Heirloom Corn in a Rainbow of Colors Makes a Comeback in Mexico, Where White Corn Has Long Been King

Jul 28, 2023

By Fabiola Sánchez

On the slopes of the Malinche volcano, Juan Vargas starts the dawn routine he’s had since childhood, carefully checking stalks of colorful native corn. For years, Vargas worried that these heirloom varieties — running from deep red to pale pink, from golden yellow to dark blue — passed down from his parents and grandparents would disappear. White corn long ago came to dominate the market and became the foundation of Mexicans’ diet.

But now, the heirloom corn Vargas grows is in vogue. It accounts for 20 of the 50 acres on his farm in Ixtenco, in the central state of Tlaxcala. Vargas, 53, remembers just one acre reserved for it 2010, when demand was virtually zero and prices low. Fueled largely by foreign demand, the corn in its rainbow of colors has become more profitable for him than the white variety.

Vargas is among farmers in Mexico who've been holding on to heirloom strains for generations, against a flood of industrially produced white corn. They're finding a niche but increasing market among consumers seeking organic produce from small-scale growers and chefs worldwide who want to elevate or simply provide an authentic take on tortillas, tostadas and other corn-based pillars of Mexican food.

Corn is the most fundamental ingredient of Mexican cuisine, and it's never far from the national conversation. Amid President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s move to ban the importation of genetically modified corn and his imposition of a 50% tariff on imported white corn, some scientists, chefs and others are advocating for the value of the old varieties in an increasingly drought-stricken world.

Heirloom varieties make up far less than 1% of total domestic corn production in Mexico. But for the first time in years, Vargas and others are hopeful about the crop. Some in the academic and public sectors hope to increase its production.

Vargas' heirloom corn sells for around $1.17 per kilogram abroad, more than three times the price for his white. If demand keeps growing, he’ll plant more. He boasts about his colorful “little corn” that travels the globe.

Across Mexico, about 60,000 tons of heirloom corn is produced annually. It's a tiny fraction of the 23 million tons of white corn grown on an industrial scale to meet domestic demand for human consumption and the 16.5 million tons of yellow corn that Mexico imported last year – mostly from the U.S. – for industrial and animal feed use.

It's unclear how much of the heirloom corn goes abroad — Mexico doesn't keep export data for the crop. But Rafael Mier, director of the Mexican Corn Tortilla foundation, said it's clear exports of heirloom corn are growing based on the increasing number of tortillerias and restaurants buying it, especially in the U.S.

In Las Vegas, chef Mariana Alvarado said she began getting native corn through Tamoa and Los Angeles-based Masienda for tortillas, tostadas, tamales and the masa she sells in markets and online about four years ago.

At the time, she said, maybe 20 chefs in the U.S. used native corn — she estimates that's now doubled.

For others, President López Obrador’s argument about potential health risks of genetically modified corn rings true. His move to ban the importation of GMO corn — modified in the lab to resist pests and herbicides — prompted a trade tiff with the United States and Canada.

The World Health Organization has said generally that genetically modified foods “on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health.”

But Berenice Pérez, 35, believes the heirloom corn varieties she grows are healthier, as well as tastier. She left Mexico’s capital three years ago and moved to rural Las Mesas in Tlaxcala. Her mother had died of cancer, and she sought a healthier lifestyle.

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