Mexico’s Fair Trade coffee faces an uncertain future

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Aug 302011

An earlier post looked at why Mexico’s coffee harvest was unlikely to meet expectations this year. The 2010-11 harvest, hit by poor weather, totaled a disappointing 4 million 60-kg sacks (240,000 metric tons), almost entirely Coffea arabica and about 70% destined for export. This post looks at some recent trends relating to the production and consumption of coffee in Mexico.

Mexico is the world’s seventh largest coffee producer (after Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, Colombia, India and Ethiopia) and one of the leading suppliers of organic, shade-grown coffee. The nation’s 480,000 coffee growers, most working small parcels of land less than 5 hectares (12 acres) in size, are concentrated in the states of Chiapas, Veracruz and Oaxaca.

Mexico’s domestic consumption of coffee

Despite being one of the world’s leading coffee producers,Mexico’s domestic consumption averages only 1.2 kg (2.6 lbs) per person each year. While this figure has doubled since 2000, is is still only about half the equivalent figure for the coffee-growing Central American nations, and way below consumption in wealthier countries such as world-leader Finland (12 kg per person) or the USA (5.5 kg per person). Domestic consumption is rising but remains low.

Yields need to rise

According to Amecafe (Asociación Mexicana de la Cadena Productiva del Café), a major growers’ organization, global climate change is expected to have an adverse long-term effect on prices and on the sustainability of coffee-farming in Mexico. In an effort to raise yields of coffee to at least 12 quintals/hectare (19 bushels/acre) within 3 years and to 20 quintals/ha (32 bushels/acre) eventually, Mexico’s Agriculture Secretariat has announced financing of 16 million dollars for a program to gradually replace aging coffee groves in 12 states.

Fair trade coffee faces uncertain future

Soaring coffee prices might signal the beginning of the end for Fair Trade coffee. Much of the world’s specialty coffee comes from small-scale growers in Latin America, including Mexico, and much of it is marketed as “organic” or “fair trade”. After a decade of depressed prices, wholesale and retail prices for coffee have risen sharply in the past year. US retail prices have risen more than 20%; the price of coffee on international commodity markets has risen almost 60%.

The higher prices should be good news for growers, but as Kevin Hall points out in “Coffee prices being pushed by speculators” this is not necessarily the case. Many co-operative marketing organizations, including those considered socially-responsible or “Fair Trade”, do not have the resources to pay the new higher prices and acquire sufficient coffee to meet their existing contracts. This means they can no longer compete against the well-financed middlemen who specialize in purchasing coffee for regular distribution via commodities markets and major buyers. Farmers want the maximum return they can get on their crop, and they want it on delivery, which makes life difficult for any fair trade co-operative that lacks strong financial resources.

Further statistics:

  • USDA (US Department of Agriculture) June 2011 update on coffee (pdf file).

Related post:

The cultivation of chiles in Mexico

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Apr 182011

In a previous post, we saw how chiles (Capsicum spp.) have been cultivated in Mexico for centuries (the oldest record of domestication dates back to 4100BC) and they made an important contribution to Mexico’s traditional cuisine being recognized by UNESCO as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”In this post we take a closer look at where they are grown, how many are produced and how valuable the annual crop is for the domestic market and for export.

For an overview of different kinds of chiles, see these two articles by Karen Hursh Graber on MexConnect:

Area cultivated

The area cultivated for chiles has declined slightly over the last decade from 145,000 hectares to 141,000; about 85% of this area is irrigated. However, the volume of total production has risen by an average of 1.5%/yr, due to the application of improved techniques, knowledge and equipment, especially the increased use of greenhouses. Each year, a small percentage of the cultivated area is not harvested due to the adverse impacts of diseases, pests and climatic events.

Cultivation location, production volumes and value

Mexico’s total annual chile production is around 2 million tons [cf China’s 14.3 million tons]. By variety, about 30% of production is jalapeño chiles, followed by serrano (10.9%), poblano (9.7%) and morrón (8.1%). These four account for 60% of production:

  • jalapeño (619,000 tons in 2009): Chihuahua (42%), Sinaloa (12.9%), Jalisco (6.6%) and Michoacán (6.3%)
  • serrano (217,000 tons): Tamaulipas (38.7%) and Sinaloa (30.9%)
  • poblano (192,000 tons): spread between 16 states, led by Zacatecas (32.7%), Sinaloa (20.6%) and Guanajuato (13.2%)
  • morrón (162,000 tons): Sinaloa (96%)

Production of chiles in Mexico
Production of chiles in Mexico, 2009. Source: SAGARPA 2010

The map shows total production volume on a state-by-state basis.

In summary, 2 out of every 3 green chiles grown in Mexico come from Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí.

Domestic market for chiles

The average consumption in Mexico is about 15 kg/person. For the period 2000-2010, domestic consumption oscillated around 1.5 million tons/yr. As international demand rises, there is a slightly reduced supply of chiles to the domestic market.

Trade in chiles (exports and imports)

International trade in chiles began shortly after Columbus introduced them to Europe as “peppers of the Indies”.

Today, as noted earlier, Mexico is the world’s leading exporter of green chiles, and ranks 6th for dried chiles. About 25% of Mexico’s chile production is exported. Over the last decade (2000-2009), exports have grown at a rate of about 15%/yr in volume, and 13% in value. In 2009, chile exports were worth 720 million dollars. Exports go to 52 countries, though a whopping 98% go to the USA, followed by the UK, Canada, Germany and Japan.

Mexico also imports some chiles each year. From 2000-2009, imports (almost entirely dried chiles) averaged 30,000 tons, at a cost of around 100 million dollars. China is Mexico’s main provider, followed by Peru, the USA and Spain.

Chile tourism
La Feria del Chile (The Chile Fair) in Queréndaro, Michoacán

Recipes with Chiles:

Main source (pdf file): Un panorama del cultivo del chile, SAGARPA: Servicio de Información Agroalimentaria y Pesquera, June 2010.
[accessed January 28, 2011]

Agriculture in Mexico is analyzed in chapter 15 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Ask your library to buy a copy of this handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography today! Better yet, order your own copy…

Are women better than men at gathering mushrooms on the slopes of a Mexican volcano?

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Apr 122011

This post summarizes the findings of an article entitled “Sex differences in mushroom gathering: men expend more energy to obtain equivalent benefits”, published in the July 2010 issue of Evolution & Human Behavior.

Men are often thought to have superior spatial abilities to women. However, recent research has suggested that such differences are task dependent. It is now commonly argued that differences in spatial abilities may date back to early human societies during the Pleistocene. At that time, men’s spatial skills became fine-tuned for successful hunting of animals that were constantly on the move, while women’s spatial skill-set developed to ensure success in gathering immobile plant resources.

In a nutshell, men are thought to find their way about using orientation, and women by memorizing landmarks. One study reported that men performed better than women in finding their way through unfamiliar woodland, whereas another study showed how women exploring a farmers market in Santa Barbara, California, could remember where individual food items were more accurately than men.

Despite these earlier studies, the male/female differences in spatial skills had never been tested in appropriate circumstances in the field prior to the research carried out by four enterprising Mexican researchers led by Luis Pacheco-Cabos of the National University (UNAM).

The setting

The team studied the foraging techniques and success rate of men and women from a small village in Tlaxcala as they searched for edible mushrooms on the slopes of La Malinche volcano (Malintzin).

