Focus: Agriculture

Most from Fresh

Most from Fresh

Jul. 16, 2013

Mexico exports its products, mainly sugar, coffee, fruits, and vegetables, to many countries around the world, although the US is by far its largest trade partner. The US takes in 80% of Mexico's agricultural exports, while Canada and Japan both buy 2.4%, the EU 1%, and Latin American countries such as Venezuela, Argentina, Guatemala, and Columbia together receive around 1% of Mexico's agricultural exports, as does Russia. From 1998 to 2010, agricultural exports grew 171% and have continued to rise as Mexico diversifies its exports, signs more free trade agreements (FTAs), and becomes less dependent on the US and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) while staying committed to trade with its northern neighbor.


Mexico experiences a diverse range of climatic conditions. Temperatures vary from temperate to warm and humidity from humid to very dry. Northern and central Mexico tend to be dry due to winds and a rain shadowing effect from the Sierra Madre mountains. The south of the country generally maintains high temperatures throughout the year, enabling Mexican farmers to grow certain crops year round. Coastal cities, especially those around the Gulf, can receive considerable rainfall; for example, Tabasco is the wettest state in Mexico and a producer of many perennial tropical crops along with beans, corn, and sorghum. It absorbs as much as 2,000 millimeters of precipitation each year, about the same as the most productive regions in California.

Although climate varies across Mexico, it is a semi-arid country and relies heavily on irrigation to maintain its agricultural production. Mexico has a land area of 196 million hectares, 21 million hectares of which is used for agricultural production. Around 3% of those 21 million hectares are irrigated, which gives Mexico the sixth largest irrigated area in the world. The crops grown on these lands contribute around 70% of Mexico's agricultural exports and 50% of the total value of its crops. Around half of the nation's irrigation capacity is provided by large government projects that are split into 80 irrigation districts. The other half is distributed throughout smaller farms averaging 1 hectare, but as large as 450 hectares in the case of some communal farms. CONAGUA, the National Water Commission, regulates the nation's water resources and installs irrigation projects across Mexico. It has been transferring federal irrigation projects to local water users associations since the early 1990s, which has resulted in higher efficiency and better maintenance.


In 2012, Mexico received an additional $50 million from the World Bank to continue its Sustainable Rural Development Project, which has governed the country's agriculture development since 2001. The goals of the project are to encourage agribusiness to adopt sustainable technologies, grow and diversify the labor force, strengthen institutions, and provide credit to small producers. The program supports areas of the economy that are most marginalized, and seeks to integrate small-scale producers and ejidos with the larger national development agenda.

Ejidos are units of communally managed land used mostly for subsistence farming that make up half of Mexico's farmland. They date from the time of the Aztecs, but were abolished by the Spaniards in favor of encomiendas before being reinstated after the 1910-1920 revolution as a way of returning land to the people. In the original system, each member possessed a plot of land within the larger ejido that they could farm, but not sell or trade. For many years, this stopped large commercial operations from acquiring land, but in 1991 the constitution was changed to allow ejidos to collectively negotiate the sales of their land. This has led to the development of a world-class agricultural industry that posted a respectable growth figure of 4.3% in 2012.

Mexico's agricultural regulators are the Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA), and the Secretariat of Health (SALUD). Alongside the Secretariat of Economy, these two agencies implement food security policies that are strongly aligned with international trade regulation. They take a progressive stance toward biotechnology and recognize the potential of new technologies to increase production and improve quality of life.

Mexico is a “founder nation" in the biotech sector, as it was among the first nations to grow genetically modified cotton in 1996, the first year such crops were commercially available. However, the Mexican government enforced a ban on biotech corn until 2009, when it approved the testing of modified maize in northern states. Despite this ban for one of Mexico's biggest crops, biotech is a major growth sector in Mexican agriculture, with a rate of adoption in some areas as high as 50%. More impressively, total biotech crop acreage more than doubled between 2010, when 71,000 hectares of biotech crops were planted, and 2011, when 175,000 hectares were planted. This growth has continued in subsequent years, and in 2012 approximately 85% of cotton acreage under cultivation in Mexico was composed of genetically modified crops. Mexico conforms to the standards of international agricultural groups such as the North American Plant Protection Organization, (NAPPO), the World Organization of Animal Health (OIE), and US regulatory agencies.

One of Mexico's largest and most important agricultural programs is the Farmers Direct Support Program, or PROCAMPO. Originally implemented in 1993 in order to prop up Mexican farmers before the implementation of NAFTA, it has endured into 2013. PROCAMPO has been modified repeatedly since its inception, but its basic function is still providing cash to staple crop producers whose livelihoods would be harmed by NAFTA competition. PROCAMPO and other programs contribute to Mexico's strong producer support estimate (PSE) of 12% in 2011, a figure that shows Mexico's commitment to supporting its agricultural sector. The US has only 7% PSE and the EU 20%.

Liconsa is a government agency that distributes milk to Mexico's needy at low cost. In an interview with TBY, Héctor Pablo Ramírez Puga Leyva, Liconsa's General Director, described a challenge Liconsa faces in 2013 that sheds light on the Mexican dairy market, which is the 16th largest in the world: “In the next few years, we're expecting a lot of pressure from Mexico's livestock industry for Liconsa to buy all the milk in this country. Around 70% of the milk that Liconsa buys is from domestic producers and 30% of the milk comes from other countries." Mexico produces 2% of the world's dairy milk each year, a volume that accounts for only 70% of its own domestic demand. As a result, the country imported nearly 5,000 tons in 2012, making it the world's 10th largest importer of milk. This discrepancy is partially due to Mexico's milk yield growth per cow, which is below average for the region at only 1.9% and has not increased in many years. It is above Brazil's growth (1.8%), but below Argentina's (3%), although Mexico's average yield per animal is higher than it is for Brazil and Argentina at 5,000 kilograms per cow, though it is still far below US levels (9,300 kilograms). Although Mexico currently imports nearly one-third of its milk, the buying power of its citizens is increasing and may motivate domestic producers to invest in increasing milk production and reduce imports.


Mexico is a significant exporter of crops, especially to the US, which accounted for 60% of its annual exports in 2012. Revenue from Mexico's major export products in 2012 was provided by malt beer (8.1%), tomato (7.9%), asparagus (5.5%), sugar (4.3%), and avocado (3.6%), among others. Many of Mexico's non-US export markets grew substantially: Hong Kong bought 59% more Mexican exports, China 75%, and Russia 89%. Mexico is expanding to new markets and growing its agricultural exports as emerging economies increase their demand for its products. In 2011, Mexico exported $7.7 billion worth of fruit and vegetables, and in 2012 it bolstered its status as a lead producer of fruits with 38% growth compared to the year before, and overall growth of agricultural exports at 3.5%. Although the majority of Mexico's products go to the US and Canada, exports to the EU grew by 17% in 2012, and Mexican products are finding their way abroad to Asia and penetrating closer-to-home Latin American markets. Mexico has 12 FTAs that give it access to 44 foreign economies, and it has continued to push for more international access, especially in Asia. The newly formed Pacific Alliance between Chile, Mexico, Colombia, and Peru intends to negotiate new FTAs with Asia as a bloc. Mexico is also involved in the 11-nation Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations that are expected to bear fruit in the near future. Mexico signed an Economic Partnership Agreement with Japan in 2004 and an FTA with five Central American Nations: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras.

Mexico's agricultural sector is a strong asset that is expanding into new markets, advancing technologically, and exporting large amounts of niche market products every year. It is well positioned to supply the US, Canada, and emerging economies. With competent government support and a large workforce, an impressive performance is expected in 2013 and beyond.