Growing a local organic movement: The Mexican Network of Organic Markets

Erin Nelson, Rita Schwentesius Rindermann, Laura Gómez Tovar and Manuel Ángel Gómez Cruz

Over the past several years, in response to the rapid growth in global demand for organic goods, the amount of organic production in Mexico has increased dramatically. Indeed, while Mexican agriculture as a whole has suffered severe crises, the organic sector has boomed, and today more than 83 000 producers farm organically on over 300 000 hectares of land. Of these producers, 98 percent are small scale, farming an average of three hectares, and over 50 percent are indigenous people. Unfortunately, as is the case in many developing countries, the vast majority of organic production remains focused on export crops – particularly coffee, but also cocoa, coconut, and other fruit and vegetables – with 85 percent of organic goods being sent to foreign markets. From an environmental point of view, export-oriented production is extremely damaging because of the amounts of fossil fuels required for transportation. In addition, packaging for export consumes precious resources and creates mountains of waste. Moreover, an export-oriented focus constrains the degree to which domestic markets are developed, and it leaves Mexican producers highly vulnerable to international market fluctuations.

An alternative organic vision

These problems have not gone unnoticed in Mexico. In fact, as in many other countries, a local organic movement has been growing alongside the more conventional industry. For example, some Mexican grocery stores now carry organic goods, and a number of organic speciality shops and cafés have opened, primarily in and around Mexico City. One of the more grassroots efforts, which focuses specifically on small scale local organics, has been the emergence of a number of organic markets across the country. Supported by committed producers and consumers, and in many cases linked to universities and non-governmental organisations, 17 of these markets are already well established in nine states, and new initiatives are continuously being developed. Since 2004, these markets have joined together to form the Mexican Network of Organic Markets.

While remaining independent entities with distinct characteristics, the markets do share a common vision. Besides the desire to improve the environment by supporting organic agriculture practices, the Network views sustainability in broader terms, regarding social and economic justice. In the Network’s view, promoting social and economic justice includes making healthy, safe, organic products more readily available to all Mexicans – and not just to those who live in urban centres and can afford to pay high premiums. Towards this goal, the organic markets focus on goods produced locally by small scale farmers, as well as on linking consumers directly with producers. By reducing the transportation and packaging of products and by eliminating intermediaries, the organic markets make it possible for small scale producers to earn more from their production while at the same time offering relatively affordable prices to consumers. Supporting these kinds of linkages also serves a more philosophical purpose – of building community solidarity and trust relationships.

Indeed, community building is at the heart of Mexico’s local organic markets. They are not conceived of as simply places where people go to buy and sell goods. Rather, they are meant to be spaces where commerce and consumption can become a political, social, ethical, educational, and enjoyable act. In an effort to combine these various elements, the vast majority of the Network’s markets offer a wide variety of workshops, lectures and other activities for both adults and children. In addition, many also host cultural events such as dance or musical performances, or other special events such as anniversary celebrations or fairs. As a result, the markets are dynamic initiatives that seek to support organic agriculture in a truly holistic sense, helping move towards environmental, social, and environmental sustainability.

The birth of a local organic market

One of the first markets created was in the community of Chapingo – home to Mexico’s principle agricultural university. The Chapingo initiative began with a group of people at the university who organised courses and workshops on organic agriculture, as well as tasting sessions where members of the public could sample organic goods. They also contacted local organic farmers and began to organise a system of organic product delivery for consumers at the university and in neighbouring communities. By 2003, the number of consumers and producers involved in the project had grown to such an extent that the organisers decided to move from the order and delivery system to a fully functioning public market (or “tianguis”). Thus, in November of that year, the Chapingo market was officially inaugurated in a building lent out free of charge by the university.

