By Danielle Schami
The majority of small-scale producers in Mexico contend with multiple pressures that impair their efforts to grow food. In addition to the everyday struggles related to poverty, these producers face a host of challenges resulting from agrarian reform, climate change, structural adjustment, biotechnology and international trade agreements. El Círculo de Producción y Consumo Responsable (Círculo), an organization in Guadalajara, Mexico, is attempting to create an alternative model that directly links rural producers and urban consumers.
Trade agreements, NAFTA in particular, have considerably undermined the viability of small-scale producers in Mexico. Corn, a dietary and cultural staple, lost all state protection under the NAFTA agreement. As a result, a flood of cheap US corn hit the market and drove down prices. Consequently people were forced to leave rural areas in search of economic opportunities in the cities, still facing the likely risk of further poverty and malnutrition.
In addition, the food security of the impoverished sectors of the population has declined as a result of a drastic shift to export crop production. Across Latin America, crops intended for export are now grown on land that once produced beans. Whereas beans contribute approximately thirty percent of the protein consumed by the continent’s 200 million low-income families, most bean farmers are now trying to grow vegetables for export and devoting less of their land to beans for home or national consumption.
Given this context, small-scale food producers in Mexico find themselves in a quandary. They are losing access to the local market, as it has become increasingly difficulty for them to compete with foreign products grown cheaply in other countries and dumped on the Mexican market. The Mexican state relinquished protectionist policies in order to enter into the NAFTA agreement, forcing its agricultural sector to compete with protected subsidized producers of Canada and the US. At the same time, this situation leaves Mexican producers at a disadvantage when trying to compete with subsidized farmers on the global market.
The Circle of Responsible Production and Consumption
In response to such problems, a small group of people in Guadalajara, Mexico has joined forces with rural producers to build a local alternative to the global food system.El Círculo de Producción y Consumo Responsable (Círculo) is based on three fundamental concepts: ecological production, responsible consumption and fair trade. The Círculo offers greater food security to producers and consumers alike and helps to improve the economic conditions of rural families and communities. The Círculo also provides an interface between the countryside and the city by promoting rural-urban linkages and alternatives to conventional forms of food production, consumption and commercialization.
In many regards, the Círculo resembles the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model found in the US and Canada, which aims to diminish the distance between producers and consumers and provide a more secure market for food growers. These models serve to strengthen social ties through the simple act of purchasing food directly from the farmer, and to reduce the impact on the environment by shortening the distance food must travel. As alternatives to the liberalized market and in particular the global food system, these examples share guiding principles based on treating people and the planet with respect.
Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA)
CSA is a partnership of mutual commitment between a farm and a community of supporters that provides a direct link between food production and consumption. Supporters cover a farm’s yearly operating budget by purchasing a share of the season’s harvest. CSA members make a commitment to support the farm throughout the season, and assume the costs, risks and bounty of growing food along with the farmer or grower. Members help pay for seeds, fertilizer, water, equipment maintenance, labor, etc. In return, the farm provides, to the best of its ability, a healthy supply of seasonal fresh produce throughout the growing season. Becoming a member creates a responsible relationship between people and the food they eat, the land on which it is grown and those who grow it.
This mutually supportive relationship between local farmers, growers and community members helps create an economically stable farm operation in which members are assured the highest quality produce, often at below retail prices. In return, farmers and growers are guaranteed a reliable market for a diverse selection of crops.
Source: What is Community Supported Agriculture and How Does It Work? University of Massachusetts Extension, www.umass.edu/umext/csa/about.html.
El tianguis – Where Producers and Consumers Come Together
The central activity of the Círculo is a bi-weekly market called the ‘tianguis’, a word and concept borrowed from the Mayan people. A tianguis is an open-air marketplace where producers and consumers meet face-to-face. At the Círculo’s weekly tianguis in Guadalajara, producers sell their products directly to consumers. This weekly ritual has become an important part of some 100 people’s lives, a place where they come together to share their vision of a more just food system.
The consumers receive fresh produce from a trustworthy source and the producers gain an improved standard of living as a result of the consumers’ commitment to buy their products on a regular basis. The social ties and understanding between consumer and producer are strengthened each week as consumers hear first-hand about the realities producers face in growing food and bringing it to the city. This exchange provides consumers with a clearer picture of their local food system and ultimately is reflected in their continuing support of the producers.
The producers involved in this project are proud land stewards. They recognize their responsibility to care for the soil and the water they use to grow food. They face tremendous pressures, however, in trying to maintain their commitment to healthy food production under a global food system dictated by international economic trends. The limitations of the industrial agriculture system and economic policies squeeze them into corners that drive them deeper into poverty.
The key principle of organic agriculture is to mimic as much as possible naturally-occurring ecological cycles. Practices like crop rotation and the application of organic fertilizer, such as manure or compost, reflect this principle insofar as building soil fertility. Likewise, growing local varieties and native species re-inserts and encourages biodiversity in the agricultural landscape. Reclaiming indigenous and campesino (rural) knowledge and developing local growing methods suited to the ecological region allow producers to provide their own inputs and help to reduce their dependence on credit agencies.