The small rural community of San Isidro Buensuceso has about 8,000 Nᨵatl-speaking inhabitants. The villagers have a long history of collecting mushrooms. Most mushroom collecting takes place during the summer rainy season. The vegetation in collecting areas is relatively open pine-oak forest, though the precise mix of species varies with altitude.

La Malinche Volcano

La Malinche Volcano

Each small group of mushroom collectors was followed by a researcher who recorded their movements and the weight of mushrooms collected. The exercise was carried out at seven different sites, most more than 3000m above sea level, through relatively open forest in terrain that included steep gullies carved into the flanks of volcano. The researchers were continuously monitored to record data enabling the calculation of the energy they expended in kilo-calories (kcal). Collectors gathered up to 9.5 kg of mushrooms in a single trip.

What were the teams key findings?

Although men and women collected similar quantities of mushrooms, men did so at significantly higher cost. They traveled further, to greater altitudes, and had higher mean heart rates and energy expenditure (kcal). They also collected fewer species and visited fewer collection sites.

Women used their superior powers of memorizing object location to collect more species, and visit more collection sites than men, obtaining more mushrooms during the same period of time, with less energy expenditure.

What does this mean?

The results suggest that differences in spatial ability between men and women are task-dependent. In terms of search strategies developed for gathering wild mushrooms, and presumably other wild plants, women outperform men. The women proved to be more efficient foragers than men in energy efficiency terms since they collected significantly more mushrooms while expending significantly less energy in doing so.

The researchers did not publish any calculation for the energy efficiency of mushroom collectors for comparison with the figures quoted in: The energy efficiency of farming in Mexico and elsewhere. However, based on their data, and assuming that 3 grams of raw mushrooms are approximately equivalent to 1 calorie, the energy efficiency for mushroom pickers on the slopes of La Malinche volcano must be somewhere between 0.5 and 1.7, with men tending towards the lower value. An energy efficiency of 1.0 would mean that the energy expended in gathering mushrooms is roughly the same as the calorific energy they contain.

The researchers conclude that similar studies are now needed for other cultural groups, and for the gathering of different resources, such as firewood.


Luis Pacheco Cobos, Marcos Rosetti, Cecilia Cuatianquiz, Robyn Hudson: “Sex differences in mushroom gathering: men expend more energy to obtain equivalent benefits”, Evolution & Human Behavior, July 2010 (Vol. 31, Issue 4, Pages 289-297).

Chiles, one of Mexico’s heritage crops

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Apr 092011

Chiles (Capsicum spp.) have been cultivated in Mexico for centuries and are a vital ingredient in Mexico’s traditional cuisine, recently recognized by UNESCO as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” Spicy chiles also have numerous medicinal uses. Graphical representations of chiles have even been used as a national symbol.

Chiles are native to Mexico and central America. Evidence for chiles in the diet of indigenous groups in Puebla’s Tehuacán Valley dates back at least as far as 6500BC; by 4100BC, the plant was already domesticated.


Chiles. Photo: zoonabar (flickr); creative commons license

There are more than 100 varieties of chiles, grouped into 22 groups of green chiles and 12 of dried chiles. Green chiles by far the most important in volume and value of production and trade. Mexico remains the world’s leading exporter of green chiles and is the sixth largest exporter of dried chiles. The world’s leading producer of green chiles, almost entirely for domestic consumption, is China.

The ideal conditions for cultivating chiles are:

  • growing season temperatures of 18-27̊C daytime and 15-18̊C during the night.
  • rainfall of 600-1250 mm/yr, with no marked dry season.
  • light, humus-rich soils with adequate moisture retention and drainage
  • soils with a pH between 5.5 (slighty acidic) and 7.0 (neutral)
  • growing season of at least 120 days

Crop yields can be adversely affected by:

  • plagues,
  • plant diseases,
  • climatic hazards, such as hailstorms, rainstorms (fields need efficient drainage systems) and frost, the risk of which is countered by burning waste to create smoke to maintain temperatures above freezing

Time frame for cultivation

  • on commercial chile farms, seeds are usually sown in enclosed, heated, nursery beds, since temperatures of 20-24̊C are considered ideal for germination
  • seedlings are transplanted after 25-35 days when they are about 10-20cm in height – optimum yields require 20,000-25,000 plants per hectare
  • the first flowers appear 1-2 months later, by which time the plant is 30-80 cm tall
  • the first green chiles ripen about a month after that; chiles can then be picked every week or so for up to 3 months in rain-fed fields, or sometimes over an even longer period in irrigated fields.

In ideal circumstances, harvesting is possible all year. There are two major, overlapping harvest periods each year, with a fall-winter crop from December-August, and a spring-summer crop from June to March.

Yields vary greatly, reflecting different qualities of soil, water supply and technification employed. The average yield across Mexico is 14-15 metric tons/hectare. Yields in Zacatecas (which has a larger cultivated area of chiles than any other state in Mexico) are only 7 tons/ha, while yields in Sinaloa reach as high as 40 tons/ha.

Types of chile grown in Mexico

The most commonly grown chiles in Mexico are jalapeño, serrano, habanero, poblano and morrón (bell pepper). Seven varieties of green chiles represented 90% of Mexico’s total production of chiles in 2008, and 60% of its total revenue from chiles. Chiles vary in color, heat, size and texture:

Even for a single species, the “heat” of its chiles varies from one plant to the next, as well as from one soil or location to another. The heat of chiles is measured in Scoville units. The hottest chile is generally thought to be the habanero (100,000-445,000 Scoville units). By comparison, the jalapeño is 2,500-5,000 units and the morrón chile (bell pepper) registers 0 Scoville units.

Main source for statistics (pdf file): Un panorama del cultivo del chile, SAGARPA: Servicio de Información Agroalimentaria y Pesquera, June 2010. [accessed January 28, 2011]

Agriculture in Mexico is analyzed in chapter 15 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Ask your library to buy a copy of this handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography today! Better yet, order your own copy…

Is this the beginning of the end for blue corn tortillas?

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Mar 212011

In two previous posts, we looked at the contentious debate surrounding the introduction of GM corn to Mexico.

Now, Mexico’s Agriculture Secretariat has approved a pilot program by Monsanto to sow up to 1 hectare (2.47 acres) in the northern state of Tamaulipas with GM corn. Only a few months ago, Monsanto, the giant, global biotech seed company, had been refused permission for this project.

Tamaulipas farmers had campaigned to be allowed to try the GM seed on the grounds that it was the only way they could be competitive with corn farmers north of the border. US farmers have found that GM corn lives up to its advertised higher yields and disease resistance, though many Mexican farmers, especially those in the south of the country, are vehemently opposed to GM corn on the basis that cross-contamination would deplete the plants’ gene pool, and possibly lead to the eventual extinction of traditional corn varieties.

The introduction of GM corn is likely to hasten the demise, or at least the ready availability, of many distinctive native varieties, including some with multi-colored kernels and, my particular favorite, blue corn, which makes (IMO) the most delectable tortillas imaginable.

The pros and cons of floriculture in Mexico

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Mar 052011

In a previous post – Mexico’s flower power – we looked at the Mexico’s floriculture sector. Mexico’s immense biodiversity, one of the greatest on the planet, and its variety of climates have encouraged the cultivation of ornamental flowers, principally for the domestic market, but also for export. In this post, we present a summary of the pros, cons and impacts of floriculture in Mexico.

