Avocado Politics

(This is the first in what I hope will be a long series of food politics posts. I hope you enjoy it, and that you’ll let me know what you think. I’ve never tried writing what’s essentially a first draft of a book in blog form, and I’m hoping your feedback will make what I feel is a fascinating topic as interesting to you as it is to me. You can contact me directly at mike@politicsguys.com. Thanks! – Mike)

I eat avocados nearly every single day. Mostly in salads, but I make a mean avocado-chocolate-peanut butter smoothie too. Sometimes I’ll just slice one up, add hot sauce, and enjoy. It’s hard for me to believe now, but most of my life was largely avocado-free. That’s not because I was a weird, sheltered kid (well, I was definitely weird, but that’s another story) – it’s because until not all that long ago, avocados were practically an exotic fruit to most Americans, including me.

Here’s what I mean: In 2000, U.S. avocado consumption averaged just over two pounds per person – about where cauliflower is today.[1] [2] Since then, consumption has shot up – in 2016 it hit 7.1 pounds per person, a 255 percent increase. That’s even more impressive when you consider that the U.S. has added nearly 41 million people during that period.

These numbers put avocados squarely in the produce mainstream, right up there with pineapples (7 pounds per person) strawberries (7.8 pounds), and grapes (7.8 pounds).[3]  And as you might expect, all this consumption is generating a lot of revenue – nearly $2 billion in 2016, according to the Hass Avocado Board.[4]

So how did avocados go from the fruit equivalent of cauliflower to a produce superstar? The answer has a lot to do with politics.

The story starts over a century ago. In 1914 the U.S. government banned importation of all Mexican avocados. They did it because American growers claimed that Mexican avocados were infested with avocado weevils. But according to the Mexicans that was just an excuse to shut out foreign competition.

an avocado weevil (nasty looking thing, isn’t it?)

I don’t know if the U.S. was facing an imminent avocado weevil epidemic in 1914 but I have my doubts. Two things I am sure of are, one, there was no great avocado weevil infestation of 1915, and two, the ban on Mexican avocados created a problem for American avocado lovers.

California, and to a much lesser extent Florida, are the only states in the continental U.S. that can successfully grow avocado trees on a large scale. But even sunny California, which produces around 85 percent of all domestically grown avocados, doesn’t have a climate that allows for  year-round avocado growing, which creates a natural limit to avocado production.[5] And so once the ban went into effect, Americans’ access to avocados was seriously limited.

That’s more or less where things stood until 1993, when the United States Senate ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The treaty was designed to eliminate trade barriers between the United States, Mexico, and Canada, create jobs, and enhance economic growth throughout the continent. While it’s unlikely that avocados were a main topic of debate among the negotiators (unless someone brought in some really good guacamole for a snack break) the passage of NAFTA had a dramatic effect on the avocado market in the United States.

It took a few years of post-NAFTA wrangling, and some threats from the Mexican government about putting restrictions on U.S. grain imports into Mexico, but in 1997 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) got on the free (or at least freer) trade bandwagon and loosened up their restrictions, ruling that avocados grown in Mexico’s Michoacan region could be imported into the United States as long as they met USDA requirements.

Avocado growers in California, who at the time produced about 90 percent of all avocados eaten in the United States, reacted just about how you’d expect any monopolist to react. They argued that there was still a grave threat from Mexican pests, and raised concerns that cheap imports would somehow lead to the rise of a dangerous, unregulated ‘black market’ in avocados. (Which, I know, might sound crazy. On the other hand, there are some pretty bizarre black markets, like the one for maple syrup.)

The USDA decided to move slowly in response to the protests from domestic growers. At first, they only allowed Mexican avocados into 19 states in the Northeast and Midwest (far away from U.S. avocado growing operations) and only from November through February, when weather forced U.S. production to shut down. Since then, the restrictions have been repeatedly relaxed, with Michoacan avocados gaining full access to the entire U.S. market year-round in 2007.

Tearing down the avocado wall between the United States and Mexico has allowed Mexico to dominate the U.S. avocado market – in 2016, Mexican imports made up over 80 percent of the U.S. supply. You might think that this would have hurt US avocado production, but just the opposite has happened. In the 10 years that Mexican avocados have had unfettered access to the US market, US production has increased by an average of 29 percent per year. In the decade before that, the average increase was only three percent. It’s the same story if you look at the overall value of domestic avocado production (the number of tons of avocados produced in the U.S. multiplied by the price per ton).  Since 2007 it’s gone up an average of 22 percent per year, whereas from 1997 – 2006 the average increase was zero percent.[6]

All those avocados don’t grow and harvest themselves. Next week, I’ll take a look at the politics of agricultural labor in the United States, examining things like whether immigrants are taking farm jobs from Americans, if government does enough to protect immigrant laborers, why agricultural producers so often turn to illegal immigrant labor, and lots more.

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[1] Statista, “U.S. Fresh Avocados Consumption per Capita, 2015 | Statistic,” Statista, accessed October 26, 2017, https://www.statista.com/statistics/257192/per-capita-consumption-of-fresh-avocados-in-the-us/.

[2] “Cauliflower | Agricultural Marketing Resource Center,” accessed October 26, 2017, https://www.agmrc.org/commodities-products/vegetables/cauliflower/.

[3] “Avocados Climbing the Charts in Search of No. 1 Status,” Packer, accessed October 26, 2017, https://www.thepacker.com/article/avocados-climbing-charts-search-no-1-status.

[4] Hass Avocado Board, “Regional Data Report Jan – Dec 2016 vs. 2015,” accessed October 26, 2017, https://www.hassavocadoboard.com/sites/default/files/hab_-_2016_q4_hab_regional_composite_-_total_u.s.pdf.

[5] “This Just in: Americans Are Eating a Lot of Avocados,” New Hope Network, May 10, 2017, http://www.newhope.com/food-and-beverage/just-americans-are-eating-lot-avocados.

[6] “USDA ERS – Yearbook Tables,” accessed October 30, 2017, https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/fruit-and-tree-nut-data/yearbook-tables/#Noncitrus Fruit.

6 thoughts on “Avocado Politics”

  1. Thanks for the great first post! So NAFTA was behind the rise of the avocado. Looking forward to your post about the politics surrounding immigrant laborers.

  2. Nice work! Looking forward to the next read. Hoping you’ll get into the health crisis facing America and other countries. Diabetes is a epidemic that is driven by the food industry and big pharmaceutical companies. It will bankrupt the country and crippled the healthcare system. Really enjoy listening to the podcast.

    1. Thanks! I completely agree about the diabetes issue, and think it would definitely be worth some posts down the line. – Mike

  3. Interesting article. I really enjoyed learning it’s history. You need more photos – an avocado, an avocado tree, etc. Also, you should include a couple links to avocado recipes at the end. This blog could also use some sort of analysis on the “trendiness” level that avocados hit a few years back

    1. Thanks! I think you’re right about the photos, and I’ll work on including more in future posts. As for recipes, given my lack of prowess in the kitchen, I don’t know if that would be good for anyone. 🙂 – Mike

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