Tradition and innovation: the success of a family farmer's cactus cookies

Bringing small producers closer to urban consumers in Mexico

Anastasia and her family grow cactus pear at her farm in Milpa Alta, Mexico City. The ability of this cactus to survive in arid and dry climates makes it a key crop for food security. ©FAO/Fernando Reyes Pantoja


Corn, chocolate, tomato, avocado, chili peppers… when we think of Mexico, many delicious products come to mind. Those products are already part of many diets around world. However, unless you live in Mexico or one of its neighboring countries, you may never have tried cactus pear pads or even heard of them. Actually, the cactus pear (officially called Opuntia but known as nopal in Mexico) is so much a part of the Mexican culinary tradition and culture that it appears on the country’s national coat of arms.

The legend of the foundation of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, now known as Mexico City, says that the god Huitzilopochtli told the Mexicans to establish their city where they found an eagle eating a snake while perched on a cactus. This is how they chose the valley where the capital is now located.

Today, the municipality of Milpa Alta in Mexico City is the main producer of cactus pear in this city of more than 20 million inhabitants. It is there that Anastasia Guzmán and her family grow cactus pear in an area of ​​around 8 000 square meters.

Left: Anastasia prepares her cookies based on amaranth and cactus pear. ©FAO/Fernando Reyes Pantoja. Right: Anastasia’s innovative product has had great success among customers at the Producers’ Market of Mexico City. ©FAO/Ana Luna

Cactus pear can survive in arid and dry climates, and for this reason, it is a very important crop for smallholder farmers and key for food security. This plant has excellent nutritional properties: its pads have a high content of vitamin C and fibre, which helps digestion and also contributes to lowering cholesterol and blood glucose levels.

Cactus pear production employs six people from Anastasia’s family, or even more in the spring, when the mild weather makes new pads sprout every day. But the price of cactus products is very unstable throughout the year. During spring, overproduction causes prices to drop up to 98 percent compared to winter months, the low production season.

To tackle this problem, Anastasia came up with the innovative idea of ​​transforming her produce into other products to keep her income more stable throughout the year. "We process the pads into a cookie in order to earn a little more," explains Anastasia while she prepares the dough for her cookies made with cactus and amaranth, another product originating in Mesoamerica.

Every week, Anastasia produces an average of 100 packages of cookies (each weighing 100 grams) and sells them in the Producers’ Market on Sundays and other special occasions. Alongside her, almost 50 agri-food producers from rural areas of the city sell their products in this market.

The Government of Mexico City boosted the Producers’ Market with support from FAO with the aim of bringing producers and consumers closer together to create shorter agri-food chains and foster a sustainable, inclusive and resilient urban food system.

The price of cactus pear drops in spring when the weather favors overproduction. In order to keep her income more stable throughout the year, Anastasia transforms the cactus pads into cookies. ©FAO/Fernando Reyes Pantoja

Both producers and consumers benefit from this initiative: producers sell their products at better prices directly to consumers, without resorting to intermediaries, and consumers find fresh, seasonal and organic foods at better prices by buying them directly from the producer.

The products found in this market offer important advantages in comparison to industrial and ultra-processed foods. Combining quality, identity and tradition under the principles of fair trade, producers are committed to the health of urban consumers, environmental protection and strengthening the local economy.

For Anastasia the benefits of selling her products in this market are clear: “I make my cookies known and also have the opportunity to explain everything related to the production of the cactus. I love to be in touch with the consumers,” she states. In addition, she says that she no longer has to go to the wholesale market because she manages to sell her produce at a better price, directly to consumers.

In a world where more than 820 million people suffer from hunger, where obesity is a worldwide epidemic, and where urbanization is happening at a fast pace, cities must be agents of change in terms of policies and measures aimed at providing access to healthy products. Initiatives such as the Producers’ Market are essential to help make fresh and healthy food available and accessible to city dwellers, contributing to the #ZeroHunger goal.

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8. Decent work and economic growth, 12. Responsible consumption and production