Advantages that Mexico has for floriculture:

  • large internal market
  • long tradition of growing ornamental flowers
  • rich biodiversity – Mexico has more than 30,000 species of flowering plants, one of the world’s most diverse floras
  • competitive labor costs
  • variety of climates, from tropical to temperature
  • relative proximity to the USA compared to other major flower producers

Disadvantages of/for floriculture

  • the required transport by air is expensive, and companies relying on third-party carriers may lose access to their export markets if the airline changes its scheduled routes. For example, Finca Argovia, a grower of exotic flowers in Chiapas (150 species, 7 million stems a year, including orchids and anthuriums) would suffer if flights from Tapachula to Mexico City were stopped. These flights are the essential first leg of Argovia’s access to international markets.
  • demand for flowers is highly seasonal and having perfect blooms available for certain specific days (such as Valentine’s Day, 14 February) is critical to a grower’s success.
  • flowers grown in open fields (the majority of Mexico’s ornamental flowers) are more susceptible to insect pests and weather-related hazards and damage than those grown in greenhouses.
  • representatives of flower growers’ organizations claim that they have to compete with “contraband” flowers that originate in Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica and the Netherlands, and are brought into Mexico from the USA.

Positive impacts of floriculture in Mexico

  • employment
  • export income
  • added aesthetic attraction (hotels, churches, restaurants, markets)

Negative impacts of floriculture in Mexico

  • runoff of agricultural chemicals into groundwater and local streams
  • many essential inputs (specialist pesticides, fertilizers, seeds, etc) have to be imported

For interest
Mexico’s national flower is the dahlia. To find out more, read this MexConnect article about Mexico’s national flower.

Mexico’s flower power…

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Mar 022011

Given its diversity of climates and immensely varied natural flora (see Mexico’s mega-biodiversity, Mexico is ideally suited for commercial floriculture (flower growing).

Helped by government support, floriculture expanded rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s. About 14,000 hectares of agricultural land are devoted to ornamental flowers, with 10,000 growers concentrating on 50 different varieties, the most important of which are gladioli, roses, chrysanthemums, carnations, birds-of-paradise and the nard. Mexico’s flower growers produce 83,000 tons/yr of flowers, 80% of them destined for the domestic market. Most flower farms are smallholdings of 1-3 hectares in size, though there are also about 150 high-tech, greenhouse-based operations for the export market.

In addition to the area dedicated to ornamental flowers, a further 9,000 hectares are devoted to plants and flowers used in the cosmetics and food flavoring industries.

The state of Mexico has the largest area devoted to floriculture in the country, centered on Villa Guerrero. Other states important for ornamental flowers are Baja California, Coahuila, Colima, Chiapas, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Jalisco, Michoacán, Morelos, Puebla, Querétaro, Tabasco, Veracruz, and, in the last five years, Yucatán.

The internal market for ornamentals is severely constricted by a lack of space in Mexico City’s wholesale market; the resulting congestion results in about 20% of all the fresh flowers arriving daily at the market having to be destroyed.

Mexico’s nationwide production of flowers is worth about 1 billion dollars a year. Only a small percentage of production is exported, mainly to the USA, with smaller amounts to Canada and Europe. While Mexican flower exports are currently worth some 50 million dollars, exports from Columbia are worth 550 million dollars and those from Ecuador and Costa Rica about 150 million.

Related posts:

Feb 242011

Mexico is the world’s seventh largest coffee producer and one of the leading suppliers of organic, shade-grown coffee. The nation’s 480,000 coffee growers, most working small parcels of land less than 5 hectares (12 acres) in size, are concentrated in Chiapas, Veracruz and Oaxaca, and produce 268,000 metric tons a year. While Mexican coffee consumption per person is rising, 62% of the harvest is exported, bringing in $400 million annually.

This year’s crop escaped the deep freeze in late January and early February that decimated corn, tomatoes, bell peppers and other crops in northern Mexico, but unseasonal rains and cold weather in coffee-growing regions of southern and eastern Mexico have reduced coffee yields and mean that this season’s crop is also ripening unevenly. Some growers are worried that this could be the worst coffee harvest in almost 20 years.

Mexico's exports: coffee

Coffee, one of Mexico's most important agricultural exports

With fewer berries on each plant, the potential earnings for coffee-pickers are poor, since it takes longer to fill each basket with ripe berries. Some experienced coffee pickers are looking for alternative employment hoping for better pay. According to growers, the less experienced pickers remaining on the job are causing more damage to the bushes than normal, because they employ a hand picking method known as “ordeñando” (milking) in which they run their hands rapidly along a branch, stripping away the leaves as well as the beans. The problem for growers is that this technique reduces the following year’s crop.

The 2010-2011 harvest season began in October. Government officials are still estimating a harvest of 4.4 million 60-kg sacks, which would be a total of about 264,000 metric tons. However, Agroindustrias Unidas de México, Mexico’s largest coffee exporter, believes that 3.5 million sacks will be nearer the truth. If the exporter is correct, the current harvest would be only marginally better than Mexico’s 1992-1993 harvest which was the lowest in the past twenty years.

The only silver lining in this cloud is that coffee prices on international markets are high and rising, mainly due to problems in Colombia, so Mexican growers have a good incentive to pick every single ripe berry they can find.

Cold weather wreaks havoc on crops in Sinaloa, Mexico

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Feb 212011

Corn production has been the core of Mexican agriculture throughout its history, and continues to be very important. Production has increased by more than 40% since 2000. Currently corn is grown on about half of all agricultural land. However, corn is a rather low value crop and accounts for only about 14% of total crop value.

Corn, for both human and livestock consumption, is grown virtually everywhere in Mexico and is the leading crop in 17 of the 32 states. The leader in volume of corn produced is Sinaloa with 28% of the national total. Other major corn states are Jalisco (12%), State of Mexico (6%), Michoacán, Guanajuato and Guerrero (5% each).

The unusually cold weather in early February 2011 hit farming areas in northern Mexico particularly hard. Farmers in Sinaloa, the “Bread Basket of Mexico,” report that 300,000 hectares (750,000 acres) of corn were destroyed after unusually cold temperatures in the first few weeks of the year. A further 300,000 hectares suffered some damage. Sinaloa has 470,000 hectares of farmland devoted to the white corn used to make tortillas; 90% of this area has been damaged. Heriberto Felix Guerra, federal Secretary for Social Development (SEDESOL) called the weather-related losses the worst disaster in Sinaloa’s history. The economic loss could exceed three billion dollars.

The federal Agriculture Secretariat is rushing urgent aid to farmers, including tax breaks and low-interest loans for seed, in the hopes that many of them can replant their corn crop while there is still time. As of today, more than 130,000 hectares of corn in Sinaloa have already been replanted. The aim is to reseed between 200,000 and 300,000 ha (500,000-750,000 acres) of corn, for an eventual harvest (in Sinaloa) of 3 million metric tons of corn. The reseeding must be completed by 10 March as, after that date, there are too few “growing days” to guarantee a harvest. Average yields in Sinaloa for white corn are expected to fall from their usual 10 tons/ha to around 7 tons/ha this year.

Mexico has an annual shortfall in corn production and always has to import some corn (mainly from the USA and South Africa) to meet total domestic demand. This year, the government is considering raising its usual import quotas to ensure ample supplies of corn (and tortillas) for the coming year. Corn prices have already shot up; Mexico’s imports are going to cost a lot more than in recent years.

