by David Agren, Fruit World Mexico, Mexico City
Small quantities of Mexican avocados started crossing the US border 1997 – over the objections of California growers, who expressed public preoccupations with potential pest problems and concerns that fruit from the western state of Michoacán would take away market share. The fears proved unfounded, even though Mexican avocados moved north in increasing numbers, all year round and without the geographic restrictions originally imposed.
Sitting in a simple Mexico City office early in the new year, Ramón Paz Vega of the Mexican Association of Avocado Producers and Packers (APEAM) offered a straightforward explanation for what occurred: “We grew the market” and it’s been ‘win-win’ for both Mexico and the United States. The win is so great that the price paid California producers has climbed from US$0.65 cents per pound in 1997 to US$1.10 per pound last year. “California producers are doing much better now that we’re in the market. Demand has grown so much they are selling all they can produce at a better price,” Paz said. “We couldn’t talk to each other before,” he said of his group and California growers. “Now we’re very good friends.” Avocados have become an “it” food, easily fitting into heathy lifestyles and increasing becoming chic.
The NAFTA success story: avocados
Consumption of the creamy fruit has also become polemic – for everything from environmental concerns to accusations of conspicuous consumption to careless Americans and Europeans cutting their hands while trying to remove avocado pits. Even amid the acrimony of renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement and Donald Trump’s rude rhetoric toward Mexico, one product stands out as the ultimate NAFTA success story: avocados. Paz, also an avocado grower and chairman of Avocados From Mexico, the Mexican producers’ marketing arm, reels of a list of benefits brought by opening the United States to Mexican avocados: 19,000 jobs; US$1.2 bn in salaries; and US$$600 m in taxes paid. US consumption has climbed from 700 grams per person per year in 1997 to 3.5 kilograms in 2017. More than 50% of households now eat avocados. And the United States now consumes more avocados than Mexico, though per capita consumption is still higher in Mexico. Mexican producers can sell all year round to the US – something causing ripples in the Mexican market, where prices have climbed. Avocados sold for 90 pesos per kilo – roughly $4.50 or the equivalent of the daily minimum wage – in some parts of Mexico over the summer as harvests faltered. The situation turned so severe for consumers that Economy Secretary Ildefonso Guajardo mused about importing avocados – previously unthinkable as avocados are thought to have first grown what is now the start of Puebla.
Deforestation due to growing avocado plantations?
Not all is well in the avocado industry, however. Criticisms have surfaced over the ecological impact of avocados. The Michaocán delegate for Mexico’s environmental prosecutor’s office (PROFEPA) said in 2016 that some 20,000 ha are deforested annually in Michoacán – with 30% due to avocado growing. Ramón Paz says a study from the Agriculture Secretariat showed most of the new avocado-growing land was previously used for some other agricultural purpose. Other studies put the figure lower. Avocado growing also consumes a lot of water, which can be scarce in some parts of the country. “Water is an essential element but I don’t think anyone pays for water in the countryside,” says one grower and exporter, who asked for anonymity in order to speak candidly. “It’s essentially a free commodity. That’s one of the reasons why Mexico’s industry is so much more economically viable than other countries’ because water is a costly commodity in California and other countries.” “Because the industry because so profitable, there’s deforestation,” the grower added. “You can produce a ton of avocados for maybe 8,000 pesos and you can sell it for anything up to 40,000 pesos.”
Self-defence forces patrol cities in Michoacán
Success has attracted trouble at times in Michoacán, Mexico’s main avocado-growing state. In Tancitaro, one of Michoacán’s main avocado-growing municipalities, a self-defence force still patrols the roads and orchards. Self-defence groups rose up in parts of Michoacán in 2013 to run off the Knights Templar drug cartel, which was extorting avocado farmers and even seizing their orchards. The scars of the experience and distrust in the authorities persist. A self-defence group – funded by locals – still patrols the orchards in spite of the federal government demobilizing such vigilantes in 2014. Paz describes the self-defence forces as holdovers from a troubled time. “That is the final part of a story that has come out pretty well for us, but is not finished,” he said. International media stories have surged on the Tancitaro self-defence force – something Paz attributes to them “being the only ones left.”The municipality of 29,000 inhabitants has enjoyed prosperity – to the point it no longer experiences an outflow of migrants, who previously headed for the United States. In fact, internal migration toward sections of Michaocán has increased due to the success of the avocado industry. Only avocados from Michoacán can be exported to the United States as USDA inspectors work on-scene there. Others in Mexico have taken notice of region’s success as orchards are being planted in states such as Jalisco, Morelos and Mexico state. In the Sierra of Sinaloa state, further up the Pacific coast, campesinos long supplemented incomes with illegal crops such as marijuana and opium poppies.
But some have planted avocado trees, hoping to replicate the Michoacán experience. “The conditions exist for establishing avocado harvests: altitude, the soil type. The only thing limiting it is too little water,” said Uriel Ramírez, an agronomist working on avocado projects in Sinaloa. Ramírez expresses hopes the fruit will supply the local market and perhaps “switch to a crop which is profitable.” Paz instead prefers to focus on the future. US exports remain robust, but markets beckon further afield such as Canada and Japan, where Mexican avocados have 90% market share and consumption increased last year by 17% percent and 28% respectively. China has come onboard as a customer, too. But the US market continues to lead and demand ever more avocados – producing befits on both sides of the border. “Consumers are happy and healthier. Producers in Mexico are happy and wealthier. All of the the supply chain in much better,” Paz said. “We create jobs in the United States. We create jobs in Mexico. We reduce migration from Mexico. Even our competitors from California are happier.”