After Years of Exporting Organic Products Abroad, Mexico Is Now Spreading Healthy Eating at Home
MEXICO CITY Creamy fresh yogurt from hormone-free cows, coffee untainted by chemicals, and avocados plucked from pesticide-free trees line the shelves of The Green Corner market, whose earthy feel suggests organic food stores north of the border.
But this is Mexico City, and the store's green awning, plant-lined sidewalk, and recycling containers are still a somewhat strange sight in a city filled with typical taco stands, conventional supermarkets, and outdoor food stalls.
Mexico has exported organic coffee, fruits, and vegetables abroad for about two decades, but it is just beginning to share these products with consumers at home.
Currently, at least 85 percent of the organic food grown in this country is shipped to other nations, including the United States, some European Union members, and Japan.
The domestic consumer market, on the other hand, is still in its infant stages. Less than 5 percent of Mexico's organic products are sold through natural food stores and restaurants, according to a recent study by researchers at Mexico's Autonomous University of Chapingo.
The Green Corner's owners, Adriana Leon, 39, and husband Bensi Levy, 34, are among a small number of grocery pioneers who are trying to change that, planting their investment stakes in the nearly virgin landscape of Mexican organic retail. The store will celebrate its first anniversary in December.
"When we traveled, we found a great deal of organic items for sale, but here, while we noticed some small shops, they didn't really offer everything they could," said Leon, sitting at a wooden table outside the market, sipping organic chamomile tea and patting her dog Lola.
Passing customers carry paper shopping bags overflowing with chemical-free produce or eat a breakfast of organic eggs cooked in the store's window-front kitchen.
The inaugural Green Corner is located in Mexico City's central Condesa neighborhood, and Leon expects to open two others shortly. All three areas are home to well-educated, well-paid residents who represent the few Mexicans aware of organic food and able to afford it.
Other Mexican organic food stores tend to be in cities or tourist areas as well, although a handful of organic street markets have sprung up in several Mexican states.
Leon says that within five years, she hopes to introduce The Green Corner to working-class neighborhoods in Mexico City.
"We want to open ... where the supplies will reach everyone," she said. "So that it is not a question of selling something that is only for the elite."
Mexico's cultivation and cultural history make it the perfect home for organic production. Indian farmers have always tilled chemical-free land and grown pesticide-free produce to protect Mother Earth, while peasant farmers have avoided chemicals mostly because they can't afford them.
The organic growing boom in Mexico began in the 1980s, when European importers discovered the quality of chemical-free Mexican coffee cultivated by peasant farmers in southern Chiapas and Oaxaca states, said Dr. Jose Zamorano of the Mexican Agriculture Department, whose division promotes nontraditional products. At the same time, foreign nongovernmental organizations and business interests were encouraging small farmers to grow more organic products to satisfy increasing world demand.
Today, 90 percent of the nation's 53,000 organic agriculture producers are modest farmers cultivating 12 acres or less, Zamorano said.
Initially, the organic coffee farmers were being paid up to 60 percent more than what they would have earned for conventionally grown coffee, he said. That higher profit margin has been pared to as low as 20 percent, but profits for coffee and other organic products still remain higher than those for nonorganic food.
Organic food sales in 2002 totaled US$23 billion worldwide and just a fraction of that $280 million in Mexico, the Autonomous University study says.
The amount of land in Mexico dedicated to organic cultivation has grown from 56,830 acres in 1996 to about 544,000 acres currently, ranking the country 18th worldwide. That still represents only 1 percent of farmland in Mexico, but it is growing at a rate of 25 percent a year, faster than any other agricultural sector.
The government is helping farmers pay for the international organic certification needed for export and required by many organic food stores.
One obstacle to more widespread domestic consumption of organic food is a general lack of awareness and some confusion.
Zamarano recalled that when one supermarket in Mexico City first added organic avocados to its stocks four years ago, clients would not buy them because they confused the term organico with transgenico, or genetically altered food.
The typically high price of organic food is perhaps the most difficult barrier of all in Mexico, where more than half of the country's 105 million people still live on about $10 a day.
Leon says The Green Corner is trying hard to keep prices low: 5 percent to 20 percent higher than conventional prices instead of three to five times higher, which she says is often the case in the United States and Europe.
Mexico City resident Georgina Sordo, a 32-year-old housewife with four sons, is one of the increasing number of Mexicans who has decided to give organic products a try.
"It seems that it's worthwhile to look for healthy foods here, even if it's just to compensate a little for all of the pollution and other things we ingest in the city," she said. "And it's important that my kids don't consume so many preservatives."
Source: Associated Press