Citrus orchards, tomato crops and other vegetables were also decimated. Tomatoes are by far the most important horticultural crop in Sinaloa, but other crops affected include green beans, squash and chiles. It will be another 6 weeks to 2 months before another tomato harvest is possible. The price of tomatoes also rose immediately and could double, at least temporarily, within the next few weeks.

The Mexican tomato crop is mainly the larger Roma variety which is widely used in the fast food industry. Already at least one fast-food chain in the USA is adding tomato slices to hamburgers only on request; the smaller tomatoes used in salads are not affected by the recent cold snap.

Previous related posts:

Feb 192011

Tomatoes are one of the many native Mexican plants that have become essential ingredients in the cuisine of many countries. Mexico is the 10th largest tomato producer in the world, after China, USA, India, Turkey, Egypt, Italy, Iran, Brazil and Spain (FAO 2008).

Mexico produces both red tomatoes (tomate or jitomate, depending on the region) which have high yields and account for about 75% of total tomato production, and green tomatoes (tomate verde) which have a lower yield and account for the remaining 25% of production.

The statistics in this post apply to the production and export of red tomatoes only.

The main varieties of red tomatoes in Mexico are:

  • vine-ripe large rounds
  • cherry tomatoes
  • Roma tomatoes, which now account for 54% of all tomato plantings in Mexico, as demand for them has increased at the expense of other kinds
  • greenhouse tomatoes (the collective name for several other varieties)


The single most significant trend in tomato growing in Mexico is the increasing volume of production coming from greenhouse (including shade house) cultivation. Greenhouse cultivation still represents only a small portion of total tomato production in Mexico, but results in greatly improved yields.

Mexico has around 3,200 hectares of horticultural greenhouses in total. An earlier post analyzed the essential characteristics and advantages of the production of horticultural products in greenhouses.

The major advantages for tomato production are:

  • helps to raise yields
  • enables producers to move away from seasonal production and grow tomatoes virtually the entire year
  • ensures a higher quality and consistency of product
  • facilitates better food safety
  • helps to ensure that production and packing plants meet or exceed international standards

Rising yields

Yields are rising. Open field yields have risen from 23 metric tons/ha in 1990 to 28 mt/ha in 2000 and to 39 mt/ha in 2010. The highest open field yields are about 45 mt/h in Baja California and Sinaloa, due in part to their efficient pest and disease control protocols.

Greenhouse cultivation of tomatoes gets much higher yields, but also requires more capital investment and more expensive inputs of labor, fertilizers and pesticides. Open field cultivation of tomatoes in Sinaloa and Baja California costs between $3,800 and $6,000/ha. Greenhouse and shade house production of tomatoes can cost up to $22,000/ha. (All figures in US dollars.) The costs associated with many imported inputs (agrochemicals, seeds and fertilizers) are high; they are also dependent on the peso/dollar exchange rate.

Greenhouse yields in Mexico are generally about 150-200 mt/ha. Tomato growers in the USA and Canada using greenhouses achieve yields of up to 450mt/ha, so Mexican producers still have plenty of room for continued improvement.

The largest area of greenhouse tomato cultivation is in Spain (20,000 hectares). By comparison, the USA has only around 350 ha of greenhouse tomatoes, Canada has 650 ha and Mexico 730 ha.

Area cultivated and volume of production

The total area (greenhouse and open field) devoted to tomato cultivation in Mexico has decreased in recent years, from 85,000 ha in 1990 to about 60,000 in 2010.

Tomato production in Mexico for the 2010/11 season is forecast to reach 2.2 million metric tons.


There are two major seasons:

1. In the winter season (October-May), growers in Sinaloa are the main producers and exporters of fresh tomatoes. Michoacán, Jalisco, and Baja California Sur also produce significant amounts in the winter season. Sinaloa growers have adopted very modern cultivation methods, selecting varieties with an improved and extended shelf life, employing highly efficient drip irrigation, and using plastic mulch to maintain their high yields. Sinaloa has 15,000 hectares devoted to tomatoes, of which 1,340 hectares are using greenhouses or shade houses.

2. During the summer season (May-October), growers in Baja California are the main producers and exporters of fresh tomatoes, along with growers in Michoacán, Jalisco, and Morelos.

Tomatoes on a stamp

Mexico Exports: Tomatoes

Domestic consumption and the export market

The final consumption figure for the domestic market depends largely on the volume of tomato exports (primarily to the USA), since domestic consumption is essentially restricted to those tomatoes that do not enter the export flow. Volumes of exports, and price/ton depend on numerous factors beyond the control of farmers in Mexico, including, for example, the seasonal weather in Florida which will help determine the volume of tomatoes produced in the USA.

The USA imports tomatoes from both Canada and Mexico. Mexico’s share of USA tomato imports has risen rapidly since 2000 on account of their lower costs. Mexican tomatoes are less expensive for USA buyers than their Dutch or Canadian counterparts, due to Mexico’s cheaper labor rates, lower transport costs, and their modern cultivation and packing systems.

Mexico’s 1.1 million tons a year of tomato exports are worth 1.1 billion dollars. Mexico does import some tomatoes, but the annual value of imports rarely exceeds 65 million dollars.

Potential risks faced by Mexico’s tomato growers

  • extreme heat may make tomatoes ripen earlier than usual, as happened in Sinaloa in December 2009
  • the switch from open field tomato production to protected production (in greenhouses or shade houses) requires an expensive investment in infrastructure and technology.
  • international prices each year are a major determinant of how many hectares of tomatoes are planted the following year

Note on the first GM tomato

The first GM tomato to be commercially cultivated was the Flavor Saver from the Calgene company, planted in 1995 in Mexico, California and Florida. It was marketed as the MacGregor tomato. It was primarily developed because it did not spoil as quickly as previous varieties of tomato. MacGregor tomatoes last at least 18 days without spoiling, from the time they are picked. Conveniently, consumers also preferred their taste to then-existing varieties. Developing the first GM tomato cost Calgene 25 million dollars and took 5 years.

Main source:

Flores, D and Ford, M. Tomato Annual: area planted down but production up. USDA Foreign Agricultural Service GAIN (Global Agricultural Information Network) Report, January 2010

Feb 162011

The commercial greenhouse production of horticultural crops in Mexico started in the 1950s, with floriculture (flower-growing) operations. It then expanded to include some vegetables in the 1980s. During the 1990s, larger, more modern greenhouses were introduced specializing in the growing of vegetables for export markets.

In 1991, Mexico had only 51 hectares of vegetable production in greenhouses. The signing of NAFTA in 1994 stimulated increased investment in Mexico from Israel, Holland, and Spain in greenhouse systems designed to boost vegetable production for the US market.

The area of greenhouses has risen rapidly since then to about 2,400 hectares in 2009, almost double the area recorded for 2005, and including 1,000 hectares devoted to flowers.

What are the advantages of production using greenhouses?

  • possible to control the environment
  • enables a higher quality of product, suitable for international markets
  • improves food safety
  • allows growers to have a tighter control on water quality
  • enables farmers to supply winter markets when fresh food prices are at a premium
  • avoids or offsets weather-related problems, such as cold spells or heavy rain
  • allows farmers to perfect crop timing to match times of highest prices
  • avoids some open-field issues such as weeds and insect pests
  • takes advantage of Mexico’s long days and many hours of strong sunlight

What are the disadvantages of production using greenhouses?

