Hey there… Long time no see! I just emerged from an intense phase of seminars – trainings – packing – moving – and vacationing (it’s a hard life) and am writing to you, not from Brussels or Germany, but from San Jose, Costa Rica! I will be staying here for at least 4 months to work on sustainable and climate-friendly coffee production, and will use the opportunity to learn as much as possible about food and agricultural policy issues in the Americas and report on them first-hand!
As a teaser, let me tell you what I have learned about food and agriculture in the country in my first week:
– in the cities, fast food and chain restaurants are ubiquitous, and you will find all the major US chains (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, TGI Friday) without any problems. In fact, they are often used as landmarks to define addresses (since very few streets here have names… totally different issue), so your address could be “150 m south of the Taco Bell”. No joke.
– in the countryside, especially the less accessible areas, food can be expensive. Especially all items that are shipped in by boat and then sold in little “pulperias” (stores) are definitely higher priced than their equivalent in the city, and prices in general are equal or higher than European or American prices, despite the lower average income of the citizens.
– As a result, there exist a multitude of supplementation strategies – from growing your own food, trading it with your neighbor, to waiting for the once-a-week veggie truck that offers better prices and qualities than the average grocery store. What a world’s difference from our usual go-to-the-store-five-minutes-in-advance attitude, no?
– The food offered is a mix of traditional cuisine (mostly rice and beans, plus a protein), seasonal fruits and vegetables, and the standard American diet. Roadside eateries, so-called “Sodas”, will often offer either an a la carte or a buffet-style choice of rice and beans, an assortment of meats, and some fried options. A nice touch is the possibility to buy fresh fruit, both in pieces or in juice/smoothie form, wherever you go – today on my trip I bought pineapple by the slice for the perfect road snack.
– Though rice and beans are the main staple foods in the Costa Rican diet, the country actually doesn’t produce very much of either commodity, in contrast to its neighbors. The Costa Rican agricultural sector, which is a rather small part of the economy, focuses more on export crops (coffee, cocoa, exotic fruit…) than on staple food production, and there are a small number of fully self-sufficient farmers. Thus, it’s a net food-importing country, and currency fluctuations or trade disruptions can have a huge impact on the food security of the people.
– I also learned from my hostel host that the Costa Rican farmers are very innovative and open to new ideas. It seems that knowledge dissemination through workshops and government programs is a frequently used strategy to improve the efficiency and sustainability of practices. In his words “Oh yes, my neighbors are constantly going to this workshop or that training, it’s a normal part of life for them.” It’s nice to enter in such an established culture of openness with a new project like the one I will be working on, and I’m looking forward to learning how it will play out!
Do you have any questions you are curious about that I could investigate while I am here? About the food system, food sovereignty, or agricultural policy in Central America?