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Creating A "Starbucks Of Tortillas" To Save Mexico's Endangered Corn

What’s the best way to get people to want to buy products made from dying corn? Market them to the middle class as fancy and exclusive—just like Itanoní Flor del Maíz is doing with its gourmet tortillas in Mexico.

The developing world’s agricultural heritage is dying out. Traditional crops cannot compete (at least on price) against the superior efficiencies and scale of modern industrial farming. Although many ancestral crop varieties are exquisitely adapted to their environments, they often produce too little, and the market price is too cheap, to support viable farms in market economies.

One small company, Aga Productura, is turning this market failure around in Mexico. Although the country, the birthplace of corn, has dozens of native corn varieties adapted to grow everywhere from swamps to mountain peaks, Mexico has seen a steady decline in corn biodiversity. Commodity "white corn" has replaced the black, red, and multicolored varieties that once thrived.

"[We] are losing all those traditional corn varieties, the biodiversity of Mexico, "says Rodrigo Villar, director of the World Resource Institute’s New Ventures program in Mexico, which is investing in Aga Productora. "We are losing all the species, and Aga’s core mission is to rescue those species by creating value for them."

Aga has identified native (criollo) varieties of corn, the best recipes to serve them as tortillas, and is now selling them to a new audience that has only ever seen plain, white tortillas. Selling under the brand name Itanoní Flor del Maíz, the company has already opened several restaurants, as well as begun supplying other retailers and restaurants with gourmet tortillas for Mexico’s growing middle class. The new demand is not only reviving species that have been sliding toward oblivion, but the small framers who once had no market for their harvests. Aga’s five farming associations can grow 150 tons of the specialty corn including dozens of new varieties of corn beyond the standard white.

While the poor remain extremely sensitive to the price (two pounds may sell for less than $1), Itanoní literally invented a premium market for premium corn tortillas in a country where virtually no meal arrives without the national staple. Some call it a variation on Starbucks’s focus on premium coffee, which created a new market in counterpoint to the bland commodity beans once dominant in America’s cafés, diners, and restaurants.

Eventually, says Villar, Aga plans to open more gourmet restaurants featuring native corns and build a large-scale industrial line of native corn products. Their efforts to find more valuable ways to eat corn may save Mexico’s agricultural biodiversity just when we’ll need it most as global conditions are set to change.