  • construction costs
  • costs to install necessary infrastructure, such as water supply
  • cost of energy required to heat greenhouse in the event that sunshine is insufficient
  • nearby residents may object to the unsightly view of hectares of greenhouses

Protected horticultural areas in Mexico

Protected agricultural areas in Mexico (greenhouses and shade houses), 2007. Source: Mexican Association of Protected Horticulture

Where are most of Mexico’s greenhouses located?

Vegetable greenhouse production is highly developed in five states (see map):

  • Sinaloa (26.3% of Mexico’s total production of greenhouse vegetables)
  • Baja California Sur (13.5%) -NB this state’s protected area has increased sharply since 2007, the date of the map
  • Baja California (9.5%)
  • Jalisco (7.4%)
  • Sonora (6.9%).

Combined, these five represent 84% of the total greenhouse production of vegetables.

By area planted, the major crops produced in greenhouses in Mexico are:

  • tomatoes (60% of the total)
  • cucumbers (20%)
  • chiles (10%)

One clear trend is that the area of all these crops is expanding very rapidly. For instance, from 2007 to 2008, the area devoted to the greenhouse production of tomatoes rose 19%, while chiles and cucumbers rose 35% and 29% respectively.

95% of Mexico’s greenhouses are plastic, rather than glass, mainly because the extra insulation afforded by glass is not required in most parts of Mexico given the climate. Many greenhouses are now made in Mexico, but others are imported from Israel, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain, France and the USA. Many of the greenhouses are high-roofed, between 4 and 5 meters tall.

A basic greenhouse structure covering 1 hectare (2.4 acres) costs about $160,000, excluding the cost of any irrigation system. Because financing is difficult to obtain in Mexico, many producers rely on relatively low-cost plastic greenhouses, which do not usually have any heating systems. Some newer models have hot water or gas heating systems which guarantee that crops can be timed to coincide with peak demand during the US winter.

In an effort to hasten the adoption of improved horticultural technology, the Agriculture Secretariat (SAGARPA) has started a shared-risk fund to encourage greenhouse installation, provided it is to grow crops other than tomatoes, including herbs, chiles and lettuce.

Besides initial costs, another major constraint on the expansion of greenhouse systems in Mexico is distance from the main markets north of the border. From some areas, reaching markets in California requires a 36-hour truck ride. Any delay means that the crop will not arrive in optimum condition.

Another limitation which restricts the universal adoption of greenhouses is that they generally need a good supply of water. This is not always easy (or cheap) to obtain, especially in arid areas such as Baja California.

Finally, as with most farmers, greenhouse operators in Mexico face competition from growers in other countries, and also have to contend with market volatility (whether real or perceived).


Lopez, J. and K. Shwedel. 2001. The Mexican greenhouse vegetable industry. Industry Note 032-2001, 5 pp.

Cantliffe, D and Vansickle, J. Mexican Competition: Now from the Greenhouse. [accessed 22 January 2011]

Flores, D and Ford, M. Greenhouse and Shade House Production to Continue Increasing. USDA GAIN report, 22 April 2010. [accessed via link at; accessed 27 January 2011]

The cultivation of oranges in Mexico

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Jan 242011

Oranges are one of the most popular fruits in Mexico. It may come as a surprise, but oranges are not a native fruit.

History of oranges in Mexico

The first oranges were brought on Columbus’ second voyage to the Americas. Early Spanish settlers began to cultivate orange trees almost as soon as they arrived.

For instance, in an early account of the town of Chapala, Father Antonio Tello, wrote that, “In 1562, Father Sebastián de Párraga came to this friary [Chapala] and planted the church’s orange trees.”

A later account describes Chapala in 1586 as having so many fruit trees that “the entire village is like an orchard. The Indians make a lot of orange blossom water and from it a lot of money. It is so fertile for oranges that, in the garden of the friary where there are many of these trees, they took from a sweet orange tree a branch that had eleven good, big, mature, yellow oranges, crammed together on top of each other.”

Aromatic orange blossoms have found numerous uses over the years, from being carried in wedding bouquets, to a cooking ingredient, to use in candies, teas and perfumes.


Production of oranges in Mexico

Orange trees may not be a native plant, but they have certainly thrived in Mexico, which is now the world’s fourth largest producer of oranges. Mexico produces about 4.1 million tons of oranges each year; only Brazil, the USA and India produce more.

The three main varieties grown in Mexico are:

  • Valencia or Valenciana – the prime orange for juice, ripens in May
  • Lane Late Navel oranges, available from February – primarily for eating, not good for juice
  • Navelina oranges, another variety of navel orange, used for juice, but also eaten, harvested from December

Ornamental orange trees, commonly found in Mexico’s towns and cities, are usually bitter oranges.

Areas where oranges are grown

Source: SAGARPA 2010

Where are oranges grown?

Veracruz is by far the leading state for growing oranges. It has 162,000 ha of orange orchards, and produces more than 2 million metric tons a year, about 51% of Mexico’s total production. Other states where orange growing is important include Tamaulipas (13% of national production), San Luis Potosí (10%), Puebla (6.2%), Nuevo León (4.9%) and Sonora (4.1%).

The area of cultivation for oranges (342,000 hectares nationwide) has remained virtually unchanged over the last decade.

The average yield across Mexico for oranges is about 12 tons/hectare, though yields in some states, such as Sonora, are up to twice as high. Yields vary from one year to the next reflecting seasonal weather conditions.

For those states where orange growing is an important rural occupation, the price paid in 2009 to the grower for oranges varied from 1.3 pesos/kg in Tamaulipas to 0.80 pesos/kg in Veracruz.

The market for oranges

Almost all production is for the domestic market. Consumption of oranges in Mexico averages about 38 kg/person/year.

Improving methods of cultivation have increased yields, allowing Mexico to produce a small surplus for export. Exports have more than doubled since 2000. Almost all exports are either to the USA 74.5% or the UK (24.6%), with the small remainder going to other European countries and Japan. Export sales were worth 7.150 million dollars in 2009, equivalent to about 1% of the total value of the orange harvest in Mexico. Imports of oranges in 2009 were worth 3.400 million dollars; they have fallen significantly from the 9 million dollars registered in 2003. The values for imports and exports mean that Mexico has a small favorable balance of trade from oranges of around 3 million dollars a year.

Main sources:

Jan 212011

Mexico’s Agriculture Secretariat (SAGARPA) has refused permission for transnational seed firm Monsanto to undertake larger-scale field trials of its GM corn in Sinaloa, and is opposing similar projects involving transgenic corn in Sonora and Tamaulipas. Monsanto is appealing SAGARPA’s initial decision. The other firms hoping to hold second-stage trials besides Monsanto are Dow Agrosciences (a unit of Dow Chemical Co.) and Pioneer Hi-Bred International (currently owned by DuPont).

Yum Kaax, the Mayan god of corn

What would Yum Kaax, the Mayan god of corn, think about GM corn?

As we noted in “The debate over GM corn in Mexico“, Mexico does not yet permit the commercialization of any genetically-modified corn, but Monsanto is betting on a relaxation of current rules as Mexico currently has to import large volumes of corn each year in order to satisfy domestic demand. Mexico’s corn imports are expected to rise from 10 to 15 million metric tons by 2020. Corn prices are also likely to rise since an increasing portion of the annual US corn crop is  destined for biofuel production rather than human consumption.