Today, the Chapingo Organic Market opens every Saturday from 10:00 to 15:00 and has more than twenty participating vendor tables. There is a growing number of consumers coming from the surrounding communities and also, in many cases, from Mexico City, which is about an hour’s drive away. The products offered include fruit and vegetables, meats, dairy products, eggs, baked goods, honey, coffee, processed goods such as syrup, oil, salsa and dried fruit, biodegradable cleaning and beauty products and artisanal work. In addition, consumers can enjoy a brunch of tlacoyos, quesadillas or tamales and drink coffee, chocolate or hibiscus juice. The market does not just offer goods for sale – it also has a small library with books about environmental and organic agriculture issues, an information table with books and pamphlets, and a space to hold free educational workshops for children and adults.

In many ways, the Chapingo market is representative of the other markets that form the Mexican Network of Organic Markets. Most of the markets run on a weekly basis, include educational elements such as workshops and presentations, are working towards developing participatory certification systems, and are run primarily on volunteer labour. The Mexican Network of Organic Markets pursues a wide variety of activities (including public education, marketing and promotion), but one of the primary objectives of the Network is to assist in the creation of new markets. Today there are 17 functioning markets and 8 initiatives, and the long term goal is to have 100 local organic markets open in Mexico.

Challenges facing the Mexican Network of Organic Markets

Although the number of local organic markets in Mexico is growing rapidly and there are a considerable number of highly committed producers, consumers, and organisers working tirelessly in support of the movement, each market confronts some significant challenges, and many of these are common across the Network. One of the primary challenges for each market is the struggle to secure the physical and human resources required in order to function. Unfortunately, market profits are generally not yet at a level that enables groups to pay for things like space rental or salaries to co-ordinators. Thus, the markets are heavily dependent on donations of resources and volunteer labour, which can be problematic.

A lack of funds also limits the degree to which the Network can pursue training and education programmes for both producers and consumers. Significant numbers of producers have demonstrated interest in shifting to organic production and accessing an organic market, but they lack the necessary expertise, and cannot access the educational resources needed to assist them in the endeavour. The difficulties in getting access to extension services exacerbates another problem in terms of growing local organic markets – insufficient supply of locally produced organic goods. In fact, although insufficient demand is often cited as a problem for local organics, the reality for many existing organic markets is that sometimes consumers come looking for goods and find them either sold or not available at all. In response to this problem, the markets are constantly searching for new producers to expand the supply of existing products and introduce new ones to meet consumer needs and preferences. The Network would also like to facilitate the inter-market exchange of products; however, a lack of funding for transportation has meant that this has not yet been possible.

Participatory organic certification system

Another major challenge confronting local organic markets are the economic and bureaucratic barriers that make it difficult for the small scale producers involved to obtain organic certification. This can make ensuring consumer confidence in the integrity of the products for sale difficult. In response to this issue, the organic markets that participate in the Network support the notion of participatory certification, and are working to develop smoothly functioning “Participatory Guarantee Systems”. Key aspects of these systems are that they minimise bureaucracy, do not require any payment from the producer, and incorporate an element of social and environmental education for producers and consumers. In a major step forward for participatory certification in Mexico, the Network successfully lobbied for its inclusion in the recently passed law governing organic agriculture. As a result, products certified through participatory processes can now legally be referred to as “organic”.

In Chapingo’s organic market, the first step for a producer wishing to achieve participatory certification is to contact the market co-ordinator and fill out a questionnaire regarding current and past production practices. This questionnaire is reviewed by Chapingo’s participatory certification committee, which consists of local consumers, producers, agricultural researchers and students. The committee uses a combination of the norms of the National Organic Program of the United States and those of the Mexican certification body Certimex as a reference. If, based on the questionnaire, the producer meets the requirements for organic certification, a visit to the farm is scheduled.

This farm visit is not viewed as an inspection per se, but rather as an interactive experience designed to be educational for all those involved. During the visit, committee members consult a checklist that includes basic data about the farm operation (e.g. size of territory, number of crops, etc.) as well as basic organic control points, such as the following: source of seeds and water; soil, pest and disease management practices; post-harvest treatment of crops; and the potential for contamination from neighbouring farms.

