On Money: How the Avocado Became the Fruit of Global Trade

Donald Trump has often railed at Nafta as “the worst trade deal ever.” But his focus on the loss of United States manufacturing jobs — felt keenly in the auto and textile industries — misses one of Nafta’s far-reaching benefits: the huge lift it has given to agricultural trade and consumer satisfaction in all three countries. Under Nafta, avocados have led an influx of year-round Mexican produce that has filled the seasonal voids in United States grocery stores and changed the way Americans eat. The avocado boom has caused environmental damage — some of Michoacán’s pine forests have been thinned out for avocado orchards — but it has been good for Americans gorging on guacamole in wintertime and Mexican farmers fending off the urge to join the drug trade or immigrate to the United States. According to a 2016 study commissioned by a marketing group for buyers and producers of Mexican avocados, the avocado supply chain has also created nearly 19,000 jobs in the United States and added more than $2.2 billion to the gross national product.

Even California growers, once vociferous opponents of Mexican imports, are happy with the situation. Land and water are too scarce to expand their seasonal harvests — which are around 10 percent of Mexico’s annual production — but surging demand and prices have buoyed their businesses, too. “Avocados are Nafta’s shining star,” says Monica Ganley, an expert on Latin American trade and the founder of Quarterra, a consulting firm based in Buenos Aires. “But it’s important to remember that the benefits flow in both directions.” Under Nafta, United States agricultural exports to Mexico have expanded nearly fivefold, to $18 billion, with sales of American corn, soybeans and dairy products booming south of the border. “Trade is a multiplier, not a zero-sum game,” Ganley says. “We tend to overstate how much Mexico is dependent on the U.S. But American producers may have more to lose than Mexican producers if Nafta disappears.”

Trump hasn’t killed Nafta yet. But as negotiations over a revamped agreement head into their eighth round, a trade war looms. The United States decision last month to impose steel and aluminum tariffs on most countries hangs over the talks, as do the planned trade sanctions against China. Trump offered temporary exemptions to Canada and Mexico, but only with the proviso that they remake Nafta to his liking. Even within the talks, avocado growers in Mexico and California worry that new anti-dumping duties proposed by the United States side could lead to a tit-for-tat retaliation that would harm both sides. “Once it starts,” Barnard asks, “where does it end?”

So long as global demand keeps growing, though, the avocado seems almost impervious to upheaval at home and abroad. The violence in Michoacán, for example, has not curtailed the avocado industry’s goal of increasing exports to the United States by 15 percent this year. Nor would new tariffs necessarily stop Mexican avocado imports: The United States can’t sate its appetite for avocados elsewhere (no other producer is big enough), and the Mexicans have no other market so big and so near. The price of guacamole and avocado toast would go up again, but consumers already showed last year, during a spike in prices, that they might be willing to pay more. The bigger effect might be that avocado producers heighten their efforts in other developing markets, especially the one with most potential: China.

When I lived in Shanghai, I often bicycled to an open-air grocery store run by a woman everybody knew simply as the avocado lady. She was one of the first grocers in the city to carry what is known in Chinese as “butter fruit,” though her clients were mostly grateful expatriates like me or Chinese returning from abroad. Even on days of heavy storms or bitter cold, this hardy entrepreneur was always in her shop before dawn, wearing rubber boots and tallying prices with a pencil. I never learned her name, but last year, in an unnecessary bit of marketing, she hung a crudely painted sign — “The Avocado Lady” — in front of her store.


Illustration by Andrew Rae

A decade ago, avocados were virtually unknown in China. The country imported only two tons in 2010; last year, it brought in 32,100 tons. The trend accelerated in 2017 when KFC ran an ad campaign for its avocado wraps called “Green Is Going Red” (to be hot, that is). It featured a pop star sporting an avocado mustache. The wraps didn’t sell so well, but the ads made avocados cool for China’s millennials.

Mexico was China’s largest supplier of avocados until last year, when it was surpassed by Chile. (Peru is moving in quickly, too.) In the future, the competition may come from China itself. With state backing, some Chinese businessmen are developing avocado plantations in the southern province of Guangxi. If they can come up with an avocado that matches the Latin American variety, at a lower cost, then the global market could shift.

For now, though, China is adjusting. Most avocados sold there are hard and green — often to the confusion of the uninitiated. To solve this problem, Barnard’s Mission Produce built China’s first “ripe center” in Shanghai last year, with another to follow in Shenzhen next year. And Barnard is dreaming big. “If I could put four avocado chunks in every bowl of noodle soup in China,” he muses, “we wouldn’t have enough avocados in the world.” Only Mexican production would come close. And who knows? If American trade policy lurches toward a trade war, the farmers under the volcanoes in Michoacán might be eager to start sending their harvests to China instead.

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