Monsanto argues that Mexico cannot guarantee its future food security unless it embraces the new agro-technology, and is threatening to withdraw 200 million dollars in planned investments over the next five years. A dozen agricultural organizations in the northern Mexico states of Sinaloa, Sonora, Chihuahua and Tamaulipas, have come out in support of Monsanto’s efforts to introduce transgenic corn, arguing that it is the best way for them to increase productivity and therefore becomes more competitive. The growers’ organizations claim that introducing GM crops has given their commercial competitors a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

The Agriculture Secretariat’s position reflects the concerns of farmers in other regions and ecologists who fear that the introduction of GM corn will displace or eradicate some of Mexico’s existing (non-GM) varieties. Protecting existing varieties of corn is the major motive behind the declaration by the governments of the Federal District and the state of Tlaxcala that their jurisdictions  are “GM-free zones”.

Jan 042011

The harvest of Hass avocados (“green gold”) in Mexico is expected to reach about 1.24 million tons for the 2010/11 season, a 6.4% increase over a year ago. The main producing state is Michoacán, which accounts for 92% of the national crop, earning it the unofficial title of “avocado capital of the world”.

The domestic market will consume 806,000 metric tons (8.45% higher than last year), with the remaining 410,000 tons destined for export markets.

Michoacán supplies 56.7% of the US market, well ahead of California (21.3%) and Chile (22%). Mexico also exports avocados to Central America, Canada, Japan and Europe.

Avocados are Mexico’s fifth most valuable agriculture-related export, after beer, tomatoes, tequila and bell peppers.

[2010/11 figures as reported in La Opinión de Michoacán, 7 Dec 2010]

Previous post related to avocados:

Farming in Mexico, including avocado growing, is analyzed in chapter 15 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Ask your library to buy a copy of this handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography today! Better yet, order your own copy…

Mexico’s farm workers move north, US agri-businesses move south…

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Jan 032011

Mexican migrant workers have played an important role in US agriculture for decades, especially during harvest time, when they fill temporary menial and low-paid positions.

In recent years, border restrictions and periodic US crack-downs on the employment of undocumented workers have reduced the number of Mexicans seeking seasonal jobs north of the border. This has apparently resulted in some US agricultural enterprises deciding to shift their production centers into Mexico – if the workers won’t come to the farms, then the farms have to come to the workers…

Lettuce farm

Steve Scaroni's lettuce farm. Photo: Janet Jarman, The World.

One example, that of a major lettuce grower, is described in detail in the Public Radio International’s The World program American farmers move to Mexico, which includes an interesting audio clip of Steve Scaroni describing why he’s moved half his lettuce-growing business south to the state of Guanajuato.

Scaroni’s company plants, harvests and processes 20 million servings of lettuce each week, mostly distributed via US supermarkets.

Scaroni compares the pay of each field worker in Arizona or California of $9-$10 an hour, with the $12 to $15 he pays in Mexico per day. Wage differentials are not the only advantage. Geographical diversification into Mexico also spreads the risk (and increases his firm’s resilience) in the event of adverse weather conditions.

On the flip side, Scaroni has to cope with added transportation costs, the complexities of the Mexican tax system, and supply problems for vital inputs such as fertilizers.

Scaroni supports a proposed US immigration bill known as “AgJobs” which would give farm workers more rights, offer a path to legal status, and make it easier for American farmers to bring in temporary immigrant workers.

Mexico’s agriculture is analyzed in chapter 15 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. and concepts of sustainability are explored in chapters 19 and 30.  Buy your copy today, so you have this handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography available whenever you need it.

Corn, another of Mexico’s gifts to Thanksgiving

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Nov 232010

According to Ernst and Johanna Lehner in their Folklore and Odysseys of Food and Medicinal Plants, corn (which originated in Mexico) was misnamed as Turkish corn at the same time as turkey acquired its name, and for much the same reason. Europeans first saw corn, called maize or mahiz by the indigenous people, when Columbus and his followers arrived in the New World. They took samples back to Spain at the very end of the 15th century.

Turkish corn from Fuchs' De Historia Stirpium; Basle 1542

Turkish corn from Fuchs' De Historia Stirpium; Basle 1542

It quickly became an important crop, successfully cultivated throughout the continent. 16th century herbalists in Europe called the new plant by various names, including Welsh corn, Asiatic corn, Turkish wheat and Turkish corn. The latter name was the most usual, since they believed that the grain had been brought into central Europe from Asia by the Turks, who had introduced dozens of other products from the east into Europe at about the same time.

The Turks themselves called the crop “Egyptian corn”; the Egyptians called it “Syrian sorghum”… The German botanist Hieronymus Bock, in his New Kreüterbuch or herbal in 1546, remained on the fence, calling it “foreign corn”. Given the confused terminology, perhaps it is not surprising that, to quote Ernst and Johanna Lehner, “It took Spanish botanists more than 50 years to convince other European herbalists that corn was American.” Corn was given its botanical name, Zea mays, by Carl von Linné in the 18th century.

Previous posts in the Thanksgiving mini-series:

Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico is your handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography Ask your library to acquire several today! Better yet, purchase your own copy…

New irrigation areas in Chihuahua, Mexico, are visible from space

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Oct 212010

A recent article on drew my attention to these spectacular Landsat photos of Chihuahua, Mexico.

Landsat images of Chihuahua

  • Link to high resolution Landsat images (clicking on the images in this link reveals amazing detail)

These false-color remote sensing images were taken by the Landsat 5 satellite in August 1992 (left) and August 2010 (right).

  • Red = vegetation (the brighter the red, the healthier the vegetation)
  • Whites, greens, browns = areas with bare soil or only limited vegetation (colors depend on organic matter and moisture content)
  • Blue & Black = water (clear, deep water is darker; sediment-laden water is lighter)
  • Blue-Gray = urban areas

They show some interesting changes have taken place in the 18 years since the first image was captured. In particular, they reveal that more water is now available from a major reservoir, and is being used for irrigation. Particularly noticeable is the development of round irrigation areas in the central part of the images. These circular areas, which show as bright, red circles (see image below) are the result of center-pivot irrigation systems. The water is being used for growing alfalfa and sorghum to feed livestock.

Circular irrigation areas

Circular irrigation areas (enlarged view of center portion of 2010 image)

In addition to the impacts resulting from irrigation, diverting more water from the reservoir has also affected the area’s native vegetation, and reduced the amount of water flowing into the Río Grande River. This may have ameliorated, at least slightly, the serious flooding which occurred earlier this year in the same general area.

The debate over GM corn in Mexico

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Oct 192010

Until relatively recently, Mexican authorities have staunchly resisted the introduction of GM corn into the country. Significant improvements in Mexico’s wheat and corn yields have been achieved in the past by long-term programs of selective breeding, such as that which was later dubbed the “Green Revolution“.

In 2009, however, Mexico’s Agriculture and Environment Secretariats approved a project financed by transnational seed firm Monsanto involving 30 hectares of  experimental plots in Sonora, Sinaloa and Tamaulipas planted with transgenic corn. Mexico still does not yet permit the commercialization of genetically-modified corn, but Monsanto has indicated publicly that it hopes that current rules will be relaxed as early as 2011. According to Monsanto, the new seed could boost annual corn production in Mexico by between 6 and 7 million tons, roughly the amount lost each year to disease and pests.

