Following up on another article about organics we decided to pose some questions to Dr. Andrea Brechelt who runs the Mercado Ecológico in Santo Domingo. See the previous article.
The Mercado Ecologico is a health food shop that offers a complete selection of organic fruit and vegetables every week. Customers are given a list of products every Wednesday by telephone or e-mail so that they can make their order. The produce arrives on Friday morning and customers can have their order delivered or go and collect it from the shop. They also stock a range of mainly Dominican organic products such as coffee, casabe, rice and beans as well as natural toiletries and essential oils.
The main theme of our discussion with Dr. Brechelt was the issue of credibility.
How can we know for sure that the fruit and vegetables are organic?
Dr Brechelt concedes that as organics become more popular there is a risk that people could jump on the bandwagon and make false claims about products. For example, the lettuce sold in many supermarkets as 'ecologico' is dubious.
In the case of Mercado Ecologico they know their producers. Campo Sano (who also supply Supermarket chains with their products) a large-scale organic producer based in the Constanza area, have organic certification from IMO Control (Switzerland), an internationally recognised organic certification entity. Another supplier to the Mercado Ecologico is CA-UCA, a farmers' association from Loma de Cabrera in the northwest. They produce organic pumpkin and papaya as well as coffee and casabe, and are certified by Salud y Vida, an Italian certification body. Café Monte Alto is certified by BCS Eco Garantia from Germany.
The rest of the fresh produce sold at the Mercado Ecologico comes from small producers in Licey al Medio (Santiago) and Ocoa (Bani) who work with church based NGOs Mision ILAC and Junta de Ocoa respectively. These NGOs provide organic farming experts who accompany the producers throughout the process. In most cases these are farmers who have never used chemicals anyway, because they farm on a small scale, in remote areas and cannot afford commercial fertilizers or pesticides. For this reason they could also never have sold their produce to mass markets in urban areas without the Mercado Ecologico.
According to Dr Brechelt organic certification is necessary when there is no direct contact between producer and consumer - as in the case of the larger companies. 'Organic certification is expensive - if we demand it from all producers it isolates small farmers, so we have to work with trust and close contact'. She adds though that once the market grows certification is essential.
Dr Brechelt estimates the average annual cost for certification at US$3000, although this depends on the production scale. An individual farmer cannot afford this, so working as part of an association is one solution. CONACADO (Dominican Cocoa Producers Association) has 9000 members and is currently the world's largest organic cocoa exporter. The association as a whole has certification from two international bodies: Fair Trade and BCS Eco Garantia.
What about the price difference between organics and conventional?
On the international organic market, says Dr Brechelt, organic products cost about 40% more than their conventional equivalents, but prices are going down as the market expands. In the Dominican Republic it is difficult to compare because of fluctuating prices due to season and availability in the general produce market, but again the difference in price is around 40%.
Is there no such thing as an organic tomato?
There are some crops that cannot be cultivated organically on a commercial scale. Cocoa as well as coffee and bananas, - the main Dominican organic exports - are crops that have traditionally been grown without chemicals. This makes their large-scale cultivation relatively easy and the fact is that there is not much difference between a conventional banana and an organic one.
In the Dominican Republic rice, tomatoes, cabbage and lettuce are 'drenched' in chemicals, so it is well worth paying more for an organically grown version. This is only possible when the crop is cultivated on a small scale. 'A good organic crop should also be ecological, which mono-crops are not. A combination of crops is much healthier (for the environment) and reduces the risk of infestations'.
If you are interested in the Mercado Ecologico, we suggest that you visit on a Friday when the organic fruit and vegetables are being sold. If you like what you see, put your name on their e-mail or telephone list for the following week's order.