Environmental Education in the City and the Countryside
These producers were among the first in the region to turn their back on conventional agriculture and its dependence on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. As explained by Maite Cortes, an environmental educator with Círculo, it was easy for the first producers who became involved in the project to understand the importance of reduced pesticide use. “Many of them had already been poisoned many times—some of their children had even died from pesticide exposure. So it wasn’t a matter of understanding that pesticides were poisoning their lives, but rather it was a question of whether they were going to be able to sell the produce that they were growing without credits [or any form of governmental support].” With the support of people like Maite, who were able to provide them with the scientific knowledge about petro-chemicals and existing alternatives, producers such as Ezequiel Macias now serve as regional examples of the possibilities of organic agriculture production.
Maite is among several environmental educators who promote the Círculo. Members of the Jalisco Ecological Collective (JEC), an environmental NGO dedicated to raising awareness of responsible social and environmental practices, organize workshops both in the city and the countryside about toxins in the environment and how to select healthier alternatives for the farm and household. This handful of people provides the backbone of the Círculo; their educational and organizational skills help to keep the project flourishing. Some of the producers have since become educators themselves, explaining organic agriculture to their neighbors and other growers and inviting city folk to their farms to learn first-hand about food production.
One of goals of the workshops is to increase awareness of the impact of pesticides. City dwellers who have attended workshops organized by JEC or listened to one of JEC’s programs broadcast on a local radio station are likely to better understand the impacts of pesticides on their health, the environment and the well-being of the people growing their food. Increasingly these consumers are committed to supporting organic farmers by purchasing directly from them. They also understand that in doing so, the producers get a better price for their products by avoiding the cut that would otherwise go to a broker or merchant. Through a better understanding of their interdependent relationship with producers and their role within the food system, the consumers involved in Círculo adjust their shopping patterns in order to purchase their food at the bi-weekly market rather than at the local grocery chain. Their effort required to do so is well worth the value of providing healthier food to their families and lending direct support to the producers from whom they buy at the tianguis.
In Canada and the US, fair trade is most commonly associated with products such as coffee, cocoa and bananas. In the case of the Círculo, fair trade means supporting local producers by paying fair prices for all the produce they grow. Similar to the CSA model, members of the Círculo engage in fair trade by sharing in the risks involved in agriculture and with which producers must contend. Production losses typically result from drought or heavy rains, which are becoming increasingly common with fluctuating weather patterns worldwide. Producers are also often left to let crops rot in their fields because the market price is lower than the cost of harvesting (as has been the case with the coffee crisis in much of Central America over the past few years). To offset such risks, commitment and solidarity with the producer is needed; consumers must balance their desire to get the largest quantity of food for the lowest possible price with an understanding of the true cost of growing food and the challenges faced in producing it.
Based on the idea of reflecting the real cost of production rather than paying artificial market prices, the Círculo abides by the rules of fair trade. The Círculo’s members thus commit to pay prices that include a living wage for the workers and the cost of protecting and preserving ecosystems. Incorporating economic and environmental health in the trade of food this way helps ensure the maintenance and viability of rural and indigenous communities.
The promoters of the Círculo define “responsible consumers” as people who use their judgment to assess the social, economic, cultural and environmental impacts of what they consume—“ideas” or “knowledge” as well as goods and services. Consumers thus recognize their responsibility in the choices they make and develop a clear understanding of the market as a space within which they have the power to influence political, economic and social change. Being a responsible consumer goes beyond making conscious consumer decisions and changing buying practices, encompassing the adoption of cultural and lifestyle changes as well. In terms of food, for many people these changes include:
Raising awareness among even only a few of the six million people living in the City of Guadalajara has had a positive impact on the lives of families in the surrounding countryside. Through participation in the environmental and fair trade movement locally and internationally, the Jalisco Ecological Collective has had a global impact on how these issues are both thought about and addressed in practice. While making informed consumer choices is a big part of becoming active in shaping society, one’s activism can have a larger impact when people become engaged in a growing global movement to support more just systems.
What is the impact of alternative models such as the Círculo? If compared to the much larger number of consumers who continue to shop, unaware of the impact of their purchasing choices, at large grocery chains and markets where the rules of fair trade do not apply, one might assess the impact and influence as minimal. However, regardless of whether or not this model has the potential to challenge or put a dent in the global food system, what is important is that this project has a very real and direct impact on people’s lives. Families in the countryside are breaking away from a cycle of poverty and sickness due to pesticide poisoning and malnutrition; families consuming their products are feeling better about the quality of the food that they eat and the knowledge that the money they spend goes directly to those who produced it. They are also aware that they are contributing to improving the environmental, labor and economic conditions of the people who grow their food for them. For these reasons alone, this project is not only significant but also crucial.
Here in Canada and the United States, less effort is required of consumers to make changes that would significantly benefit local food producers. CSAs, for example, are becoming increasingly common; there are over 1,000 CSA farms in the US and Canada. To find one, all one has to do is ask around through local NGOs, community centers, food co-ops or health food stores, or look on the Internet. Other models that promote buying from local farmers also exist, including organic food delivery businesses where one can have locally grown organic food delivered to one’s door. For more information, see UMass Extension: What is Community Supported Agriculture and How Does It Work?
Danielle Schami spent four months in Mexico in 2002 with the Jalisco Ecological Collective to produce a documentary video about the circle of responsible production and consumption as the final research project for her Master’s in Environmental Studies and Planning (MES) at York University in Toronto, Canada. In addition to her MES, she also has a background in cultural anthropology, agriculture and international development. Danielle can be contacted at dschami(at)ecomail(dot)org.