Last updateFri, 22 May 2015 4pm
Century 21 Ajijic

Organic market in Mexico ‘growing,’ say farmers, certifiers and retailers

A handful of farmers markets, stores and inspectors in the Guadalajara area are leading the charge to bring food that is organic or “agro-ecologico,” as some prefer to call it, to local consumers.

The demand for organic food here still isn’t what he calls high, said Eugenio Galindo, owner of the Guadalajara store Ecotienda, which is more than 15 years old. But it is growing.

“Now I see Mexican companies who used to sell their organic products strictly outside Mexico finally starting to sell inside this country,” he said, noting that economic changes have made it more feasible for them to sell for pesos, instead of for currencies that were formerly much stronger, such as dollars, marks and yen. He cited food such as chewing gum, honey, quinoa, chia and amaranth as examples of the trend.

But growing pains are part of the expansion of organics in Mexico. 

“At the beginning, you have to build a market and it’s difficult to have everyone certified,” said environmentalist Victor Flores, who organized a new, biweekly Feria de Productores (Producers Fair) at the Club de Leones (Lions Club) in Guadalajara and is a founding member of the local certifying group, El Jilote. 

“The public doesn’t know much about organics yet,” he added, “so we have to build a consumer base at the same time as we encourage the producers to improve their practices and move toward certification.” 

On a recent Wednesday there were very few customers at the 10 tables selling vegetables and prepared foods at Club de Leones, but Flores optimistically noted that on Saturdays (every other week) business is brisker.

He went on to explain that each vendor in this market has a slightly different certification status. At chocolate retailer Luna Cacao, sellers said their cacao is certified organic (by an agency in Chiapas, where many use old-style farming methods) but their processing is not.

Another seller, Cocuix, staffed by Isabel and David Arreguin, is certified by Flores’s group El Jilote. All their products — fresh and dried fruit, jam, tamales, agua fresca, etc. — are covered by this certification, Flores explained. Cocuix displays its certificate prominently and it even includes a QR code (a dotted, square emblem), which a consumer can photograph with a smartphone in order to view the vendor’s Web site.

But an adjacent seller uses different certification. Rancho Victoria displayed an expensive USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) certification and, as Flores pointed out, it applies only to their berries — making Rancho Victoria an example of the trend toward exporters beginning to sell locally.

Sellers have to be very cautious about using the word organic on labels, Galindo pointed out. “You must be able to validate that claim and, if not, the government can, in theory, fine you.” At this point, however, enforcement is weak, although that may change in the near future due to the imminent arrival of the Ley de Productos Organicos (Law of Organic Products).

At the Club de Leones market, Flores brandished a large notebook containing this new law, overseen by the federal agricultural agency SAGARPA. 

“This contains the steps to become organically certified and to identify and form agencies that do certification,” he explained. But he noted that the law still hasn’t been officially implemented. “They were supposed to do it in April, but it’s been postponed, maybe for six months.” He said that the federal consumer agency PROFECO will do the monitoring of markets related to this law.

Not only are sellers supposed to be cautious about saying “organic,” but, because of the developing nature of the organic market, few retailers use the word either. Markets, stores and tianguis that gravitate toward clean and healthy products stay away from “organic” in their names, said Ana Luz Zepeda, a greens grower and member of the local certifying group El Jilote. 

“We prefer the term ‘agro-ecologico,’” she says. Part of the reason is that organic certification has normally been undertaken by large companies who can afford the high price of Mexican or foreign certification agencies, which runs from $5,000 to $10,000 U.S. dollars. “But the growers El Jilote works with are small. They don’t want to export.”

The Lake Chapala Farmer’s Market in Ajijic has a reputation as organic, but, “we changed the name three and a half years ago from ‘organic market’ to ‘farmer’s market,’” said Antonio Pujals, an electronics engineer, grower and El Jilote certifier, who has been involved throughout the market’s six years of existence. 

“All the produce at the market — tomatoes, greens and so on — are organic. You can be sure of that. But prepared foods, like salsas and desserts might not be 100 percent organic, although they generally use some organic ingredients.”

Zepeda, who organized this market five years ago with three growers in a garage, says that now there are more than 45 sellers. “Out of eight vegetable growers, five are certified organic. Some of them are renewing their certificates [which cost $2,000 pesos annually] and some are working toward better practices.”

Galindo and Flores admitted that it can be difficult for customers to navigate the “organic” marketplace.

“Consumers don’t really have an easy way of knowing which producers are organic or certified and producers can say anything,” Flores said.

“I can usually figure it out with a few key questions, like where does your water come from, how do you treat your soil,” said Galindo. “But for customers, it can be difficult. They need to be very educated. If you’re not sure about the farmer and they’re not certified, ask other consumers or producers. Or ask to visit the farm. If it’s a good farm, they’ll say ‘Sure.’”

Galindo said that at Ecotienda perhaps 50 percent of the products are labelled organic, that he checks certificates and all but one supplier has shown theirs. He said that at many tianguis-style markets, such as at Ajijic, Plaza Andares and Club de Leones, it’s up to the organizers to check.

“For the Ajijic market,” said Pujals, “believe it or not, we get 50 to 75 applications a month. I keep a file of rejected ones.

“But we work with farmers to encourage them to use better practices. We visit farms periodically, give workshops, and encourage them to label and migrate to biodegradable or glass packaging.”

“We look at the origin of the seeds,” added certifier Zepeda. “We look for a commitment to teaching in the community, to ecotechnologies like capturing rainwater, solar panels and recycling.”

Galindo referred to the common belief that most Mexican farms are not big operations and that small ranches in Mexico use processes that are virtually organic simply because they are not wealthy enough to afford expensive pesticides, feeds, hormones and antibiotics. 

But experts such as Galindo don’t completely buy these notions. For one thing, huge poultry and livestock complexes are plentiful in areas such as Los Altos de Jalisco, a remote, high-altitude, agricultural part of the state. And practices at those farms, owned by a few families, may include rampant use of chemicals, hormones and antibiotics. 

“I suppose it’s true,” he said, “that little producers don’t have the money for hormones or antibiotics. And free range chickens, that eat crickets or whatever — that may be common at small ranches and it’s good.

“But you can’t say that a guy who doesn’t use chemicals is organic. It’s dangerous. What about the water and the soil? Maybe there’s a little town upstream that is contaminating.”

Galindo added that the availability of organic products in Mexico may not be what foreigners are accustomed to. “Organic wheat flour is produced here, but it’s seasonal and more expensive than non-organic. Organic corn is more common here than wheat.” Sometimes Ecotienda carries organic flour imported from the United States, which is naturally more expensive than local flour.

People involved in Mexico’s growing agro-ecological movement mention a variety of reasons for their interest. Some cite illness in the family as a prime motivator.

“My mother and father got sick 10 years ago,” said Zepeda, “and we couldn’t find clean vegetables to help them recover. We had a small farm near the airport, so we decided to use it for clean production.”

Similarly, Dennis Vazquez, owner of the store Purorganika in Guadalajara, said his mother founded the store after her father died of stomach cancer. 

“We thought there was no reason he got sick. He had a healthy lifestyle. He ate fruits and vegetables. Then we found that the things he ate a lot of — berries and tomatoes — are highly treated with pesticides, so we knew that caused the cancer.”

Information: tianguisorganicos.org.mx, eljilote.org.