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.
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 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
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
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
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.
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 NewFarm.org.