Mexico’s highest inflation rate in 21 years is exacting a particularly steep toll on tortillerias (tortilla bakeries) and their customers, who are facing a spike in corn prices triggered in part by the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Case in point is La Morena, which is based in northern Mexico City’s Pensil Sur neighborhood and is a traditional seller of that thin flat bread made from unleavened cornmeal.
Carmen Hernandez, an employee at that establishment, said that she hasn’t seen another similar rapid increase in prices since she started working there 12 years ago.
“(Customers) get angry, of course. In fact, people think that the (higher prices) are our doing, but it’s really not. It’s the increase in (the price of) corn that’s making us raise the (price per) kilo of tortilla,” Hernandez said.
The prices of corn tortillas rose at an annual clip of 17.42 percent in the first half of April, or more than double Mexico’s overall inflation rate of 7.72 percent (a 21-year high).
Isaac Sanchez, La Morena’s manager, said in an interview that the price of tortillas had long remained unchanged but has risen between 20-25 percent over the past two years.
A kilo of tortillas cost 15 pesos (around $0.75 dollar) in 2020 but has since climbed to 20 pesos, meaning that a family now receives between 10 and 12 fewer tortillas for the same amount of money spent, he said.
The climate crisis has spurred droughts, lower crop yields and higher prices, while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has roiled the global grain trade and made matters even worse, according to Sanchez, who said he expects additional price hikes going forward.
La Morena has not laid off any of its 16 employees despite the crisis and currently produces 1,800 kilos (4,000 pounds) of tortillas per day.
According to the Inegi national statistics office, that establishment is one of more than 110,000 bakeries in Mexico that make tortillas either from traditional corn dough or nixtamal meal, which is prepared through a process known as nixtamalization in which corn kernels are cooked and steeped overnight in water mixed with limestone.
Sanchez said the price situation is largely out of the tortilla bakers’ hands and that all they can do is try to reason with their frustrated customers.
“There’s no doubt whatsoever that we’re selling a little less because people also are consuming less. Perhaps we could offer them other alternatives, but at the end of the day nothing can replace the tortilla,” he added.
In response, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador announced that his administration will unveil an inflation control plan this week that will offer “price guarantees” for 24 staple products, including corn and tortillas, and negotiated agreements with business leaders.
He also is urging small farmers to plant more corn and beans to reduce shortages and bring down inflation.
But Blanca Mejia, representative of the Traditional Mexican Tortilla Governing Council that comprises tortilla and tortilla dough makers, expressed skepticism about the plan.
“We’re very nervous in the industrial sector because we don’t know what measures they’re going to take. We’re very afraid of price controls,” she said, adding that producers need freely fluctuating tortilla prices to face the price-hike situation.
Mejia said the main challenge facing tortilla makers is the price-per-ton of corn, which has risen from 6,900 pesos ($345 dollar) in early January, prior to the war in Ukraine, to 8,900 pesos at present ($445 dollar).
Higher prices of corn are a major bread-and-butter issue in a country where 98 percent of the population consumes tortillas and per-capita consumption of that flat bread stands at around 75 kg per year, according to the Institute of Ecology, a public strategic research institute.
But even if consumption falls in the short term, Sanchez said he is convinced Mexicans will remain loyal to corn tortillas, which accompany most Mexican dishes and are a basic ingredient for making a variety of traditional foods such as tacos, tostadas and enchiladas.
“We could say that without tortillas you practically can’t eat. The Mexican diet needs them,” he added.