Central de Abastos is not an average farmer’s market. Inaugurated in 1982 by former President José López Portillo, and considered the most important infrastructure project of the decade, Central de Abastos now has a turnover of US$9 billion a year, surpassed only by the Mexican Stock Exchange. If it were a country, this 327-hectare market would rank as the 140th world economy in terms of GDP. While the numbers may be financially impressive, the hub tying Mexico’s food supply chain together has developed many infrastructure problems.
Centralization is largely responsible for these issues. For instance, if disaster were to strike Central de Abastos, around 80 percent of the country’s food supply would be compromised. This situation is not the result of a single decision, but rather of Mexico City’s evolution through the ages. The great city of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztec empire, laid in the lakebed of Lake of Texcoco. Back in their day, Aztecs managed to develop an agricultural system called the chinampa that incorporated the lake into their daily practices.
This system was created to boost the productivity of natural resources that fed the 300,000 inhabitants of Tenochtitlan. The Aztec empire identified food as a political tool of power and kept it close to the head of its government in Tenochtitlan. The source of food for the Aztec empire was Tlanechicoloyan’s market and then Tlatelolco’s market, which ceased to provide service after a flood in 1629. After the Spanish conquest, the market moved to Palacio Nacional, which after a fire, had to be relocated to La Merced. As of 2003, Mexico City’s food demand reached 226 tons per day. To meet this growing demand, a larger hub became necessary. Hence, Central de Abastos was built.The market was designed by Abraham Zabludovsky over a chinampería in the then-outskirts of Mexico City. This strategic location allows the distribution of products to every part of the city and country. To optimize the market’s operations, trucks loaded with food arrive as early as 10pm for redistribution the following day. Products must arrive to Central de Abastos for the sole purpose of price and quality regulation. Goods are then redistributed to neighboring states or trucked back to their place of origin a few hours after they reach the hub.
The daily traffic of 62,000 trucks, each loaded with several tons of alimentary products, has led to a faster deterioration of the asphalt supported by the city’s liquid subsoil. Despite architectonic breakthroughs, water still flows to the location of the now extinct Texcoco Lake. Central de Abastos has been subject to flooding throughout the years, posing an alimentary safety concern since four fifths of the country’s food supply are concentrated in this warehouse.
With an inflow of approximately half a million consumers on a daily basis, Central de Abastos’ popularity can be mainly attributed to the low prices resulting from the lack of intermediaries. In an effort to improve logistics, the hub has incorporated Google Maps with an App to allow consumers to check prices and shopping locations. Mexico City’s government also set up a MX$6 transportation system to the hub, CEDABUS, which provides non-stop service from 5am to 7pm, 365 days a year.
The transportation of massive amounts of food to and from Central de Abastos represents a problem for the country given Mexico’s current infrastructure conditions. Poorly maintained or designed roads slow down transportation time, exposing food to constant bruising, heat and other elements that often result in rotting or further physical damage.
When assessing budgetary allocations, governments often overlook non-urban areas due to low-density populations. This has had a direct effect on the required investment in infrastructure needed by the Central de Abastos such as the maintenance of rural roads, and the electrical power grids that are necessary for refrigeration systems to extend the lifespan of dairy products, fish and meats.
Aside from being a waste management issue, food loss in Mexico now represents an environmental problem as well. Methane, a gas known to contribute to the greenhouse effect, is a byproduct of food fermentation. National Geographic ranks global food waste as the third-largest polluter in the world, just behind China and the US. One solution could be using the waste as biomass. Biomass is an organic material used as a source of renewable energy. In the US, energy derived from biomass amounts to 5 percent of the total production. While Oscar Scolari, CEO of Regen Energy Solutions, doesn’t consider waste-to-energy as a primary method for producing energy, he sees it as “a way to solve an ever-increasing environmental problem that also allows us to create energy.”
Aware of its position as a key player in the food supply chain, Central de Abastos found an opportunity area in the items regarded as food loss within its facilities. Launched in 1994, Central de Abastos’ Food Bank warehouses food and rescues edible crop yields which may otherwise be lost or discarded for failure to meet retail quality standards. The food collected by Food Bank is then redistributed to low income or vulnerable populations including but not limited to indigenous communities, orphanages and asylums.
Mexico City’s population is expected to continue growing, but Central de Abastos is already reaching its limit. Demand for many of the basic services that enable its efficient operation, such as potable water, has already surpassed supply. Even though no project has been designed to replace the largest food market in the world, the reassessment of Central de Abastos’ centralized operations and logistics has now become a pressing need.