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Going against the grain— Mexico City

Preface

The ancient Maya may have considered chocolate “the food of the gods”, but corn is the grain that has perennially powered the Mexican masses.

Agriculture

25 July 2010

The ancient Maya may have considered chocolate “the food of the gods”, but corn is the grain that has perennially powered the Mexican masses. Indeed, Mexicans on average eat some 130kg of maize each year – almost two-thirds in the form of those iconic corn tortillas. Only Malawi challenges Mexico for corn consumption.

But as Mexico contends with obesity rates worse than even their portly northern neighbours, national health and welfare officials are looking to rice to get the country back into shape. Working with the USA Rice Federation (URF), a clutch of Mexican states are promoting schemes to encourage Mexicans to consume more rice.

“We’re not talking about Mexicans giving up corn for rice, it’s far too ingrained in the national identity to even suggest that,” says Marvin Lehrer, a URF adviser. “We simply want to educate Mexicans on how to embrace rice as part of a healthier lifestyle.”

Consuming on average 6.7kg each year, Mexicans are certainly no strangers to rice – think arroz con leche or the drink horchata. Yet that figure is less than half that in the USA and barely a tenth of other (slimmer) Latin American nations such as Brazil, Costa Rica and Cuba. As for those ubiquitous rice-filled burritos and other “Tex-Mex” specialties, Lehrer says rice is far more ingrained in the Mexican-American than native-Mexican diet.

But backed by almost $1m (€774,000) in marketing money, the URF is betting on rice for Mexico in 2010. It’s partnered with Mexican book publisher Radar Editores on a rice-themed recipe book. URF officials are working with 30 top Mexican cooking schools to train the nation’s next generation of chefs in rice mastery. There are URF-sponsored, rice-focused television segments on top morning news shows Mexico-wide. A dedicated website packed with rice-based content and even a catchy rice-for-life slogan (arroz for una vida sana). And then there are the promotional schemes with leading Mexican restaurant chains, including Sanborns, the nation’s largest.

“There are literally hundreds of rice-related activities this year,” explains Gaby Carbajal, the URF’s chief representative in Mexico.

Of course as a promotional trade body, the Arlington, Viginia-based URF is as concerned with strengthening its own bottom line as it is with reducing Mexican waistlines. Its goal is to boost US rice exports to Mexico – already America’s largest rice market at $346m (€268m) last year. And URF efforts are working: rice exports have risen 10 per cent this year and 60 per cent since 2001, following longer-term URF efforts to tout the grain’s affordability and versatility.

Mexico is not the only country targeted by the URF that works in some 30 nations ranging from rice-mad Japan to Canada and Saudi Arabia. But Mexico’s NAFTA status and easy access makes it a tariff-free, easy-to-reach destination for US growers. What’s more, Mexico’s relative lack of water has rendered rice a tough crop for the arid nation so the country imports virtually all of its rice needs.

Nonetheless, with Mexicans clearly losing the battle of the bulge, the URF’s newest marketing message is one of health rather than cost – gently promoting the virtues of rice as opposed to the vices of corn. “This will never be a rice vs corn issue,” says Lehrer. “We would never say corn is unhealthy or bad for you,” he insists. “Only that the kinds of food you eat with rice can make for healthier diets.”

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