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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Border patrol

It’s no secret that the organic options in produce aisles have increased dramatically in recent years. And with the new emphasis on country-of-origin labeling, customers are sure to notice how many of these offerings—not only tropical delights like avocados, mangos and bananas but less exotic fare as well—come from far afield. There has been a dramatic surge in organic produce originating in Latin America, but chances are that not all customers will be convinced that’s a good thing.

Growing Latin organics
“We’ve seen an increase in organic farms in Latin America, especially Mexico,” says Jake Lewin, certification services director for Santa Cruz, Calif.-based California Certified Organic Farmers, which certifies growers around the world to U.S. Department of Agriculture National Organic Program standards. “The growth has been steady for 10 years, and really increased in the last five.”

According to Americafruit Magazine, a publication for produce importers in the United States, between one-fifth and one-quarter of all fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S. are imported. Americans ate 31 pounds of imported vegetables and 20 pounds of imported fruit per capita in 2007, double the amount in 1993.

And organic imports have increased faster than conventional. “The [organic import] market is growing at an average of 25 percent annually,” says Patrick Struebi, founder of Fairtrasa, an exporter of fair-trade, organic produce based in Uruapan, Michoacán, Mexico (see “Fairtrasa doing well and good,” page 24). Latin American organic production also increased from just below 10 million acres in 2000 to almost 16 million acres in 2007.

“Latin America represents a significant portion of the world’s organic agricultural land, about 20 percent,” says Jaclyn Bowen, general manager of organic certifier Quality Assurance International, based in San Diego. “Ninety percent of organic production in Latin America is grown for export.”

Availability and competition
The biggest impact of organic imports is increased product availability, whatever the season. “Mexican producers have allowed wholesalers and retailers to offer organics year-round and not be reliant on the U.S. markets,” says Ken Mobley of Earth Source Trading, an organic produce importer based in Ephrata, Pa.

Often, Mobley says, Mexican producers fill gaps in the U.S. production schedule—for example, shipping mangos when California and Florida don’t have any available. His company specializes in limes and avocados and, by working with growers in different regions of Mexico, is able to offer organic limes for up to 45 weeks out of the year.

Of course, sometimes imported produce does compete with domestic sources. But when distributors and retailers have multiple options, they generally follow a particular order: first local, then domestic, then imported. “In the northeast, we work with a local squash grower,” Mobley says. “When the local cukes are gone, we supply from Florida, and when the Florida crop is over, we go to Mexico. The Mexican cucumbers were available all along, but we didn’t use them until the others were done.” Given the choice, retailers would rather support local and domestic agriculture, and their customers prefer this arrangement too.

Safety and certification
One question consumers may ask, in light of recent food-safety scares, is whether organic produce from south of the border is held to the same standard as domestic organics. The answer, in a nutshell: yes.

“Whether it’s grown in Mexico or California, the standards are the same,” says Lewin. “We and every other certifier work to the same NOP standards wherever we operate.”

“Because of food safety scares out of Mexico, there’s a perception that the food may not encounter the right enforcement, but we’re satisfied our certifiers follow the right procedures,” Mobley adds. Of course, contamination is a possibility in agricultural products, regardless of whether they are organic or conventional, and is also linked to the type of crop. “Citrus and tree fruit risk level is low,” Mobley says, “compared to processed or leafy vegetables.”

Friends with benefits
“The [Mexican] state of Michoacán, where we’re based, has the highest rate of emigration to the U.S.,” Fairtrasa’s Struebi says. “Historically, those farmers sell fruit on the local market or to coyotes [smugglers], who give a very low price. Now, small growers who used to cross the border to work can make a fair income and keep families together.” That’s because the prices paid to small farmers for certified-fair trade and certified-organic produce are high enough to constitute a living wage. Why? The farmer no longer has to sell to a middleman. Cutting out that step can double or triple prices paid, and a certain price per bushel is also guaranteed in most cases by the company, such as Fairtrasa, that a farmer grows for. Earth Source’s Mobley, for example, works with 82 separate avocado growers who farm between five and 75 acres each. Fair-trade organizations offer further premiums for small growers.

Although many Mexican producers are small, family farms, that’s not always the case. “We see three types of operations: Mexican nationals converting to organics, partnerships with U.S. companies, and U.S. companies operating in Mexico for extended growing seasons and weather advantages,” Lewin says. According to data from FiBL, a German organic agriculture research group, 13,000 organic farms currently operate in Mexico.

Local vs. imported
For consumers, the biggest knock against imported produce is an inescapable one—it comes from far away. If buying local trumps organic availability or fair-trade benefits, then imported produce may be unacceptable for some customers. Of course, those customers probably won’t be looking for avocados or mangos in December anyway.

“When you’re talking about produce from far, far away, of course it’s better to chose organic than conventionally grown,” says Erin Barnett, director of, which provides information on local and organic farms. “But retailers have a responsibility to begin to shift consumer demand. If in three years there’s no demand in your store for asparagus out of season, you’re doing your job. People promoting fair-trade, organic foods from small farms in Mexico have good things to say, but in my opinion it’s not terribly sustainable for Mexican farmers to be dependent on people in the U.S. with excess food dollars.”

On the other hand, distance to market isn’t the only measure of sustainability. For example, greenhouse crops are responsible for far more carbon emissions than field crops, no matter where they’re grown. “We did a carbon footprint analysis for the avocados we ship to Europe,” says Struebi. “We found CO2 emissions of 72 grams per kilo when shipping by air, and only 26 grams per kilo when shipping by sea. For comparison, hothouse cucumbers grown in Holland produce 260 grams per kilo.”

It can be hard for consumers to weigh the relative merits of local vs. organic vs. fair trade. Obviously, it isn’t a simple issue. “I think this boils down to the importance of having information available so people can make their own choices,” Lewin says.

Fairtrasa: doing well and good

When Patrick Struebi quit his day job in the financial sector and purchased a one-way ticket from Zurich to Mexico City in 2003, he didn’t intend to found the largest fair-trade organic fruit exporter in Mexico. It just worked out that way. His company, Fairtrasa, now works with hundreds of Latin American farmers, providing the world avocados, limes, mangos and grapefruit from Mexico and Malbec wine from Argentina, with a new office slated to open soon in Peru.

Fairtrasa is proof that a business can be successful and still provide a living wage to small producers. “In spite of the financial downturn, right now I could sell twice the product I have because there is so much demand from everywhere in the world,” Struebi says.

In addition to the value-added price for organic production, Fairtrasa pays a fair-trade premium that is put into a community fund, and growers in the area then chose a social project to finance. “We’ve given over $200,000 to fund projects that the government of Mexico could never do because of lack of funds,” Struebi says. The money has been spent to drill wells and build schools. The company also offers educational seminars for its growers, with information on soil fertility and new agricultural techniques.

“I want to fund projects that look not just at environmental benefits, but human benefits too,” Struebi says, “so we can empower the small farmers we work with.”

Mitchell Clute is a freelance journalist living in Fort Collins, Colo., who enjoys guacamole year-round.

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