Elias Tapia Ramos

The Pepper Experts

Although China ranks first in global chili pepper production, Mexicans know a lot about it. At a competition in Bangkok in 2010 participants from different countries including some from Thailand recognized Mexican expertise in the topic. The challenge consisted in discovering who could eat more chili peppers without breaking out in sweat or getting thirsty. A Mexican, yours truly, won the challenge.

FAO data ranks Mexico second in the world in chili pepper production. According to the “Mexican Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries, and Food” (SAGARPA) the country produced 2.3 million tons of peppers in 2016, equivalent to 1.2 billion Dollars in sales. Chili accounts for 20 percent of the total pepper production. They are exported mainly to the United States, Canada, and Spain. As a native Mexican, I know from experience, that we begin to eat chili in our childhood and we cannot live without it anymore. Each Mexican consumes on average 16 kilos of chili peppers per year.

To guarantee the supply of this distinctive plant to the domestic and international markets, at Bayer we work alongside farmers of all sizes, from those operating small greenhouses in Veracruz all the way to those planting major chili pepper plantations in Sinaloa and Baja California. Mexican pepper production is quite diversified. The country cultivates more than 60 varieties. The types most exported are chili campana and morrón. The domestic market, meanwhile, enjoys the jalapeño, serrano, and habanero varieties, which are well known for being spicier and the reason why they are featured on the Scoville scale - a world ranking that measures how hot peppers are (see more in the table below).

Due to weather conditions and field development, most chili peppers are produced in the Northwest Mexico. However, it is south-central Mexico that concentrates the largest number of varieties. The main producing states are: Taumalipas, Nuevo León, Veracruz, Sinaloa, and Baja California.

Elias Tapia Ramos
Elias Tapia Ramos
Elias Tapia Ramos,
Product Development Manager & Innovation Coach - Bayer Crop Science Mexico

There many challenges to growing this crop and those are not specific to a region or state. Among the main pests that devastate the plant, the white fly, the chili weevil, and the pepper armyworm have become the hardest to fight. While chili pepper mold and root-related diseases are among the most critical, it is equally important to manage the nematode population. These insects and nematodes compromise both the plants’ healthy development (which results in lower yields) and the flavor which consumers expect.

To overcome all these challenges, at Bayer, we work closely with producers to develop solutions specially designed to address their individual problems. Through monitoring we collect data and catalogue viruses transmitted by whiteflies and other vectors. Our research center in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, is dedicated to conducting studies focused on resistance and chili pests.

All this work is done to make sure that the famous Tabasco pepper sauce; the pungent Habanero chile, from the Yucatan Peninsula; as well as many other chili varieties reach food lovers’ tables the world over. In Mexico, peppers are intertwined in the culture, and you can find high quality pepper for all tastes and dishes. Moreover, livelihoods are impacted by chili production; it is part of their fabric of many communities which are economically dependent on it. At Bayer, through our work at research centers or scouting the field with farmers, we endeavor to help producers be successful and keep everyone enjoying the much appreciated chili pepper ‘picante’.

The Scoville Scale

Known scientifically as Capsicum spp, there is a special reason why chili peppers are so spicy. The burning sensation they cause is the effect of a substance called Capsicin.

The Scoville scale, as it is known, bears the name of the American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville, who, in 1932, conducted experiments to determine the amount of Capsicin there is in chili pepper. He blended pure chili with a sugar-water solution. Thus, he defined that the more of the solution needed to dilute the substance, the greater its burn level. The original method relied on the sensitivity of the testers and has now been replaced by high performance liquid chromatography which renders more accurate values. While bell pepper is at 0 Scovile Heat Units (SHU), Jalapeño is at 2,500-8,000 units; Tabasco sauce at 7,000-8,000 units; Serrano at 10,000-23,000 units; and Habanero at 100,000-350,000 units.

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