Demand for organics in Mexico
is tiny: 98 percent of the country's certified organic production
is for export. The majority of consumers do not even know
what the term “organic food” means. However, now
that Mexico is a “Second World” country with a
burgeoning middle class, sources in the organic sector here
say that internal demand will grow. Organic farmers' markets
have been started in several of Mexico’s major cities.
At this point, most Mexicans seem to be happy moving from buying
at little “mom and pop” grocery stores and traditional
street markets to buying at huge supermarkets like Gigante,
Mega, and, yes folks, Walmart. Walmart sells more groceries
in Mexico than any other chain. Much of the chain grocery food
comes from the U.S. or is made by Mexican divisions of U.S.
or multinational companies, such as the yogurt I buy –
Dannon when I can get it, Nestlé when I have to, or Yoplait
(there are no other sources of yogurt). However, the fact that
grocery chains are growing does not mean that Mexicans buy most
of their food in them; street markets, where farmers and hustling
middlemen bring their products, still thrive in every neighborhood
in cities here.
||"Now that Mexico is a “Second
World” country with a burgeoning middle class, sources
in the organic sector here say that internal demand will
One Mexican company, Aires de Campo, packages and markets
organic products for the Mexican market and has opened a number
of stores in the major cities of Mexico.
In 2000, Mexico had just over 100,000 hectares of certified
organic land, placing 16th in the world and fifth in Latin
America. Unfortunately, organic statisticians continue to
lump organic crop land with the vast expanses of hitherto
nearly completely unmanaged rangeland, which, with the sweep
of a hand over a map, were declared organic in places like
Argentina and Australia. So Argentina, with over 3 million
hectares certified organic in 2000, has impressive-looking
These differences in land use are reflected in the value
of organic production: $150 million from Mexico in 2000, five
times greater than Argentina’s, which puts Mexico second
only to Brazil in total value of organic production in Latin
Mexico’s organic sector grew at a rate of 45 percent
per year from 1996 to 2000, over twice the rate of the U.S.
organic sector. According to Laura Gomez, a researcher at
the University of Chapingo and co-author of a 2003 report
“La agricultura orgánica en México,”
the best estimate of organic production value for 2004 is
$350 million on a land base of 300,000 hectares—three
times that of four years before.
Major (and significant minor) organic crops
Coffee, with two-thirds of the value of organic production
in Mexico, outstrips all other certified organic crops in
land area, number of farmers, and perhaps most importantly,
number of farmers per unit value of product. Far back in second
place is corn, mostly blue corn for tortilla chips, with 4.5
percent of total organic land. Sesame ranks third, close to
corn. Mixed vegetable crops, lumped into one category, went
from second place in 1996 to fourth, with 3.8 percent of total
land, in 2000, due to strong growth from corn and sesame.
Organic coffee accounts for 10 percent of all coffee land,
the highest percentage of any crop except vanilla.
Maguey, an Agave species traditionally grown to make the
mild alcoholic drink pulque (see my New Farm article on pulque),
has made a surprisingly strong run from nowhere in the organic
world to fifth in land area in Mexico, due to strong demand
in Europe for maguey “honey”, or more accurately,
maguey syrup. As I discussed in my earlier piece, pulque consumption
has been declining for years, and entrepreneurs have turned
the millions of unused maguey plants into sources for maguey
syrup. The sap, known as aguamiel, is extracted twice daily
and boiled down to syrup instead of being fermented into pulque.
Herbs, mangoes, oranges, field beans, apples, papaya, avocado,
soy, bananas, cacao, African palm, vanilla, and pineapple
make up the rest of the organic roster. The U.S., Germany,
Holland, Japan, England, and Switzerland are the biggest buyers
of Mexico’s organic produce.
One of the useful statistics tracked by officials here—and
which I think should be used everywhere—is the “person-day”,
or jornal. Someone in the agricultural history of Mexico instituted
this unit to measure the total number of person work days dedicated
to a given sector or crop. No other Latin American country (nor
the U.S. as far as I know) presents this statistic along with
value and land area of agricultural commodities.
||"Coffee, with two-thirds of the
value of organic production in Mexico, outstrips all other
certified organic crops in land area, number of farmers
and number of farmers per unit value of product."
In 2000, the organic sector in Mexico generated $140 million
via some 16 million jornals, or about $8.7 of product per
person-day, or $1,740 for a 200 person-day year (one person
working 200 days). This is tiny, but it makes sense because
most of Mexico’s organic production is by coffee farmers
in Chiapas and Oaxaca, where holdings are small and incomes,
on the average, miniscule. It also reflects the precipitous
decline in coffee prices since 1999.
