Urban and Peri-urban Agriculture in Latin America and the Caribbean

Mexico City


The Mexico City metropolitan area is one of the world’s largest urban agglomerations. At its heart is the Federal District – Mexico City proper – with a population of 9.4 million. The Federal District covers just 0.1 percent of the national territory, and more than half of it is, at least on paper, protected from urbanization. Known as the suelo de conservación, the protected area was created in 1992 to safeguard its vital ecosystem services, and includes forests, grasslands, wetlands and 300 sq km of farmland. But residential land is increasingly scarce in the urban zone, and the suelo de conservación is under constant pressure: at last count, more than 850 informal settlements had been built there. To prevent further degradation of the area, the Federal District’s government is promoting ecosystem-based agriculture in rural areas and food production in the city itself.

Mexico City lies at 2 240 m above sea level in the southern part of the Valley of Mexico, and was built on a system of lakes that once covered 1 500 sq km. There, pre-Hispanic civilizations developed specialized food production systems, including floating chinampa gardens for horticulture and the milpa system of mixed maize, bean and squash cultivation on rainfed mountain terraces.

The exponential growth of the city – which reached the rate of 25 sq km a year between 1970 and 2000 – and of rural towns in the suelo de conservación has meant that, today, most agriculture in the Federal District can be regarded as peri-urban and even suburban. The population of Mexico City economically active in agriculture is estimated at about 16 000, working on 11 500 family farms. Some 22 800 ha of land is dedicated to crop production, mainly in the southwestern boroughs of Tlalpan, Milpa Alta, Tláhuac and Xochimilco. Farming in those areas produces maize, fruit, vegetables and animals for family consumption and local sale, but includes large-scale production of nopal, amaranth, vegetables, herbs and ornamental plants destined for city and regional markets.

The 2012 harvest was valued at more than US$100 million and included 336 000 tonnes of nopal, 147 000 tonnes of forage oats, 12 500 tonnes of potatoes and 15 000 tonnes of broccoli, carrots, lettuce and a local herb, romerito. Although the Federal District is Mexico’s leading producer of nopal and romerito, it is estimated that 80 percent of the food consumed in the city is supplied by other states of the country or imported.

Almost 90 percent of crop production is rainfed, and 80 percent of arable land is under annual crops, mainly forages and grain maize. Production of flowers, indigenous poinsettias and fodder oats generates more than half the total value of annual crops. Nopal is grown over 4 300 ha, or more than 90 percent of the perennial cropland, mainly in Milpa Alta. The animal population of the Federal District is estimated at some 6 650 head of cattle, 30 000 pigs, 10 000 sheep and 220 000 chickens.

Despite the constant pressure of urbanization, agriculture has survived in Mexico City thanks to farmer innovation and adaptation. For example, nopal has replaced maize as the main crop on the slopes of Milpa Alta, and flowers are now grown in greenhouses built on old chinampas.

Peri-urban agriculture is practised in boroughs at middle and higher elevations of Xochimilco, Tlalpan, Milpa Alta, Magdalena Contreras, Alvaro Obregon and Cuajimalpa de Morelos, which have the lowest population densities. Plots range in size from 1 to 3 ha and are used for the production of maize, amaranth, nopal, oats, legumes, fruit and vegetables. Farms there also raise livestock such as sheep, calves, rabbits, pigs, horses and poultry.

Closer to the city centre, in Xochimilco and Tláhuac, agriculture continues in lowland areas that were, until recently, peri-urban but are now “locked” into medium density suburbs. Holdings are usually of 1 ha or less on chinampas and filled-in canals. The dominant production system is horticulture and floriculture, with some maize, using treated water for irrigation. In most suburban villages, sheep, rabbits, birds and horses are still raised in backyards, and some small dairy farms and indoor pig production units are still found.

Since 2000, Mexico City’s government has increased its support to agriculture in the Federal District, with the main objective of protecting the ecosystem services that suburban and peri-urban areas provide to the city, and to a lesser extent, to ensure a local food supply. An important step forward was the creation in 2007 of the Secretariat for Rural Development and Equity for Communities (SEDEREC), which spearheads the city’s efforts to promote food production that is free of agrochemicals and, in some cases, completely organic.