Following the farm visit, the case is discussed in a meeting of the entire certification committee. If producers comply with all standards, they are granted organic status within the market and certified without condition. In most cases however, certification comes with a set of conditions. The most common ones include the need to develop natural barriers to prevent contamination from neighbouring conventional farms, and to thoroughly compost manure before application to crops. Provided that the producers work with the committee to meet these conditions, and that they are not in serious violation of organic standards, they can then begin to sell their goods in the “natural” section of the market, which is physically separated from the organic section and marked with signage. Follow-up visits and continuous communication are used to ensure that the conditions are being met, and eventually the producer may be eligible for full organic status. Because transparency and community involvement are integral aspects of the system, the results of all questionnaires and committee decisions are available to the public, and anyone who wishes to join the certification committee is more than welcome to do so. In addition, consumers are encouraged to interact with producers at the Chapingo market, and this interaction has led to the development of strong relationships of trust, and in some cases friendship, between the buyers and sellers of organic products. These relationships are an important means of supporting the participatory certification process, as they provide the consumer with an extra sense of security.

It should be noted that the process of participatory certification is not without its own set of problems and limitations. One of the most prominent challenges for the implementation of participatory certification is that it is currently all done on a volunteer basis. This places significant constraints on the amount of time that people are able to devote to the process. In addition, many participants come and go, and this creates a lack of consistency and continuity within the certification committee. Finally, a lack of training and education means that several people who are currently active in the committee still lack the sufficient expertise to carry out inspections. These challenges have made it difficult to keep up with the demand for certifying new producers who wish to enter the market, and also to consistently monitor the farms of existing market members.

 Future steps

The Mexican Network of Organic Markets is expected to continue growing, as it is doing that now at a very fast rate. Looking into the future, the Network’s plans include to:

  • solidify the participatory certification systems (i.e. make sure that they are codified in writing and that they are followed homogenously in all markets);
  • systematically determine the characteristics of the various markets (including number of producers involved, products available, income generated, resources invested, etc.);
  • offer training for market managers;
  • continue offering capacity building workshops on organic agriculture techniques as well as on price setting and small business management;
  • address issues of gender within the local organic markets;
  • increase promotion of the markets, for example by using radio and television and public events;
  • visit elementary schools and offer education on the environment and organic agriculture; and
  • continue to host meetings three times per year where all markets will be represented.

The rapid growth of the Mexican Network of Organic Markets demonstrates that there is a great deal of interest on the part of both Mexican producers and consumers to work together to create sustainable food systems. By increasing the links between producers and consumers and by providing high quality organic goods at prices that are fair for everyone involved, these markets help broaden the reach of the organic movement while simultaneously returning it to its philosophical roots. By facilitating the involvement of small scale producers and encouraging a focus on local food networks, the notion of participatory certification furthers this effort. Indeed, although still in its early phases, the Mexican experience with local organic markets and participatory certification offers an important alternative, not only to the conventional food sector, but also to the industrialised, export-oriented, “mainstream” organic sector.

Erin Nelson. University of Guelph, School of Environmental Design and Rural Development. 50 Stone Road East, Guelph, Ontario N1G 2W1, Canada.

Rita Schwentesius Rindermann. Red Mexicana de Tianguis y Mercados Orgánicos / Cuerpo Académico Socioeconomía en Producción, Certificación y Consumo Orgánico, Universidad Autónoma Chapingo. Km. 38.5, Carretera México-Texcoco, Apdo. Postal 90, C.P. 56230 Chapingo, México

Laura Gómez Tovar. Departamento de Agroecología, Universidad Autonoma Chapingo / Comité de Certificación Participativa del Tianguis Orgánico.

Manuel Ángel Gómez Cruz. Cuerpo Académico Socioeconomía en Producción, Certificación y Consumo Orgánico, Universidad Autónoma Chapingo.



Recently Published Articles

Women-led farm initiatives

Women-led farm initiatives

By using organic farming methods, developing connections with markets, generating income, and enhancing their own...


Call for articles

Share your valuable experience too

Share This