Food by VICE

Fighting for Organic Corn Tortillas in Mexico

Luis and Dorita Elizondo aren't content with huge agribusinesses controlling Mexico's agriculture, so they set out to grow their own organic corn for high-quality tortillas.

by Lorena Rios
Mar 8 2016, 9:00pm

Noé holding a blue variety of corn. All photos by the author.

Luis and Dorita Elizondo have made a personal bet on Mexican fields, on the fertility of its land, and on the people who first domesticated maize 8,700 years ago. Abandoning the stability of Luis's family business, the married couple and proud urban dwellers decided to become certified organic farmers more than a decade ago. "We wanted to use our skills, knowledge, and professional training to make a social impact on farmers," says Luis over tea in their house, which is located in an affluent neighborhood of Mexico's richest municipality. Sitting at their kitchen table after a long day's work is the only time the couple has to discuss the unassailable difficulties of farming, and why they decided to make Mexico's vital staple—corn tortillas—organic.

In 1994, Luis and Dorita ventured into Mexico's beleaguered agricultural sector after much necessary "thinking and praying," recalls Dorita. They began growing vegetables in their ranch, testing new practices on their own land, and learning how to grow organic produce within strict USDA guidelines. "We spent more than ten years mastering the art of growing our organic vegetables, going across the country from one ranch to another," she tells me with a slight strain in her voice, as though the mere thought of that time exhausts her.

The couple's hard work paid off when they found a demand for their organic produce in the upscale Mexican market. San Pedro Garza García, where Luis and Dorita launched their business, encompasses the southwest side of the city of Monterrey and is one of the most opulent municipalities in Latin America. It is also fertile ground for consumers who can afford to be health-conscious or ethically driven in their food choices. A couple of years after gaining their organic certification, the couple began selling in local organic shops and international supermarket chains like HEB and Walmart.

The view from Luis and Dorita's ranch. All photos by the author.

Organic farming—as understood by certification, at least—is a relatively new practice in Mexico. "Quality organic agriculture is not easy," admits Luis. "It takes at least three years to learn." Mexico drafted an organic food production act (Ley de Productos Orgánicos) in 2006, but the law was not implemented until 2015. That has posed a challenge to people like Dorita and Luis, as Mexico has yet to implement a system that recognizes international organic certifications.

"Being 'organic' is a brand used to sell [products]," says Dorita. After more than a decade of following Oregon Tilth's guidelines and operating a shop that sells only certified organic products, she knows very well what "organic" means. "Consumers don't know the law and don't know what it means to be organic," she explains. "So they settle with being told that something is organic."

The couple educated themselves as much as possible, diving into relevant literature and meeting with experienced famers, agricultural engineers, and anyone who could teach them the ways of the land. Soon, their business prospered. With time, they grew from three acres to 338 acres and invited small-scale farmers to join their thriving business—but most importantly, to share their organic vision while offering them dignity for their work.

mextortillas_Maize

However, the kind of practices Luis and Dorita wanted to bring to less-privileged farmers were impossible to implement without money, which is a major problem for all farmers in Mexico. The small farmers that had partnered with the couple couldn't financially commit to the business model offered by organic farming, even if it paid better in the long run. And without strong farmers to tend their lands, Luis and Dorita were unable to make their business work. Suddenly, the reality of Mexico's troubled agricultural industry hit them full force. Without the support of their partners, they lacked the land and labor force to continue their operations, so they chose instead to revive the art of making authentic, nixtamalized corn tortillas with their company Pro-Organico.

Campesinos and indigenous peoples make up 92 percent of corn producers in Mexico, most of whom engage in subsistence farming. Noé Contreras Álvarez is one of them. He grows corn for Luis and Dorita's organic tortillas, among other produce, and raises livestock as well. "We grow beans, maize, wheat, and oats," he explains at Luis's farm, surrounded by piles of corn. "We keep 10 percent of the profits and the rest goes to the big man."

Pro-Organico is the name of Luis and Dorita's business

The Mexican Revolution of 1910 that overthrew the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz was fought by peasants. Under the leadership of Emiliano Zapata, Mexico's underclass of farmers pushed for a daring agrarian reform to redistribute the land previously held by the rich. These days, however, their ideals have hardly been realized. Mexico's agriculture industry is flawed, favoring a few big agribusinesses over Mexico's small farms. "Conventional farming starves farmers out," Dorita says indignantly. "It doesn't kill you, but they don't let you grow either."