Because of organic coffee’s strong presence in Chiapas
and Oaxaca, 50 percent of organic production in Mexico is
by indigenous people of a good mix of ethnicities –
Mixtec, Cuicatec, Chatin, Chinantec, Zapotec, Tlapanec, Tojolabal,
Chontal, Totonac, Amusgo, Maya, Tepehua, Tztotzil, Nahua,
Otomi, and Tzeltal.
That is why when you buy organic or fair trade coffee from
Mexico, your money probably does more to help rural families
than just about any other food you can buy. This probably
holds true for fair trade coffee from Central America as well,
as most of the fair trade coffee there is from cooperatives
of small-scale coffee farmers.
The current state of certification, and
A comprehensive national organic program is currently under
development in Mexico. Targeted for 2005, it is expected to
create an organic farming development center, an organic foods
promotional campaign, an organic seal, and support programs
for producers and exporters. The program will be compliant
with the EU regulation requiring countries that export organic
products to have national regulations in place by 2006.
There are some 18 organic certification organizations active
in Mexico. The Mexican branch of the Organic Crop Improvement
Association (OCIA) out of Nebraska is the top certifier, certifying
a third of Mexico’s organic land and some 140 farms
or groups. A Mexican organization, Certimex is next largest,
followed by Naturland (Germany), Quality Assurance International
(San Diego), Bioagrocoop (Italy), IMO Control (Switzerland),
Oregon Tilth, EKO (Netherlands), Demeter Germany and Demeter
USA (the last two are Biodynamic certifiers).
When getting certified, farms or producer groups select which
countries, markets, or standards they want to be certified for,
according to Homero Blas, Director of the OCIA Mexico office
in Oaxaca. For export to Europe, the certification is for EU
Regulation 2092/91, for the U.S., it’s the USDA NOP Final
Rule, for Japan, the Japan Agricultural Standards, for Quebec,
by CAQ, etc. To certify through OCIA, the cost is $600 for any
one standard and $25-$100 for each additional standard. The
differences between the standards are mostly in the materials
Over 50,000 small farmers, with an average holding of 2 hectares—mostly
coffee producers in Oaxaca and Chiapas—produce over
two-thirds of organic production value in Mexico. Since it
is far beyond the abilities of a producer of that size to
seek individual certification, certification is done by farmer
groups and cooperatives. “Internal control systems”
have been developed for groups of small farmers in order to
facilitate compliance with organic certification protocols.
The largest group that OCIA-Mexico certifies consists of
a cooperative of 1,200 coffee farmers, according to Blas.
Farmer groups must be made up of farmers from one contiguous
area only, and the members must all be smallholders. Individual
farmers can’t earn more than $5,000 per year, and participating
farmers must sell all of their production via the group. Farmer
groups must develop strong internal organization, with their
own inspectors and training sessions for farmers, in order
to remain certified.
50,000 small farmers, with an average holding of
2 hectares produce over two-thirds of organic production
value in Mexico."
Generally, one inspection per year is done by an outside
inspector, such as from OCIA-Mexico, initially of 20 percent
of the member holdings. The internal control system of each
farmer group is evaluated each year and given a score. If
the group shows excellent internal organization, the percentage
of farms inspected by the external inspector can drop to a
minimum of 5 percent inspected per year, or if not, the percentage
can remain as high as 20 percent. Internal inspections must
be of 100 percent of farmers each year.
Incentives for internal control are strong, since if one
farmer is found by the external inspector to be out of compliance
without annotation by the internal inspectors, the whole group
can lose its certification for one to three years.
The most common non-compliance incidents found, according
to Blas, are improperly done farm system plans, documents,
and accounts. Application of non-listed materials is also
Fair trade certification is the most common addition to organic
certification. Of the two dozen or so fair trade organizations,
the major players in Mexico appear to be Max Havelaar, FairTrade,
TransFair, and Comercio Justo.
Bird-friendly certification of coffee can be obtained via
the Audubon Society. OCIA Mexico certifies for “shade-grown”
coffee, which is similar. Shade-grown coffee certification
involves things like diversity and density of shade trees
in the plantation and maintenance of natural strips along
riparian areas. The shade-grown standard stipulates a minimum
of 40 percent shade in the plantation, with trees averaging
36 feet or higher, and no one species accounting for more
than 50 percent of the trees or shade.
Organic and fair trade coffee has the potential to help more
small family farmers than perhaps any other crop in the world.
The critical factor is whether enough North American and European
coffee drinkers decide they want to pay the three or four
cents more per cup to make a difference.
Don Lotter is a freelance agricultural researcher and
journalist based in Davis, California. He is a frequent contributor