The Monsanto project was been widely condemned by environmental groups. A widely-published article earlier this month by journalist Mica Rosenberg offered an overview of how transgenic (GM) corn is clearly on its way into Mexican mainstream agriculture:

The article is disappointingly superficial in many respects, but does provide a useful starting point for discussions about the relative merits of allowing (or not) commercial imports of transgenic corn seed into Mexico.

As we write in Geo-Mexico, Mexican farmers are well aware of the importance of maintaining genetic diversity:

Mexican farmers share concerns about the on-going loss of genetic diversity, especially in native crops. For example, if all corn farmers planted imported hybrid corn seeds, native diversity would quickly be lost. In Tlaxcala, where about 90% of the corn is grown on non-irrigated land and where two-thirds of farmers grow corn only for their own use, local varieties have been selectively bred by farmers not only for their yields but also because of their color, taste, resistance to pests and ability to withstand strong winds or short-term droughts. Such characteristics are not necessarily important to commercial seed producers.

Events in other countries often have unexpected consequences in Mexico. For example, the price of Mexico’s corn imports from the USA has increased sharply as a result of the high subsidies offered in that country for corn-based biofuel and bio-additives. The rising import price of corn led to an increase in the price of tortillas which adversely affected the poorest sectors of Mexican society.

Furthermore, as we wrote in an earlier post, the Mexican government has shown its support for a major project aimed at ensuring that the genetic diversity of corn is preserved for future generations:

Is the introduction of GM corn into Mexico a good idea? Proponents argue that it will lead to higher yields and reduce losses from pests and diseases. In their view, commercial planting of GM corn in Mexico is inevitable and will help Mexico “catch up” with Brazil and Argentina, where GM crops are already being grown. Opponents argue that it will inevitably reduce the genetic diversity of corn, meaning that corn will have less resilience in future to unexpected (and unpredicted) changes (climate, pests, soil conditions, etc). They also argue that GM corn will make corn growers even more dependent on commercial seed producers.

Greenpeace protest against GM corn

Greenpeace protest against GM corn

At least two studies since 2001 have already found transgenic DNA in fields of native Mexican corn. The first, published in Nature in 2001, reported findings from the state of Oaxaca. One oft-expressed fear is that Monsanto’s fierce protection of its GM corn will lead to the company seeking damages from local farmers who are found to have any GM corn mixed into the native corn growing in their fields, even if this is the result of accidental contamination from neighboring fields where GM crops are being legally cultivated.

Mexico’s agriculture is analyzed in chapter 15 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. and concepts of sustainability are explored in chapters 19 and 30.  Buy your copy today, so you have this handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography available whenever you need it.

Oct 082010

This year marks the centenary of the start of the Mexican Revolution. One of the fundamental causes of the Mexico Revolution in 1910, though by no means the only one, was the demand by landless campesinos (peasant farmers) for access to the means to control their own supplies of food. Revolutionary leaders called for the expropriation of the large estates or haciendas, which had been the principal means of agricultural production since colonial times, and the redistribution of land among the rural poor. A law governing this radical change in the land tenure system came into force in 1917 and the process has continued, albeit sporadically, into modern times.

About half of all cultivated land in Mexico was converted from large estates into ejidos, a form of collective farming. In most ejidos, each individual ejidatario has the rights to use between 4 and 20 hectares (10-50 acres) of land, depending on soil quality and whether or not it is irrigated. In addition, members of the ejido share collective rights over the use of local pasture and woodland. The system is similar to that in place in Aztec times. The maximum area of land that hacienda owners were allowed to keep varied with its potential use, from 100 hectares in the case of irrigated arable land to 300 hectares for land without irrigation.

By 1970 land redistribution had been more or less completed. Even so, most farming land still remained in the hands of a very small minority of farmers. Only 1% of farms were larger than 5000 hectares (12,355 acres) but between them they shared 47% of all farm land. Meanwhile, 66% of farms were smaller than 10 hectares (25 acres) yet they shared only 2% of all farm land. The ejido system did not produce the anticipated increase in food production or food security. Hacienda owners opted to keep their most productive land, meaning that many ejidos had to work land that was marginal at best. Many ejidatarios saw no need to pursue profits provided their families were well fed.

Entrance to Ejido Modelo Emiliano Zapata, Jalisco. Photo: Tony Burton

Many individual plots were too small for mechanization, and nutrients were rapidly depleted through constant use. Collective ownership of the land meant that individuals could offer no collateral for improvement loans. Many campesinos abandoned their ejidos and sought their futures elsewhere, migrating either to the big cities, for their range of manufacturing and service jobs, or to the USA. A sizable proportion of ejido land is no longer economically productive, but only in the 1990s was any mechanism put in place for ejido lands to be sold and revert back to private status.

The photo shows the entrance to the “model ejido” of Emiliano Zapata, near Tizapán el Alto, Jalisco, on the southern shore of Lake Chapala. (nb. Despite the claims of Google Earth that this ejido is in the state of Michoacán, it is definitely in Jalisco, though relatively close to the state border.) The ejido has a population of about 2500. The Google Earth image clearly shows a dispersed rural settlement pattern, quite unlike the more usual nucleated villages of rural areas in most of Mexico. Each individual ejitario has a small plot of land around his/her house, and also has a share in the communal land beyond the perimeter of the settlement.

Google Earth image of part of Ejido Modelo Emiliano Zapata, Jalisco

This is an excerpt from chapter 15 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy today, and learn more about Mexico’s fascinating geography. Additional knowledge will greatly enhance the pleasures you derive during your next trip to Mexico.

Aug 262010

The table shows the top 10 exports relating to food and drink.

RankProductAnnual exports (approx., US$ millions)
3Tequila & Mezcal740
4Bell peppers610
9Limes & lemons260

The actual value of exports for each product varies widely from year to year. The figures quoted in the table are an average of the last few years for which data are available. They underestimate the importance of strawberries, exports of which have risen sharply since 2004. In the past couple of years, exports of strawberries have exceeded watermelon in value.

Stamp showing tomato exports

How many countries have featured tomatoes on a stamp?

Small wonder that the “Mexico exports” set of stamps in use from the 1970s to the 1990s featured many agricultural products in its designs, including tomatoes (pictured here), tequila, beer, coffee, honey, strawberries, limes, cotton and citrus fruits. We plan to look more closely at some of these items in future posts.

Agriculture is analyzed in chapter 15 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Mexico’s exports are examined in chapter 20. Buy your copy today, so you have this handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography available whenever you need it.

Highway improvement revolutionized the economy of Chilapa, Guerrero

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Aug 112010

Transportation improvements can have profound impacts on the areas they serve.  A major highway improvement in the 1970s revolutionized the rural economy of Chilapa, a small town about 40 km east of Chilpancingo, the capital of Guerrero.  Prior to 1970, the area was essentially self-sufficient, as it had been for hundreds of years.  All the corn and most of food consumed in Chilapa came via pack animals from farms within 12 km of the town.  It did produce some cotton shawls (rebozos) and later woven palm goods which were sold to obtain money for salt, iron, cotton, matches and other essentials not produced locally.

