Why large scale avocado heists are sweeping New Zealand

New Zealanders mostly only eat avocados grown in New Zealand, and now thieves are taking advantage of the fruit's increased value.

Mariana Bazo/Reuters/File
A farm worker picks avocados from Hoja Redonda plantation in Chincha, Peru, September 3, 2015. Peru is the second largest exporter of Hass avocados in the world. A shorter growing season in New Zealand has resulted in an increased in demand for the fruit in that country.

An additional 96,000 New Zealand households began buying avocados in 2015 – and the industry hasn't been able to keep up.

The price of a single avocado in Australia and New Zealand rose to as high as $4.50 this year, The Guardian reports, thanks to low supply and high demand for Kiwi avocados this season. But farmers are also paying a price: They've suffered 30 to 40 large scale heists, with carloads of the green fruit disappearing.

Police officials say they are aware of an avocado black market, with thieves choosing to sell the fruit at farmers' markets, roadside stands or small grocery stores for a pretty penny. Even more thefts are occurring at a smaller scale and going unreported, officials say. 

Jeffrey Wayne Whaturia, for example, was sentenced to 170 hours of community service in April after the owner of a farm in Kati Kati happened to catch Mr. Whaturia and a friend attempting to steal two plastic bins of avocados from a local farm – worth almost $330. 

Some Twitter users have found the issue comical.

But for avocado farmers in New Zealand, the issue is anything but a joke.

"If you look at last season we sold about 25 million avocados in New Zealand, and ... [the number stolen] is probably maybe 1,200 or 2,000 avocados so it's quite small but the orchards that are targeted, they may well have lost a quarter of their crop for the year so in some orchards there will be a significant loss," Avocado New Zealand chief executive Jen Scouler told Radio New Zealand

Mexico, the world's largest avocado producer, harvested almost 1,500,000 tons in 2013, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations – more than the rest of the top five producers combined (Dominican Republic, Colombia, Peru and Indonesia). 

And in exports Mexico also reins king exporting 648,700 tons of avocados in 2014, again more than the rest of the top five exporters (Peru, Chile, Spain and South Africa) combined. 

New Zealand produced 21,025 metric tons of avocados in 2013, coming in 27th place with only 2 percent of the global supply. But the same year New Zealand exported 12,488 tons of avocados, coming in 9th place overall. 

Despite the shortage, the 2015-2016 season had a $134 million industry value between exports and domestic sales.

And the exporting figures could be even higher, if it were not for the fact that New Zealanders exclusively eat their own avocados. In 2013, the country of more than 4.5 million people only imported 24 tons of avocados – a supply that could fit in one 18-wheeler, with more than a third of the truck to spare. 

"Our season’s been very short, last year we had a low supply, we're just starting the new season, we only eat avocados from New Zealand in New Zealand, so that real demand has created this very negative story and very negative activity," Ms. Scouler added. "The amount of avocados they're stealing suggest that vehicles are involved, and they're loading up the vehicles with the stolen fruit."

American farms have long had a reputation for agricultural theft, also known as "plaid-collar crime." Because of California's drought this year, organized crime against the state's high-end nut industry has picked up, as The Christian Science Monitor's Lucy Schouten reported in April

California's agriculturists are beefing up security to strike at increasingly sophisticated efforts to divert their high-end nuts to the black market. Criminals find farm records so they can impersonate reputable shipping companies. A thief posing as a driver can take a truck-load of freshly processed nuts or pistachios, with a value as high as $500,000, and divert the entire shipment to the black market at a massive profit…

Today, these 'fictitious pickups' make up 5 percent of the nation's cargo thefts, but the ploy seems to have increased in recent years, Capital Press reported. This type of organized crime has cost California's nut sector, which was valued at roughly $9.3 billion in 2014, almost $7.6 million dollars during the past four years.

New Zealand officials, however, say their country's recent avocado heists are "more opportunistic," rather than a sophisticated crime industry. 

Sergeant Aaron Fraser of Waihi says law enforcement officials are especially worried about the consumption safety of stolen fruit. 

"These stolen avocados can carry risks," Sergeant Fraser told The Guardian. "They are unripe, some have been sprayed recently and they may still carry toxins on the skin. But with the prices so high at the moment, the potential for profit is a strong inducement for certain individuals." 

The thefts are expected to subside as a new season of ripe avocados enters the market and reduces the demand and price of individual fruits, Scoular said. 

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