On average, Mexicans eat 90 kilos of tortillas per year. Around 12,000 small businesses make 54 percent of the corn tortillas in Mexico—and one company, Maseca, manufactures a whopping 25 percent of them, and for much cheaper than the small operations. Maseca is the largest corn flour and tortilla manufacturer in the world, and successfully holds a monopoly on Mexico's corn production and storage. It can even drive the price of tortillas up, given that it owns 340 storage units, each with a staggering capacity of four and a half tons of corn.

Inside the tortilla factory that makes Luis and Dorita´s tortillas

Inside the tortilla factory that makes Luis and Dorita's tortillas.

Luis and Dorita's organic corn tortillas sell in 300-gram packages for 25 pesos (about $1.41 US), while a kilo of conventional tortillas costs less than a dollar. Luis and Dorita are aware of the rarity of their product in the market and are prepared to answer the inevitable question lingering in the back of middle-class Mexican customers' minds: Why should someone bother to buy organic corn tortillas that are considerably more expensive than conventional tortillas made by Maseca?

"To help the person who makes the tortillas," Dorita answers curtly. "Corn producers for Maseca earn a trifling amount because they have to go through intermediaries," she says. There is an enormous market for tortillas, which comprise 8.3 percent of the food expenditure in Mexican households, higher than the 5.4 percent and 5.3 percent spent on milk and soft drinks, respectively. By commanding a higher price for their tortillas, the couple is able to pay farmers a better wage. Small farmers with fewer than 20 acres of land make of 84.3 percent of the producers in the country.

Noé was born and raised in San Jose del Verjel, an hejido (ranch) with about 42 landowners and 350 inhabitants. With a frown running deep with wrinkles, the forty-something farmer speaks confidently about his opinions. "I don't have a lot of knowledge, but NAFTA dumped us in the trashcan," he says. "We sell our products cheap, but have to meet high-quality standards."

Better World tortillas come in a variety of flavors, from white corn, yellow corn, blue corn, and with ingredients such as cactus and amaranto

The finished tortillas, sold under the Better World brand name, come in a variety of flavors including white corn, yellow corn, and blue corn, and with ingredients such as cactus and amaranth.

"Life in the fields is hard," continues Noé. "I didn't study [in school] because I didn't have the financial support." He dreamt of becoming a veterinarian but was only able to go so far as middle school. "It's not ignorance, it is poverty," he says of the 17 million poor people living in rural areas, which account for roughly 61.1 percent of the population. Noé learned to work in the fields through practice, but it's not enough to allow him to prosper. "Farming is a way of thinking, a way of taking advantage of your resources," he says.

One such way is crop rotation, a practice that many conventional farmers are not acquainted with and one that Luis and Dorita sought to foment. Instead, monoculture farming pervades. The couple introduced farmers to the minutiae of crop rotation, such as crop planning, diversifying the use of their lands, picking the right seeds, and measuring the distance between crops. "Conventional farmers don't worry about crop rotation because they are part of a bigger chain," explains Luis on the way to their ranch and tortilla factory. "The norm is to have specialized farmers."

Tortillas waiting to be transported to a supermarket chain.

But Noé is still skeptical of jumping into the organic bandwagon. "We can't fight all that God sends our way without the use of chemicals," he claims. He worries about losing his crops to plagues, fires, draughts, or frosts. Such is the dilemma facing all small farmers who own up to ten acres: either they must switch to certified organic farming and earn more per acre while becoming defenseless against nature, or bet on the seed companies' promises of higher yields while using expensive chemicals. In either case, farmers like Noé lose. "The market has let us down big time," he says. "We've never had a competitive price in the market."

Noé has a hard time believing that farming can ever become profitable for people like him again. "If we didn't have money before, we paid workers with corn, which they could exchange for goods," he explains. Now, such programs no longer exist. "Whatever little the government gives us, they take back in other ways."

Some of the maize Noé has harvested.

In Mexico, there are more than 59 different indigenous varieties of corn and a wealth of heritage stored in their seeds, but the country's corn biodiversity is up for sale to the highest bidder—in this case, it's biotech companies like Monsanto, Dupont, and Syngenta. A collective of farmers and civil society has been fighting in the name of indigenous maize, free from transgenics, in an effort to halt the Ministry of Agriculture's move toward endorsing and approving the invasion of GMO corn into Mexico. But the battle has not been won yet.

"We must sow a new way of being," says Dorita, almost in a whisper, on our way back from the ranch. The sun is setting and the quietude of the fields transforms into the roar of the industrial city ahead of us. "We don't want to change the world," she continues. "But we know the world doesn't need transgenics. Farmers can produce corn if they are given the access to do so."

Noe puts it even more succinctly. "We are not aiming to become businessmen. Just give us the rod and teach us how to fish," he says. "Don't just give us the fish."