In the 1970s, the old narrow windy road to Chilpancingo was upgraded to a national highway (No. 92), straightened and paved, dramatically reducing transport time and costs.  This had a dramatic impact on Chilapa.  Corn and other goods from the rest of Mexico and abroad poured into the area, leading to significantly lower prices. The local farmers could not compete; many stopped farming altogether.  Some started commuting by bus to low paying jobs in Chilpancingo.  When subsidies became available for chemical fertilizers and hybrid corn, farmers began producing high quality corn that was sold outside the area. Chilapa continued importing cheap, low quality corn for local consumption. The new road completely changed the economy of the area around Chilapa, brought it farther into the national economy and improved its standard of living. There are thousands of communities in Mexico that are not yet served by paved roads and are essentially as self-sufficient and poor as Chilapa was before the 1970s.  In addition, there are hundreds of other communities not reached even by dirt roads; they are even poorer and more self-sufficient.

Note: the main source for material about Chilapa is Kyle, C. 1997 “Transport and Communication” 1910-96, in Werner, M.S. (ed) Encyclopedia of Mexico: History, Society & Culture. Chicago, Fitzroy Dearborn.

The development of transportation systems in Mexico is the focus of chapter 17 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

Jul 312010

The relationship between global climate change and (US) immigration is analyzed in a July 26 Scientific American article by David Biello titled “Climate Change May Mean More Mexican Immigration.”

migration at US border

The Mexico-US border

Analysis of data from 1995 to 2005 indicates that a 10% drop in crop yields (from drought) is correlated with an approximate 2% increase in Mexican migration to the USA. Climate change will also affect crop yields in the coming years and can also be expected, therefore, to influence migration rates. This is an interesting new perspective.  Previously, most studies have focused on the relationship between migration and unemployment rates in the USA, as well as the importation of cheap corn from the USA under NAFTA.

Using data on predicted global warming and the relationship between temperature increase and reduction in crop yields, the study suggests the total number of climate refugees [see comment below] emigrating to the USA during the next 70 years could be 1.4 to 6.7 million, an average of about 20,000 to 96,000 per year. This is rather small compared to the estimated average of 460,000 net migrants per year from Mexico to the USA between 1995 and 2005.

Obviously, making such a long range forecast based on current data is risky for several reasons.  First, predicted levels of global warming are uncertain.  Second, new varieties of drought resistant corn and other crops may be developed.  Third, the Mexican farming population is declining.  Fourth, many of these climate refuges could end up in Mexican cities.  Fifth, global warming may affect the number of available jobs in the USA.

Despite these limitations, the study is important because it adds to our understanding of the factors contributing to Mexican migration to the USA and provides a rational estimate of the impact of global warming on migration.  The article by Biello is drawn from research published by Feng et al in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Mexican migration to the USA is the focus of chapter 26 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

Map of the state of Campeche, Mexico

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May 082010

The state of Campeche (see map)  has an area of 57,925 square kilometers and a population of 608,535 (2010 estimate).

Its distinctive landscapes include a variety of coastal features and inland karst (limestone scenery). The state’s capital city  is Campeche, a colonial city which still preserves some of its ancient city walls and has UNESCO World Heritage status.  The most important city in the state economically is Ciudad del Carmen “the pearl of the Gulf”, center of the state’s involvement in Mexico’s oil industry, and an important base for offshore drilling.

Map of Campeche. Copyright 2009 Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

In the interior, the biosphere reserve of Calakmul has become an important tourist attraction.

The state’s economy looks set for a significant boost in coming decades as several major projects come to fruition. These include the first 6,000 hectares of a 30,000-hectare project on the coast of the Laguna de Términos for the commercial farming of rice and beans, and a similar sized forestry plantation project near Champoton specializing in the growing of scarce tropical hardwoods such as teak and mahogany.

The Irish may be everywhere, but mainly due to a Mexican water mold

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Mar 172010

During the Irish potato famine more than one million people died of starvation when their staple crop failed, and many of those who survived were forced to emigrate. This tide of emigration carried many Irish people to North America, particularly to the north-east of the USA.

How did the potato famine come about? The census of 1841 in Ireland recorded a population of about 8 million. This figure was a staggering 300% more than sixty years earlier. The staple Irish food at that time was the humble potato and Ireland’s rapid population growth during the early part of the nineteenth century was based on the so-called “potato economy”.  Ireland was bursting at the seams in 1841, but just a decade later, after the potato famine, the population had fallen to 6.5 million and by 1900 to around 4 million.

And where does a Mexican mold come in? The cause of famine was a water mold (Phytophthora infestans) that originated in Mexico. This fungus-like mold results in a disease called “late blight” in which entire fields of mature potato plants are destroyed within days. The name “late blight” is because the mold strikes late in the growing season, close to harvest time. Infected tubers are subject to soft-rot bacteria which render them useless as food. What is worse, the discarded rotting tubers can easily re-infect the succeeding year’s crop.

One kind of late blight mold, A1, crossed the Atlantic in the 1840s, reaching Europe in 1845 before rapidly spreading across the continent to reach Ireland. Although cultivated potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) originated in Peru, the late blight mold appears to have originated in the Toluca Valley of Mexico (adjacent to the western edge of Mexico City) where it is found in several related wild-growing Solanum tubers.

After the Irish potato famine, farmers learned to control the A1 mold through careful fungicide applications and by choosing varieties that had some resistance to late blight and planting only healthy tubers.

Since the 1980s, however, farmers are once again fighting late blight as the direct result of the escape of a second kind, A2, into the cultivated potato population. The problem stems from the fact that A1 and A2 can reproduce sexually, with the potential to have offspring that are strains with greater virulence or increased resistance to fungicides. Having two different kinds of late blight as parents greatly magnifies the genetic variability available for future generations of the mold .

The A2 mold first appeared outside Mexico in the 1970s and has already spread with serious economic consequences to the Middle East, Africa and North and South America. It seems almost certain that it will eventually also disrupt harvests in India and in China, the world’s largest potato producer. The A2 mold is considered the most important threat to potato cultivation worldwide. The current response of hitting it with higher and more lethal doses of fungicide is not in line with public demands for greener farming methods.

How did the A2 mold escape from Mexico? It was probably unintentionally carried by potatoes exported to Europe during the winter of 1976-77. Europe needed potatoes because a drought a year earlier had reduced its potato yields significantly. Unrecognized, the mold was then re-transported in seed potatoes throughout Europe and to the Middle East and Africa.

Scientists are studying wild potatoes in the Toluca Valley in an effort to try and identify precisely which gene or combination of genes provides these particular wild potatoes with some degree of defense against the worst ravages of the mold. Mexico’s main center for potato research is the Agricultural University at Chapingo, near Texcoco, on the eastern edge of Mexico City. The University is well worth a visit – if only to admire the magnificent Diego Rivera murals, including one of the world’s great nudes.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, wherever you may be!

This is an edited version of an article originally published on MexConnect – Click here for the original article

Mexico’s innumerable links (economic, social, demographic and cultural) to the world are relevant to many chapters of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

Winter weather hits coffee harvest

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Feb 052010

Mexico’s national union of coffee producers has more than 220,000 members. The nation’s coffee harvest runs from October to March, with December and January the peak harvesting months. Freezing temperatures in coffee-growing regions this winter (2009/10) have producers worried. The cooler than expected weather is expected to reduce production by up to 80,000 60-kg sacks. The total harvest is expected to be around 3.45 million sacks, well down from the 4.6 million recorded in 2008/9.