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For decades, the US closed its doors to Mexican avocados; today it needs them to meet its growing demand.

2019 will see record imports of Mexican avocados into the United States: almost 90% of the one million tonnes of avocados consumed by Americans will come from the neighbouring country, which leads world production. After being banned for decades in the US - citing phytosanitary issues, mainly invoked by California producers - the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement opened the doors of the US market to this Mexican product, first with reservations and since 2007 without restrictions. The arrival of Trump to the presidency marked a drop in imports, but they have continued to rise since then.

Interest in healthy food has led to an increase in avocado consumption worldwide.

▲ Interest in healthy food has led to an increase in avocado consumption worldwide.

article / Silvia Goya

Social trends such as veganism and "real fooding" have led to an increase in the worldwide production of avocado, a fruit valued for its healthy fat and vitamin content, which is a good accompaniment to a multitude of dishes. In the United States, moreover, the food tradition of millions of Hispanics - the avocado comes from a tree native to Central and South America(Persea americana) - has encouraged the consumption of a product that, like few others, marks the relations between the United States and Mexico.

department The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) forecasts that to meet the growing domestic consumption of avocados (which has increased 5.4 times since 2000, from 226,000 tonnes to 1.2 million tonnes in 2018), in 2019 the country will have to increase its imports significantly, from 87% to 93% of the availability product. This will mean an increase in imports from Mexico, which in 2018 already supplied 87% of the avocado from abroad. This need for imports is partly due to production problems in California, the state with the largest production in the US (around 80%), well ahead of the second largest, Florida, and a major litigator in the past to prevent the skill of Mexican avocados.

Donald Trump's first year in the White House saw a slight drop in Mexican avocado imports, which in 2017 fell to 774,626 tonnes. However, in 2018 a new record was reached, with 904,205 tonnes, an increase of 17%, in a context of non-materialisation of the trade threats launched by the Trump Administration, which finally agreed to the renewal of the free trade agreement with Mexico and Canada. Last year, imports from Mexico accounted for 87% of total avocado purchases abroad; the rest, up to 1.04 million tonnes, came from Peru (8%), Chile (2.5%) and the Dominican Republic (2.5%).

History of a veto

The B rise in avocado sales in the US has attracted the attention of drug cartels, which have clashed for control of the business in some Mexican states such as Michoacán - the largest producer of avocados, especially of the Hass variety, which is the most widely marketed - giving rise to a "new drug trade". However, the history of controversy between the two countries over the berry goes back a long way. It was in 1914 when the then US Secretary of Agriculture signed a quarantine notice declaring the need to prohibit the importation of avocado seeds from Mexico because of a weevil that the seed carried. In 1919, the "Quarantine of nurseries, plants and seeds" was enacted. This regulatory framework remained in force for decades.

During the period of the 1970s, the discussion about the entrance of Mexican avocados in the US market remained in the political limelight due to the insistence of Mexican Plant Health Service officials. Investigations in several Mexican avocado-producing states, however, found weevils in some of the seeds, which did not allow for a change in the regulatory policy of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the US Department of Agriculture department . Therefore, in 1976, the USDA, in a letter to its Mexican counterpart, stated that it should continue "as in the past, against the issuance of permits for the importation of avocados from Mexico".

Following these events, US policy towards avocados from its neighbouring country remained restrictive until trade liberalisation and harmonisation of sanitary and phytosanitary measures began to change the context in which governments considered plant health problems and imports. For most of the 20th century, the policy of protection had been to deny access to products that could harbour pests; in the last decade, however, the rules began to change.

The creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 and the World Trade Organisation in 1995 paved the way for new Mexican requests for access to the US avocado market. Although NAFTA's main goal was the elimination of tariffs by 2004, it also provided for the harmonisation of sanitary and phytosanitary measures between the trading partners. However, this free trade agreement explicitly recognises that each country can establish regulations to protect human, animal and plant life and health, so that when the risk of pest infestation is high, the country has the legitimacy to place restrictions on trade.

With the implementation of NAFTA in 1994, the US government came under increased pressure to facilitate the importation of agricultural products from Mexico, including avocados. This led to a shift in USDA phytosanitary policy towards a new policy of "mitigation or technological solutions". APHIS is the branch of government charged with implementing the phytosanitary provisions of NAFTA in the case of the US. APHIS considered that fruit flies - present in a wide variety of species - could also be found in Mexican avocados, so Mexican Plant Health Service officials had the difficult task of proving that the insect was not present in their avocados and that Hass avocados were not susceptible to Mexican fruit fly attack. Between 1992 and 1994, Mexico submitted two plans to work with their respective research. The first was rejected while the second, despite pressure from the California Avocado Commission (CAC), was accepted.

This second plan called for access of Mexican avocados to 19 of the 50 US states during the months of October to February. At the end of June 1995, the USDA issued a proposal of rule describing the conditions under which Hass avocados grown in approved plantations in Michoacán could enter the US. It was in late 1997 that the USDA issued a final rule authorising the importation of such avocados into the US. This was the first time that the USDA used the so-called "approach of systems" to manage the risks posed by quarantine pests.

At the end of the second shipping season in February 1999, Mexico requested an expansion of the programme to increase the number of US states to which it could export to issue and to allow the shipping season to start one month earlier (September) and end one month later (March). In 2001, the USDA met with the Mexican Plant Health Service and agreed to consider expanding the importing states to 31 and the import dates from 15 October to 15 April. The good relationship established between Presidents George W. Bush and Vicente Fox had a clear influence on this expansionary move.


Imports in tonnes. In 2018, imports of 1.04 million tonnes (87% from Mexico) [source: USDA].

Imports in tonnes. In 2018, imports of 1.04 million tonnes (87% from Mexico) [source: USDA].



For five years, Mexican avocados had been shipped to the US without a single pest being detected. Although the expansion of Mexican avocado imports seemed inevitable, the CAC filed a lawsuit against the USDA from California, claiming that Mexican avocados did have pests. In response, the USDA carried out a research and published in 2003 an "assessment pest risk" draft confirming that Mexican avocados did not carry the fruit fly.

The USDA had shifted from its previous position of domestic protection to a new position that benefited importation. Thus, in 2004 the USDA issued a new rule to expand the import programme to all 50 states for 12 months of the year. This rule provided for California, Florida and Hawaii to delay the importation of avocados for up to one year in order to test the effectiveness of the proposed regulations. Therefore, Mexico was not allowed to export avocados to California and Florida until January 2007; since then it has been allowed to export to all states all year round, thus quickly making the US the world's largest importer of Mexican avocados.

Until 2017, imports of Mexican avocados remained stable; however, as previously indicated, with Trump's arrival in the White House, relations between the US and Mexico once again faltered over various issues, one of them being food exports from Mexico to the US, with avocados as an emblematic case. The new US president threatened a 20% tariff on Mexican avocados to finance the wall he intended to build on the border.

In June 2018 Trump again threatened to put a 25% tariff on avocados and then in May 2019 he threatened to impose a 5% tariff on all goods from Mexico.

In March 2019, in the wake of the wave of immigration, the US president threatened to close the border with Mexico and subsequently withdrew his decision, but the mere fact that Trump threatened to close the border has already pushed up the price of avocados by 34%.

US-Mexico avocado relations remain unstable. Although much progress has been made since the implementation of NAFTA, various interests are still at stake that could lead the US to reduce imports of Mexican avocados. Avocados can hardly escape the uncertainty inherent in the US-Mexico link.

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