Super Bowl success story: Mexico's avocados
Increased demand for guacamole has helped make avocado exports a rare bright spot for Mexico in its free-trade saga with the US.
Mexico City — When you reach for the guacamole dip on Super Bowl Sunday, you can thank NAFTA.
The fruit of Aztec kings is plenteous and relatively inexpensive in the United States thanks to a trade deal struck 14 years ago.
On Sunday, more than 46 million pounds will be consumed. Or as the Hass Avocado Board marketing group in California puts it: If avocados were dumped into Tampa's Raymond James stadium, from end zone to end zone they would stand almost 18 feet deep.
That's a heck of a guacamole bowl.
The avocado is a rare bright spot in the free-trade saga between the two countries. Most Mexican farmers view the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as a pact that undercuts them with low-cost US-grown corn, for example. But for NAFTA, the avocado is a success story here.
In the central state of Michoacán, Mexico's avocado belt, exports generated $400 million last year, and it's now the second source of income for the state – after remittances sent from Mexicans living in the US.
"It has transformed this state, and put a hold on immigration," says José Luis Gallardo, the head of the Michoacán Avocado Commission and a plantation owner who has watched the industry explode in the past few years.
While fresh avocados have been a staple of the Mexican diet for centuries, in the US they were mostly consumed in California or Texas, where they are grown.
Today, the fruit is as common in California supermarkets as it is in Kansas.
José Luis Obregon, the managing director of the Hass Avocado Board, says that less than a decade ago Americans consumed only about 500 million pounds of avocados a year. For the last two years, consumption has reached 1 billion pounds annually.
But the availability of fresh Mexican avocados has come in fits and starts. While NAFTA went into effect in 1994, it was only in 2005 that the US allowed avocados to enter the country year-round. Even then, they were still banned in Florida, Hawaii, and California. In 2007, all states were opened to avocado imports – despite a fight from some US growers.
And Mexico's help couldn't come at a better time.
Because of weather patterns and water shortages in California, the current crop is expected to be the smallest it's been – with only 210 million pounds – since the 1989-90 season, says Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission.
Last year, the state, by far the largest producer in the US and once the sole supplier to the US market, shipped about 330 million pounds.
In Mexico, NAFTA has been controversial since its inception. Last January, farmers took to the streets in massive protests against the lifting of all trade barriers for corn and other key imports. Few here disagree that corn growers, for example, have been hurt by US imports that are cheaper: Mexicans on small plots can't compete with massive farms north of the border.
But when it comes to avocados, it's a different story, says Emiliano Escobedo, a spokesperson for the Avocado Producers and Exporting Packers Association of Michoacan. Avocados, known as "green gold" here, are touted by NAFTA supporters as an example, as well as the auto industry, of the trade agreement's boon for Mexico.
The industry in the state, which produces over 90 percent of Mexican avocados, generates 300,000 direct and indirect jobs. Of the over 20,000 avocado-producing orchards in Michoacán, about a quarter are certified by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to export to the US.
"The real goal is that it provides enough opportunity so that Mexicans don't have to head north," says Mr. Gallardo.
Mexico hopes to take on an even bigger role as demand for avocados grows in the US. Mexico's exporters are expected to export a record 506 million pounds this season, up from 475 million pounds the year before.
Mr. Obregon, of the Hass Avocado Board, attributes the rise in US consumption to immigration from Mexico and other regions in Latin America, and a changing culinary palette across the US. "As the Hispanic population has assimilated into mainstream US, more people get exposed to the regional cuisines from original countries," he says.
And promoters have seized on the opportunity. Mr. Escobedo's group has launched a series of TV and radio ads promoting the fruit.
He is also running a contest at avocadofiesta.com, called "Avocado Video Bowl," where participants can submit their own video recipies. More than 30 videos have been posted, including "Avocados: The Musical" and "Avocado Girl and the Superpower Salad."
Most of the entries are in English. It seems that Mexico might, one day soon, find its cultural claim to the avocado challenged.
Source: Hass Avocado Board, Avocado Producers and Exporting Packers Association of Michoacán.