How demand for avocados has reshaped Michoacán

Protesters there briefly detained a couple of U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors, leading to a halt in shipments.

By Michael MarksJune 24, 2024 3:57 pm

Most of the avocados imported into the United States come from Mexico. And the bulk of those come from the western state of Michoacán. 

Shipments of avocados and mangoes from Michoacán to the U.S. were suspended, however, after two U.S. Department of Agriculture workers in the region were assailed by locals. The USDA employees were removed from the area, leaving inspections of produce on hold. Inspections will resume gradually, according to Ken Salazar, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico.

This is not the first time that avocado shipments from Michoacán have been halted because of local unrest. And according to Eugenio Arima, it likely won’t be the last time, either. Arima, an associate professor of geography and the environment at the University of Texas at Austin who studies the impact of the avocado industry in Mexico, spoke to the Texas Standard about how the industry’s growth has changed the region.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Can you describe how landscapes in Michoacan have been transformed by the avocado industry?

Eugenio Arima: Oh, it’s a huge impact. The United States currently import 2.2 billion pounds of avocados annually from Mexico, and most of that production come from Michoacán. And that translates to a trade of $2.5 billion annually in terms of exports of avocados.

And of course, with all that money and profit, the industry orchards are expanding. We calculated that approximately 7,000 acres are being deforested every year to accommodate that expansion of avocado orchards. So it’s a big, huge impact avocados grow into a very unique range. They like these medium elevation ranges with volcanic soils. And Michoacán has both of that. So it’s a perfect place. In addition, it’s very close to the United States. So that makes the avocados from Michoacán very competitive in terms of trade.

As this deforestation has taken place, what sort of social and economic upheaval have followed?

Well, Mexico for many years was controlled by cartels that dealt drugs, trafficking drugs into United States. But in the last 10 years, those big cartels have pulverized and fragmented, and in Michoacán lots of those smaller groups are now in control.

There is a political scientist at the University of Illinois, Andreas Feldmann, who actually coined this very interesting concept of criminal governance – essentially, the idea that municipal governments with criminal organizations, they co-govern those regions. And what does it mean? Well, they create their own rules. They regulate movement of people. They regulate economic activities.

And in this case, in some municipalities in Michoacán, they tax people. And that money comes from, in many cases, from the profits of avocados. Avocados being so profitable, they are also taking advantage in certain municipalities in Michoacán of their activity.

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The quotes that I’ve seen from Mexican officials involved in this issue are that they believe this situation will be resolved quickly and that avocados will be moving from Michoacán to the United States in short order. If that’s not the case, let’s just say, hypothetically, how much would a long-term slowdown of avocado exports affect Michoacán’s economy now?

Oh, it would be a huge blow. This is by far the most important economic activity in Michoacán. As I said, it’s responsible for $2.5 billion a year for the local economy. And, you know, it’s not only large farmers. There are millions in small farmers who depend on this activity. And it’s one of the largest employers, labor as well.

Before we wrap up here, I’m curious, professor, what sort of impact consumers of avocados here stateside can have on this situation?

We are used to having avocados every single day of the year, right? If that lasts for more than two weeks, I think we will start seeing prices go up. And if it lasts longer, we could see some shortages in certain places – but I don’t think it will last that long because, again, it’s a very important commodity.

Not only Mexican farmers benefit from that, but also traders here in the United States benefit from that commerce. And therefore, I think there will be pressure on both sides to resume trade very quickly.

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