Peri-urban and suburban agriculture is supported by a variety of legal instruments. The Federal District’s General Programme of Ecological Management delimits the area of the suelo de conservación, and its Environmental Law promotes organic farming systems and prohibits the use of agrochemicals and synthetic fertilizers in the conservation zone. To guide its policies and programmes for sustainable agriculture, the Federal District is establishing a Rural Council, representing producer organizations, traders and service providers.

SEDEREC’s programme for agriculture and rural development aims at improving production planning, training, technology development, agro-processing and marketing. Through that, and other, programmes for rural areas, the city and Mexico’s Federal Government invested between 2007 and 2012 some US$24.6 million in horticulture, floriculture and crop and livestock production, US$37 million in the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources in primary production, and Us$1.8 million in emergency assistance to farmers affected by extreme weather events, such as drought and flooding.

Another SEDEREC programme, for the promotion of traditional food culture, helps rural farmers to enter local, national and international markets, and organizes trade fairs and exhibitions in the Federal District. Meanwhile, the city’s Secretariat for the Environment has instituted Mexico’s first system of organic certification of produce, known as the Green Seal, and has set standards for organic agriculture in the conservation zone.

All seven of the city’s boroughs with rural areas promote the local production of maize, vegetables, fruit, nopal, fodder, medicinal and ornamental plants, as well as small-scale farming. For example, the Programme for Sustainable Rural Development in Milpa Alta provides subsidies to farmers who preserve local maize varieties under traditional production systems with low environmental impact.

Achieving sustainable agriculture in Mexico City’s peri-urban and suburban areas will require action on several fronts. In the boroughs of Tláhuac and Xochimilco, the only suburban agricultural areas with permanent water for irrigation, the overexploitation of aquifers by domestic and industrial users has led to a serious decline in water supply and quality, and to ground subsidence.

The challenge over the coming decade will be to increase the capacity for rainwater harvesting and for storage and treatment of wastewater for use in irrigation, and to rehabilitate canals and chinampas in the remaining lake area. That will require a new vision among government agencies responsible for the city’s water management. At present, there is little coordination among the agencies, which cannot, therefore, respond in an integrated way to the growing demands on the Federal District’s water resources.

New approaches are also needed in technical assistance to farmers. Currently, government support is delivered through projects using professional service providers. A more effective strategy would be to involve the government, research institutions and experienced farmers in developing applied research that reflects the real needs of farmers; deliver advisory services through programmes rather than individual projects; and promote farmer-to-farmer extension.

Reducing the environmental impact of agriculture in the suelo de conservación also requires changes in current regulations. The law prohibiting the use of agrochemicals lacks mechanisms for enforcement – for example, instead of banning or strictly regulating the marketing of mineral fertilizer and synthetic pesticide, and promoting eco-friendly alternatives, it places responsibility for compliance on farmers, not on the companies that manufacture and supply the inputs.

Tougher measures are needed, especially, in the production of ornamental plants, where the intensive use of agrochemicals is widespread and farmers are exposed to a high risk of pesticide poisoning. Assessments should also be carried out to measure the real environmental impact of recommended practices, such as the application of high volumes of fresh manure in the production of nopal, which has been linked to greenhouse gas emissions and the leaching of nitrates into groundwater.

A successful transition to sustainable agriculture will also depend on the efficient management of urban organic wastes to produce high volumes of compost for use in suburban and peri-urban areas. Some of Mexico City’s boroughs have programmes for composting garden wastes, and a composting plant has opened in the Eastern metropolitan area. However, much work is needed to improve the quality of the compost and its distribution to farmers. Measures are also needed to encourage the production by farmers’ cooperatives and microenterprises of biological agents for the control of pests and diseases.

The supply of seed for horticulture and floriculture is a thorny issue. State seed production was abandoned in the 1980s, and seed supply is now dominated by large foreign corporations and a few Mexican companies. The cost of certified seed, especially of some vegetables such as broccoli, is very high and producers are increasingly dependent on a limited range of commercial varieties. Action to encourage the local production of seed – involving government, research institutions and farmers’ cooperatives – would not only help reduce production costs. It would also help protect Mexico’s agrobiodiversity and ensure national food security.

Improving small farmers’ incomes requires the introduction of improved technologies for processing, particularly of nopal and maize. Although processed nopal and nopal-based cosmetics have considerable potential, the volume of production is still low. In the case of maize, the main challenge is adding value to surplus grain maize, which is traditionally sold cheaply in local and regional markets. Transforming maize farmers from producers of raw materials into producers of processed foods calls for very specific technological innovations – such as toasters, mills and tortilla makers – that are affordable and adapted to the characteristics of maize landraces, as well as better marketing opportunities.

