Organic Produce in Mexico Fills International Demand, Remains Unpopular Locally


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SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS -- A tumble of colors, aromas, voices and faces greet the senses at the Castillo Tielman Market in the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas. Walking between the tiny, complicated corridors is slow. But each pause brings awe and delight to shoppers as they witness the staggering diversity of the region’s flowers, vegetables, fruits and medicinal plants, all within an arms reach.

Rambutan. Spiny red lychee. Guananabanas are the local favorite. Lumpy, green custard apples. The choices are endless. But another choice may not be as familiar here — organic or non-organic?  

Vendor Cristina Josefa Pérez Díaz is one of the few vendors selling organic products in San Cristobal’s main marketplace. She suggests choosing products that were produced without agrochemicals and fertilizers, “Look, the taste isn’t the same when you use fertilizers and what’s more, it’s [bad for the earth] and bad for [people],” she says.

Miguel Angel Garcia, an agricultural expert with Maderas del Pueblo del Sureste, a Mexican nonprofit organization, agrees with Pérez Díaz. The effects of eating chemically produced food may not show up right away, he says, but can be dangerous in the long run. Garcia notes that many of the chemicals used without regulation in Mexico are banned in the United States and Europe.

In Mexico, the debate continues about the possible environmental and public health risks posed by pesticides, fertilizers and the use of genetically modified seeds. The cultivation of organic products has increased during the last two decades throughout the country in order to meet the demands of international markets. Still, until a few years ago, there was little demand for these products within Mexico.

A recent agriculture study by the the National Autonomous University of Mexico revealed that the high prices of organic foods deters many Mexican consumers. On average, organic products cost three to five times more than conventionally produced crops. The study also found that many Mexican consumers don’t understand the potential health benefits of organic foods.

In San Cristobal de Las Casas, producers like Pérez Díaz and citizen groups such La Canasta Orgánica, the Organic Basket, work together to educate the public about the benefits of organic products and provide access to affordable and healthy food.

The vegetables Pérez Díaz sells at her stand are grown by her husband, Ángel Moreno Ballinas, in a plot of land at the foot of Huitepec Hill, 25 minutes from the center of San Cristobal. Moreno Ballinas uses traditional agricultural methods, like the application of manure and other natural fertilizers and hand weeding.

Her prices, which are higher due to the more labor-intensive production methods, range from 50 cents to a peso more than similar products sold at non-organic stands.

“We eat everything that we plant,” says Pérez Díaz, underscoring her confidence in her products. She adds that she has many loyal customers who all know about the organic methods the family uses to produce the food.

La Canasta Orgánica, a citizen initiative that aims to increase access to naturally produced foods, has operated in San Cristóbal for nearly one year. Organized by a group of urban women, La Canasta Orgánica gathers organic products from throughout the region and brings the goods into central San Cristóbal on Saturdays. Increasing access to organic foods is their primary goal, but they also seek to “care for the environment through the consumption of responsibly produced products,” says Gerdi Seidl, co-founder of the group.

La Canasta Orgánica offers certified organic products such as coffee and honey. But most of the products they offer, are classified as “artisanal” because the goods are cultivated by small farmers, like Moreno Ballinas, using natural methods, but they have not been officially certified as organic.

La Canasta Orgánica, says Seidl, doesn’t look to make money or become a middleman between producers and consumers, but rather to “create a space where people can find healthy, fairly-priced products.”