Is there more to this story than we are being told?
[Update: On early afternoon Friday afternoon, the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced that it was resuming its inspection program in Michoacan, Mexico and that avocado exports to the United States could recommence]
The U.S. government’s decision, on February 11, just three days before the Superbowl, to block all imports of avocados from the Mexican state of Michoacan following a threatening phone call to a US Department of Agriculture official has caused serious problems for Mexican growers and traders. More than 25,000 tons of inventory are at risk of being lost if the trade ban continues. Even if the suspension lasts just one week, it would mean the loss of an estimated $70 million in sales.
On the other side of the border avocado prices are expected to rise in the coming days. While avocados that had already been inspected can still be shipped north, there are signs that supplies are beginning to tighten. Wholesalers in the U.S. that import avocados may have to look beyond Mexico, which currently supplies around 80% of U.S. imports of the fruit.
Thousands of Workers Going Hungry
But the real economic pain is being felt in Michoacan, one of Mexico’s poorest states, where thousands of avocado pickers have lost their only source of income. Many have spent the last few days lining a roadside on the outskirts of the city of Uruapan, Michoacan, requesting donations from passing drivers.
“Since last Wednesday we haven’t picked anything,” said one of the workers, who refused to give his name because of the widespread violence in the state. “In the meantime, you die of hunger.”
Although Mexico has expressed optimism that the situation would be resolved promptly, the US responded Thursday that its position has not changed. The Biden administration has said from the beginning that it will not resume imports until the safety of the more than 70 US inspectors who work in Mexican fields is guaranteed. Among the proposals outlined is the creation of an investigation and security unit in Michoacan, which has already received the support of the governor of Michoacán, Alfredo Ramírez Bedolla, the municipal authorities and producers in the region.
For Mexico’s economy, avocados have become so valuable that they are often referred to as “oro verde” (green gold). And Michoacan is ground zero for the industry, employing some 300,000 workers to cultivate, tender, harvest and process the cash crop. Mexico is the world’s largest supplier of avocados. Its avocados account for roughly a third of global sales. Over two-thirds of those avocados are grown in the state of Michoacán.
Michoacán growers are the only suppliers included in the US Department of Agriculture certified export program. This has led to clashes in the past between growers from other regions and those in Michoacan. In 2018 two third’s of Michoacan’s avocado growers shut down their orchards and blocked many of the roads used to transport the produce as the growers accused packing firms of using inferior quality, lower priced produce from other regions to ship to the US market.
Since the turn of this century the total value of Mexico’s global exports of avocado has ballooned from €73 million to over $3 billion today. Between January and November 2021 Mexico exported a total of 1.27 million tons, with a value of 3,049.4 million dollars. The country exports 97% of its production to eight countries: the United States, Canada, Japan, Spain, Honduras, the Netherlands, El Salvador and France.
That industry is now facing a major threat, and all apparently due to one phone call. As Mexico’s Department of Agriculture recounted at the beginning of this week, “U.S. health authorities… made the decision after one of their officials, who was carrying out inspections in Uruapan, Michoacan, received a threatening message on his official cellphone.”
This is apparently not the first time Mexican drug gangs have threatened USDA inspectors. In 2019, members of a criminal organization threatened a USDA team of inspectors in Ziracuaretiro in Michoacan and stole the car they were travelling in. The U.S. agency then wrote a letter warning that if there was another threat to their inspectors in Michoacan, they would suspend the avocado program. Which is exactly what has happened.
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