Small farmers have only limited access to Mexico City’s huge wholesale market, the Central de Abasto, and marketing alternatives need to be developed. For small-scale farmers with diversified production, they include direct producer-to-consumer trading at weekend markets. Consumer organizations that are motivated by economic solidarity can also help develop outlets for organic produce, which is usually sold in middle and upper class areas at higher prices than those found in supply centres and low-income areas. The city government should strengthen a SEDEREC initiative that purchases food for distribution to soup kitchens, prisons and hospitals.

Finally, younger farmers need secure access to arable land in suburban and peri-urban areas. As the value of land is determined by its suitability for urbanization, rather than for agriculture, land prices have soared. Efforts to promote organic production will have little success if prospective farmers lack secure title to land and, receive consequently, little incentive to invest in soil fertility or other improvements in the agro-ecosystem. The government could do more to encourage sustainable agriculture by creating mechanisms for land redistribution, such as providing low-interest credit for young farmers or buying land and leasing it to new farmers.

Fully urban agriculture is still at an infant stage in Mexico City. There is no widespread tradition of producing food in built-up areas, and the high density of buildings limits the availability of space for agriculture. In addition, the city’s well developed system of subsidized food marketing, along with the rise of convenience grocery stores and the increasing availability of imported food, guarantee ready access to food for the vast majority of the population. Buying food, rather than producing it, remains the most attractive proposition for most inhabitants.

However, urban agriculture has been placed firmly on the policy agenda of the Federal District government through the efforts of SEDEREC, and through initiatives of NGOs, neighbourhood assemblies and youth groups. SEDEREC’s Programme for Small-scale Sustainable Agriculture in the city is promoting organic production in home and community gardens as a source of food for low-income households as well as cash from the sale of surpluses through local markets. Between 2007 and 2012, the Secretariat invested some US$6 million in 2 800 urban agriculture projects – including gardens in homes, housing units and social rehabilitation centres – directly benefiting 15 700 city residents.

In 2013, SEDEREC signed an agreement with Havana’s Institute of Fundamental Research in Tropical Agriculture to help develop urban agriculture in the Federal District, and launched a programme with the boroughs of Alvaro Obregon, Cuauht.moc, Miguel Hidalgo and Cuajimalpa to introduce greenhouse horticulture on social housing estates. The city has received requests from at least 400 housing estates for assistance in creating their own urban gardens.

Meanwhile, civil society has made a significant contribution to popularizing agriculture in the city. One notable initiative is the Romita Urban Demonstration Garden, which conducts gardening workshops for the general public in the capital and other Mexican cities, and develops urban agriculture projects with private companies.

In urban areas of the borough of Iztapalapa, residents’ organizations have started small-scale horticulture projects, while the Miravalle community assembly in Sierra de Santa Catarina has established gardens for the production of vegetables, nopal and medicinal plants using recycled containers, rainwater harvesting and organic composting. Another emerging trend is the establishment of fresh produce markets – such as the centrally located El Cien and Tianguis Alternativo – which provide outlets for organic producers.

A space for organic vegetables in the city centre

Huerto Romita is a 56 sq m gardening centre, located in the heart of Mexico City, which provides an area for community vegetable production and teaches permaculture techniques. It also helps in starting up school gardens, and installs home and community gardens for city residents.

Green roofs on schools, museums and corporate buildings

Government and private initiatives are “greening” rooftops across Mexico City’s urban area. The Federal District’s Secretariat for Urban Development and Housing has promoted rooftop hydroponic gardens, while the Secretariat for the Environment has a programme for greening roofs with succulent plants to help reduce the impact of air pollutants. So far, the programme has installed beds of succulents on more than 12 300 sq m of rooftops over schools, hospitals, the city’s Natural History Museum, and other civic buildings. Some of Mexico City’s largest corporate buildings also host green rooftops.

A group of urban planners, Efecto Verde, has proposed covering with low-maintenance vegetation 40 percent of the city’s urban surface by 2030. Efecto Verde recently installed a 265 sq m green roof on the Papalote Children’s Museum, made up of 1 593 pots with a variety of plant species.

This city profile taken from Growing greener cities in Latin America and the Caribbean (FAO, 2014). For a copy of the report, write to: [email protected]