Sizing up organic farming in Mexico

Although domestic demand is still small, land area under organic management and total value of organic production in Mexico is expanding at 45 percent a year—twice the rate of expansion in the U.S. Coffee is by far the country's most important organic crop.

By Don Lotter
January 31, 2005, Oaxaca, Mexico.

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.

"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."
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.

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 statistics.

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 America.

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.

"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."
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.

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 future directions

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 lists.

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.

"Over 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 occasionally found.

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 to