localizing more of our own food, growing it smaller scale, and providing more jobs. So many rural towns are decimated by having no jobs, but if farming employed more people again, these towns could come back to life. We may not be able to do away with chemicals altogether, but we could cut back a lot, and also cut use of antibiotics to give them only when an animal is actually sick, not in low doses to prevent illness because they are so crowded together. 80% of antibiotics are currently used on farm animals, and they are losing their effectiveness for humans.

Food is grown in a mixture of rice hulls, charcoal bits, and coconut shell bits.

Food is grown in a mixture of rice hulls, charcoal bits, and coconut shell bits.

Would these practices raise the cost of food?  Yes, but by how much? A little more is worth it to gain all these advantages over the current system. Even 1.5 times as much that Mario mentioned is worth it. You can pay for the food now or the doctor later. Everything works better if you pay the costs now – it’s better for the land, the animals, and human health.  Americans pay a smaller percentage of their income for food than people in any other country — under 6 percent.  We can afford to pay a little more to treat the land and animals more sustainably and humanely.

Now there's an interesting planter.

Now there’s an interesting planter.

I wasn’t sure what peri-urban agriculture was before this trip, so I looked it up.  It is basically agriculture in semi-urban settings such as suburbs, vacant lots, and the like.  The peri-urban agriculture we saw at Earth University was all about vegetables and grew food in a number of different ways.  Sometimes it was in raised beds, with crops such as lettuce planted in a mixture of rice hulls, charcoal bits and coconut shells.  Sometimes it was grown in small gardens bounded by old soda bottles, bike tires, or even on an old bicycle.

Oh snap!  A bird pooped on me during the tour.

Oh snap! A huge bird pooped on me during the tour.

Another area had plants growing out of holes cut into long plastic bags or old jeans legs and stacked lattice style to save room in an ad hoc greenhouse made from bamboo poles covered in plastic.  Another area had them planted in whatever container was available such as an old bucket, hanging tire, or soda bottle hanging from a window.  We ended the tour by making our own planters out of soda bottles, and painting them with our own designs.

This tour gave me a lot of ideas for how I could grow my own food at home even though I live in a detached condo with a postage-stamp sized yard.  We have no room for a vegetable garden like the one I grew up with, but anyone could use the techniques modeled here to grow food in any size space.  Ron Finley, a food activist in Los Angeles, says growing your own food is like printing money.  That’s something we can all do.


This week in class we looked at a video produced by EARTH University about biodigesters. We will be helping to install biodigesters on area farms as part of the service learning component of the Costa Rica trip, so I was very curious to see what they looked like.

To my surprise, the way they make biodigesters in Costa Rica is by using large spools of heavy plastic. The plastic is double wrapped, with a release valve installed on top. All the photos of biodigesters I had seen in the United States show hard plastic chambers or even wood, and they can be quite expensive. But these biodigesters will be much cheaper, easier to make on site, and more flexible.

Basically what a biodigester does is act like a stomach to digest waste, creating natural gas that people can use for cooking or heating. This is useful in developing countries for two reasons: one, they have a place to put waste such as animal manure besides rivers and streams, and two, the gas produced on site means they don’t have to buy and bring in propane from the outside.

Anaerobic digestion, or digestion in the absence of oxygen, happens in four stages of chemical reactions:

• Hydrolysis
• Acidogenesis
• Acetogenesis
• Methanogenesis


In hydrolosis, bacteria break down large organic molecules from manure or other waste into soluble solutions that other bacteria can use. Those bacteria then convert the sugar and amino acids into carbon dioxide, hydrogen, ammonia, and other organic acids. Next, still more bacteria convert these substances into acetic acid along with more ammonia, hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Finally, it is converted into methane and carbon dioxide, which can be used as a form of energy for cooking and heating.

Here’s a YouTube video that shows what the biodigesters that we will be making look like. I am looking forward to it!

Environmental policy in Costa Rica

It’s been a long time since I’ve been outside the country.  In high school I did a school trip to Mexico to see various archaeological sites.  Between college and my first round of grad school, I did a six-week visit to Europe.  Half of it was spent visiting a friend and traveling in Germany, and the other half on one of those “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium” trips.  It was exhausting but I did see a lot.

For one of my journalism jobs I attended a conference in Windsor, Canada, and later I visited my brother who was working at McGill University in Montreal.  I don’t really count Canada as leaving the country, but at least you need a passport.

Now that I’m in a degree-seeking program at Ohio State, I decided to look at study abroad opportunities.  Because of my job I needed something short term, and I wanted something related to the environment. So I picked a spring break service learning trip to Costa Rica, to find out more about what makes this country a leader in sustainability.

Here are some points about Costa Rica’s environmental policy:

  • Almost 30% of land in Costa Rica is in protected reserves, and the country produces more than 90% of its electricity through renewables such as hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The government has long provided cash incentives for reforestation and sustainable timber projects.  As a result, forest cover grew from 21% in 1987 to 52% in 2005. (source pdf)
  • In 1997 Costa Rica passed a carbon tax of 3.5% (pdf) on all hydrocarbon fossil fuels. It was one of the first countries to pass such a tax.  The revenue goes toward the Payment for Environmental Services program, which offers incentives for property owners to practice sustainable development and conservation.
  • In 2009 Costa Rica set a goal of being the first carbon-neutral country in the world by 2021, though that has now been extended to 2025. The plan is to promote biofuels, hybrid vehicles and clean energy, and to offer a carbon-neutral label through which industry and tourists can pay $10 a ton to offset emissions.  The money would be used to fund conservation, reforestation and research in protected areas. I would definitely pay this for my flight there and back and my time in the country.

One interesting thing about Costa Rica is its Biodiversity Law.  The country is considered one of the Top 20 in the world for biodiversity.  It has more than 500,000 species, or almost 4% of species estimated worldwide.  Part of what makes this possible is its array of ecosystems from coasts to rainforests to mountains.  The other part is the legal framework.

The Biodiversity Law passed in 1998 set up the National Commission for Biodiversity Management (CONAGEBIO), which works with the National System of 11 Conservation Areas to administer the country’s natural resources.  The National Strategy for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity was created in 1999 to guide this management through a highly participatory process on the local and national levels.

One issue that has come up repeatedly is intellectual property rights.  International pharmaceutical and seed corporations want to come in and collect samples of Costa Rica’s biodiversity to use in drugs or crops that they can patent and sell.  Without property rights, they can’t make money, which is what they say allows them to develop and distribute these products.

Costa Rica’s Biodiversity Law, however, gives communities control over this intellectual property.  Communities don’t want to give up this knowledge to international corporations because then they feel they have lost control of the resource for very little compensation.  They think intellectual property rights don’t need to be granted for commercialization to take place.

However, this runs up against the WTO agreement which Costa Rica signed, which does allow corporations from other countries to take its biological resources.  It’s hard to see how this conflict can be resolved to the satisfaction of all.

A final point about Costa Rica: It has no standing army.  The military was abolished in 1948.  For a country that sits next to some places with pretty high levels of violence (Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala), that seems like an odd choice.  But Costa Rica hasn’t had a coup since, and it has spent the “peace dividend” on education and the environment.

The country does have a pretty strong police force, which it needs to deal with a drug trade moving north from South America.  It also has an ongoing border dispute with Nicaragua. But its spending on national defense is zero.

Maybe all of this – biodiversity, environment, and education – is why Costa Rica was recently named the happiest place on earth.