Agriculture is an important sector in any economy worldwide, and is often given less importance in comparison to the money-making manufacturing and energy sectors. However, food is something we all need to survive. Hunger knows no boundaries, and it does not discriminate based on ethnicity or social class.
Mexico is growing hungrier and it is having difficulties keeping up with the demand of its inhabitants.
Mexico is the land of agave, avocados, mangos, corn, and many other fresh fruits and vegetables. Its favorable geography and climate allows to grow a vast variety of food that other countries cannot. Although it has many agricultural benefits, investment within this sector is less than 1% of the country’s total GDP, and the overall production of agricultural products represent no more than 3% of the GDP. The country looks to importing more than 43% of its basic food products, when the UN suggests that it should not be more than 25%. This unbalance could drastically increase the risk of famine within the country, and is not a sustainable plan for the future.
Mexico is filled with opportunities that are yet to be taken. The country has a total area of 198 million hectares where 145 million hectares are used for agriculture. Of the 145 million hectares, 30 million hectares are used as farmland for local communities, and 115 for grazing farm animals. The problem is that 72% of this land is used by indigenous communities and farmers for their own consumption, and only 6% is used by companies to supply the national and international market. Mexico faces a large challenge finding a way to suffice the hunger of its people, such as lack of investment, space, as well as water scarcity.
In order to develop a sustainable agricultural and food sector, transportation, logistics, and water infrastructure needs to be built. Only by completing this circle of infrastructure will investment come pouring into the sector, which will ultimately contribute to the social and economic development of Mexico’s rural areas.
Why is it that investment in agriculture represents a measly 1% of the country’s GDP?
If only the answer was as simple as not having enough revenues, or long payback periods. According to the FAO, agriculture constraints range from lack of suitable land, insufficient human capital, high costs of meeting government standards, and the expensive infrastructure needed to store and transport produce. For smaller farmers the main issues are a lack of efficient irrigation infrastructure, expensive credit options, and loss of profit margins to traders. Agricultural development is one endless cycle in which many types of actors and infrastructures play their share. For example, farms that form part of that 72% which is farmed by locals in rural communities usually do not have access to quality road and highway infrastructure, meaning they cannot transfer their produce rapidly. It is true that in order for the agriculture sector to fully take off, it needs to have fertile land and good hands to work it, but it will make no difference if they cannot sell it to other markets and make a profit. Mexico has staggering amounts of ports that cannot transport more products to international markets due to a lack of infrastructure that creates bottlenecks of containers. The government has realized that the lack of infrastructure was stunting the growth of commerce and the economy, and the National Infrastructure Plan was meant to fill the gap. The expansion of Mexico’s biggest ports, such as Veracruz and Manzanillo, and the modernization of others, such as Lazaro Cardenas, will facilitate operations and attract companies to trade with the country. To continue with the cycle, roads, bridges, and highways are being built and improved to interconnect industrial parks, warehouses, cities, and ports. Although the government has the idea in place, insufficient federal funds have hindered the development of many projects, leaving the private sector with the responsibility to finance and complete these vital constructions. As for agriculture, it has become everybody’s responsibility to find innovative and sustainable alternatives to feed the growling stomachs of the future.
Growing Lettuce on Concrete
Architects and entrepreneurs have taken interest on the topic and have developed many innovative solutions to these problems. Cities like New York, Shanghai, and Mexico City have an immense demand for food, but no space to grow it. Vertical farms became an attractive solution to produce more food in urban settings. New Jersey is using greyfield buildings to create farm skyscrapers, each floor filled with fresh produce for local communities. These types of infrastructures reuse abandoned buildings, adapted with technologies to monitor the lightning, and replace traditional farming with hydroponic farming systems. Fresh vegetables can be grown in 16 days, which would normally take 30 days, without pesticides, and using 95% less water. Many critics say that these infrastructures use too much energy, which would otherwise come free from the sun, as well as a waste of space that could be transferred to rural areas. Having crops in a controlled environment facilitates the collection of Big Data and the use of the Internet of Things to have smarter, more efficient farming. Mexico City could benefit from the use of these types of farms, especially because of its high water scarcity, unfertile land, and exponential population growth. Encouraging urban gardens on rooftops and community gardens using hydroponics would increase the supply of healthy and locally grown produce to the people.
Although it sounds like an innovative idea, growing food in old buildings will not fulfill the demand. Nevertheless, technology will allow us to optimize the existing space and operations in order to produce more and better quality goods. The Internet of Things and Digital Twins will collect Big Data from multiple farms, and help farmers create new efficient processes or even water companies develop irrigation systems that use less water. Innovation can also come in how water is stored in times of drought. Mexican Engineer, Sergio Rico Velasco, created a powder-like substance that allows farmers to store rainwater in solid form. Silos de Agua, or Solid Rain, can absorb 500 times its weight in water, which can be stored in sacks or placed in farms to absorb humidity when there is no rain. This reduces the amount of water farmers need by up to 90%. After speaking with Velasco in an interview for our Mexico Infrastructure Review, he told us that water scarcity, poverty, and hunger forces marginalized communities to migrate to other cities, abandon their homes, and in many instances, children, women, and the elderly are left to fend for themselves in the ejidos, as others head to other countries to find a source of income. Infrastructure, technology, and innovation will not be enough to reduce poverty, rapid urbanization, and hunger in Mexico. The country needs to also invest in educating its inhabitants on how to take care of the existing natural resources, and carry out sustainable lifestyles with healthy habits. Projects that integrate these different aspects, such as Special Economic Zones, could be a solution to creating a sustainable country in the future.
With information from: El Economista, United Nations FAO, World Bank,