MEXICO CITY – Organic products are muscling their way onto grocery shelves in Mexico, a country that has long produced organic goods but is only just beginning to consume them.
Black beans and pinto beans, rice and amaranth, soups and dressings, milk, yogurt, cheese and coffee, sweets and jams: The variety of organic products being marketed to Mexicans has swelled in the past five years. A Mexican company called Aires de Campo is leading the effort to gain visibility in supermarkets here.
"The market has grown exponentially," said Rubén Moreno, quality control manager at Aires de Campo, Mexico's largest organic brand dedicated exclusively to the national market. "We started with four producers and a few boxes to sell in store we had before. Now we’re more than 150 producers that deliver tons each week or month."
Aires de Campo was founded in 2001 with two goals in mind: to create a distribution channel for small producers in the country and to open up the national market, which had all but been ignored.
Ninety percent of organic produce harvested in Mexico is destined for export, largely to the U.S., according to Homero Blas, president of the Society of Mexican Organic Production, or SOMEXPRO.
Organic production – in terms of both dedicated land and number of producers – has risen 30 percent annually since 2006, he said. About 1.2 million acres have been registered as organic in Mexico, or roughly 3 percent of the total surface dedicated to agriculture.
"That's a lot," said Blas, who grows organic coffee, bananas and other fruits in southern Oaxaca state. "And it keeps growing at that pace. We have a lot of growth potential."
Small producers who sell through Aires de Campo gain the benefit of a better-known brand, national marketing and access to the company's far-reaching distribution network.
Aires de Campo sells in large supermarket chains such as Superama (owned by Walmart de México), Soriana and Chedraui. It also sells to the increasing number of independently owned groceries dedicated to organic and natural foods that have sprouted up in major urban areas.
Ecology movements, media coverage of climate change, public service campaigns about recycling – all that information and more has made "people turn increasingly to organic products as the look for the health, environmental and social benefits," Moreno said. "This has helped us win a lot of space in big-box stores. We've upped sales. We've won clients. The growth amounts to more or less 15 percent annually in terms of product demand."
The company's growth trajectory recently attracted the interest of Monterrey, Mexico-based Herdez, a maker of salsas, canned goods and juices. Herdez purchased a 50 percent stake in Aires de Campo in September, a move viewed as a bet that the national taste for organic foods is maturing.
"We see significant growth potential in the industry of organic products, and our expansion in this category is a natural extension of our commitment to satisfy the needs of our consumers," Grupo Herdez President Héctor Hernández-Pons told CNNExpansion.com in September.
Mexican organic products are certified under U.S. or European regulations. Hoping to give the movement a national flavor, Mexican authorities are working on developing regulations for a national certification, expected to be ready this year or next.
Photo: Flickr/George Ruiz