Under the volcanoes in Mexico’s Michoacán state, violent cartels are fighting to dominate a shadowy and lucrative market. One gang, called La Familia Michoacana, announced its presence about a decade ago by tossing five rivals’ heads onto a dance floor in the town of Uruapan. The Knights Templar muscled in next, spouting a chivalric code of honor as it taxed, extorted and kidnapped farmers and usurped their land. Mexican security forces and local landowners have tried to fight back, but warring cartels continue to splinter and proliferate. In March, an armed group known as Los Viagras — apparently named for the way their leader’s heavily moussed hair stands up — wreaked havoc by burning dozens of vehicles and effectively shutting down the state’s main highway. One conflagration took place not far from where an American businessman named Steve Barnard owns a packing plant in Uruapan. “It’s too dangerous to drive on the roads,” Barnard says. The farm owners “have to be very careful not to get kidnapped.”
The precious commodity that drives Michoacán’s economy and feeds an American obsession is not marijuana or methamphetamines but avocados, which local residents have taken to calling “green gold.” Mexico produces more of the fruit than any country in the world — about a third of the global total — and most of its crop is grown in the rich volcanic soil of Michoacán, upland from the beaches of Acapulco. It is one of the miracles of modern trade that in 2017, Mexico’s most violent year on record, this cartel-riddled state exported more than 1.7 billion pounds of Haas avocados to the United States, helping them surpass bananas as America’s most valuable fruit import. Nine out of every 10 imported avocados in the United States come from Michoacán.
The real marvel of Mexico’s avocado trade, however, is not so much its size as the speed of its sudden growth. Avocados have been cultivated in Mexico for around 9,000 years. (When Spanish conquistadors first encountered the oblong fruit in the early 16th century, they called it aguacate, after ahuacatl, an Aztec word that means testicle.) Despite this deep history, Mexico exported very few avocados — and none at all to the United States — through the 1980s, when Barnard’s California-based company, Mission Produce, opened the first avocado-packing plant in Uruapan. The United States had banned Mexican avocados since 1914 over fears of an insect infestation and cheaper competition. But in 1994, Mexico, Canada and the United States enacted the North American Free Trade Agreement — and soon thereafter the United States began lifting its ban.
Dismantling operation of illegal avocado plantation in Michoacán by the Environment Safety Police, 2017
An avocado explosion followed. In 1994, Americans consumed a little more than one pound of the fruit per person per year — almost all from California growers, whose harvest comes only in the summer. Today, that figure is up to seven pounds per person year-round. Fueled by a growing Latino community and Hollywood stars promoting the health benefits of the fruit’s unsaturated fats (Miley Cyrus has an avocado tattoo on her arm), America’s avocado craze has intensified every year. An estimated 135 million pounds of avocados were consumed in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl last month. (The Super Bowl is America’s top avocado day, just ahead of Cinco de Mayo.) “The boom caught everybody by surprise,” says Barnard, whose company is the world’s largest avocado distributor. “We’re really scrambling. We’re growing at 10 to 15 percent per year, but we still can’t keep up with demand.”
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.
Credit 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.