When I moved to the state of Jalisco, Mexico I took great joy in romanticising its pop-up street markets, food stalls and intimate eateries. I quickly learnt however, that the apparently food-centric culture seemed to care little about the provenance of the ingredients in Grandma’s salsa recipe.
In the 1940s, the Rockefeller Foundation started experimenting with indigenous varieties of Mexican corn. This led to what is now known worldwide as the ‘Green Revolution‘, the application of contemporary technology to agricultural systems largely in the form of specific high-yielding varieties, ‘optimised’ through the addition of external chemical inputs – herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. This ‘revolution’ has been particularly prevalent in Mexico, where more than 50 indigenous corn varieties (everything from blue to multicoloured glass corn) have largely been replaced with a few varieties of the genetically modified equivalent. This mass migration to producing larger quantities of a single-crop, much of which is destined for the export market, has had a massive impact on the rural way of life that dominated for centuries. In response to this mass expansion however, a small but persistent sustainability movement has been slowly growing and I was delighted to find a budding food movement working against the odds to retain their rich agricultural heritage.
Efrain Franco, who has been working in organic agriculture in Jalisco for many years, explained to me the impact of the green revolution in his area. He told me, ‘small-scale producers have been pushed aside, there has there been huge environmental damage and our cultural relationship with nature has been lost. The emergence and domination of big agriculture has resulted in ‘technological packages’ (i.e. suites of agrochemicals) becoming the backbone of the governments agricultural policy. This has left virtually no support for small or organic farmers, severely limiting our ability to grow.’
Nowadays, many young men from rural Jalisco see no future in agriculture. The soaring costs involved in setting up for themselves force many to cross the border to work on subsidised US farms, some in organic agriculture. Organic producer Arely told me that most of her village has gone to the US for work. It’s a recurring story in Jalisco.
The producers have not been the only victims of these industrial food policies. Issues of malnutrition and childhood obesity are rife, with Mexico topping the global league-tables at 4.5million obese children in 2013. The environment has suffered from the over-use of agrochemicals and many rivers and lakes are polluted with algae. What’s more, the Santiago river that runs through Jalisco is the most contaminated in the country, and one of the most contaminated in the world.
In the face of all this, it’s not surprising that a sustainable food movement has emerged. Sustainability has been a topic in Mexican political discourse since the UN Earth Summit of 1992. Organic ideas were introduced to Mexico around the same time, by a group of Jalisco based environmentalists. They formed part of the Jalisco Environmental Collective and set up workshops with producers about the use of toxic chemicals in the countryside. They only managed to convince a handful of brave farmers to risk the 5 year conversion to organic agriculture. Since then, the movement has grown slowly and erratically. A seminar in 1998 attended by representatives from the German ‘Goethe Institute’, local universities, the Jalisco Environmental Collective proved a catalyst for several projects. These projects included the first EcoTienda (EcoShop), the Circulo de Producción y Consumo Responsable (The Circle of Production and Responsible Consumption), the Red de Tianguis Mexicana de Tianguis y Mercados Orgánicos (the Network of Mexican Organic Streetmarkets) and Ejote (participatory organic certification).
The Circle of Production and Responsible Consumption took the lead in connecting producers and consumers in the first and still most successful organic street market in the city. Jorge Gastón, an Environmental Collective member since the get-go, stressed to me the role of these projects as pioneering. He mentioned how the collective imagination of the Mexican people simply didn’t include a vocabulary for sustainability. People were interested in the topic though, and even the press were slowly opening up small spaces for discussions about sustainability. Further challenges to the growth of the movement were the absence of organic certification (only recently discussed by the government) or credits for organic producers, and the low prices in the growing supermarket sector, which have made it difficult for organic producers to compete.
In the last two years, ecological consumerism has blossomed in the form of street markets, eco-shops and eco-fiestas (big summer fairs) allowing consumers and sustainable producers to meet. Educational workshops at two street markets and trips to visit organic farms, help to raise awareness of sustainable and organic farming. Elsewhere, charities work with producers trying their hand at medium-scale organic farming, though this is mostly focused on export markets. Lastly, a grow-your-own trend has seen urban Jaliscences donning the gardening gloves and exchanging seedlings at bartering events.
At the vibrant ecological markets you can find everything from eco-friendly sanitary towels to tortillas. Yet the beautiful fruits and vegetables don’t sell well and producers are kept to a minimum. There are perhaps fewer than five very small scale organic farmers that take their produce to these markets. Somehow the rural-urban link is still missing. An example of this missing link came from organic producer Arely’s husband, Alfredo. He produces two hectares of tomatoes conventionally because he simply can’t sell the organic ones locally. Meanwhile medium-scale organic producers are mostly exporting to the US and as far away as Japan.
This rag-tag of projects and markets has far to go and is rife with issues. Efrain summarised the situation well – ‘…each part is isolated from the other.’ All involved seem to agree that the markets and shops need to cooperate and that raising awareness of producers and farmers is urgently needed. Meanwhile the small sustainable food movement bravely battles green-washing, cheap supermarket prices, minimal support from the government and local businessmen cashing in on ‘ecological products’.
Personally, I have taken great pleasure in supporting farm visits, new organic markets and my favourite, the agro-ecological barter events. These events are gatherings of the green fingered, who exchange seeds, seedlings, compost or worms, with strictly no money changing hands. In this city of 7 million it’s not easy to find sustainability-minded people, but bartering some organic hibiscus seeds from the south of the country for my constant supply of radish seedlings was a great exchange. In my local park, one of the first community veg plots was created and passer-bys often stop and talk about their experiences of growing food, often as children, in the countryside.
After three years in Mexico, working with the local government, charities and citizen organisations in sustainable food, the only thing I am clear about is the incredible amount of work still to be done. However, the emerging solutions are a response to the downtrodden food system of a country rich in food heritage, and are providing hope and inspiration for others to follow suit.