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Mexican avocado imports booming during pandemic

Mexican avocado imports booming during pandemic
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U.S. sales of Mexican avocados are booming as the coronavirus pandemic rages on and more Americans cook at home.

Avocados from Mexico (AFM) broke its yearly sales record, selling 2.1 billion pounds of avocados in the United States this fiscal year. The company estimates it will sell 2.3 billion pounds in 2021.

"The pandemic has split the world into two groups, those who have done really well and those who have done poorly," said Alvaro Luque, CEO and president of AFM. "Avocados From Mexico has fortunately been in the group that has done well."

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AFM, an alliance between Mexican avocado packers and producers and American importers, has since 2013 been the main marketing arm for the fruit, which has become as much of a staple in many U.S. homes as it is in Mexico.

Avocado sales in the United States usually spike for Cinco de Mayo and the Super Bowl, two occasions that are largely American holidays and do not receive the same kind of attention in Mexico.

The bilateral trade in avocados has become a hallmark of Mexican soft diplomacy in the United States — the Mexican Embassy in Washington traditionally sends springtime care packages of avocados to congressional offices, lobbyists, think tanks and the media.

But the pandemic threatened to snap a growth streak that started in 1997, when Mexican avocados were first commercialized in 19 states.

With plummeting restaurant sales and changing consumer habits, avocado sales in March dipped to 40 percent of AFM's estimates.

In response, Luque said, "we changed our entire communications strategy."

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AFM's pandemic marketing strategy focused on coupons to lower consumer prices and bagged avocados to avoid people handling the fruit and potentially spreading the coronavirus.

The rebound in sales helped protect the deeper impact on bilateral relations of the avocado trade.

According to a yearly report published by Texas A&M University, Mexican avocados constitute 82 percent of all U.S. avocado sales, generating $6.5 billion in economic output and more than 30,000 American jobs.

In the first two decades of the 21st century, U.S. per capita avocado consumption has risen from about two pounds per year to more than nine.

But the impact is also deep in the western Mexican state of Michoacán, where all of the Mexican Hass avocados imported to the United States are produced.

Before the avocado trade took off, Michoacán was one of the primary places of origin for undocumented Mexican workers migrating to the United States.

Its unique climate conditions allow for four Hass avocado harvests per year, rather than the single crop that is common in other places such as California.

Ron Campbell, executive director at the Mexican Hass Avocado Importers Association — one of AFM's parent companies — said the expansion of bilateral cooperation, particularly U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on-site inspections in Michoacán, allowed for the state to bank on its natural advantages.

"When I was going to the city of Uruapan in '97 and '98, storefronts were shuttered. More people were leaving Michoacán than were staying. Michoacán was one of the areas of Mexico that exported more illegal immigration than anywhere else," Campbell said.

"Now when I go down there, it's the complete opposite. People working. Stores thriving. The foundation of the economy in that area is avocados, and it creates so much social improvement that they're having trouble finding more workers now," he added.

Avocados from Michoacán were not always welcome into the United States. In 1997, the USDA, under pressure from Californian avocado growers, allowed imports only to colder Northeastern states, citing the potential for spreading tropical pests.

Fears of pests, particularly the Mexican fruit fly, turned out to be unfounded, and the USDA inspectors became a regular part of the harvest and packing process in Michoacán, ultimately allowing sales of Mexican avocados in all 50 states by the late 2000s.

But the economic boom has also brought side effects, mainly in the form of deforestation to open more avocado groves as well as organized crime attracted to the avocado industry's profitability.

One proposed solution to the deforestation issue has been to expand the avocado growing region to the neighboring state of Jalisco, where the southern hills have similar geological and climate characteristics.

But that expansion has so far been stopped short by the intricate politics of the North American horticultural trade.

USDA inspectors have not been deployed to Jalisco and tensions between the avocado industry and U.S. potato producers — which Campbell dubbed a "food fight" — have so far prevented expansion across the state line.

"Regulations on the books prohibit avocados coming from any state besides Michoacán. There's an initiative but no political will," Campbell said.