My usual fruit vendor smiles at me regretfully. “You want avocados? Well, we have some. The problem – they are veery expensive.” Instinctively, this comes as no surprise to my German brain – in Europe good avocados are a luxury good with few equals. But then I check this thought process: we are in Central America! Just last week I bought avocados for half the price he is quoting me!
The avocado scarcity is showing its effects.
Since May, the Costa Rican government has prohibited the import of avocados from 9 countries that are affected by sun blotch. According to the country’s Plant Health Service (SFE), imported avocados could also introduce the disease in the territory and endanger national production. The agency assured that it was working on finding alternative sources to satisfy demand – an important aspect since among the 9 countries is Mexico, the single-largest importer of avocados to Costa Rica.
The ban that was announced around 6 weeks ago has now sparked intense controversy at the political level as stocks of Hass avocados are depleting without alternatives in place, leading traders to add hefty price premiums to each box.
Costa Rica has around 900 avocado producers that jointly produce around 2’000 metric tons per year, not nearly enough to replace the ca. 12’000 tons imported each year from Mexico. In addition, the local varieties don’t measure up in taste and quality – one variety is much larger than Hass avocados and has a rather watered-down taste, whereas the darker-skinned ones have a much shorter lifespan than their Mexican counterparts, according to my fruit dealer.
Thus, the measure understandably has traders, food businesses and consumers up in arms, with many unable to understand what initiated the import ban. Word on the street is that “sun blotch has existed in Mexico for 30 years, and it’s never been a problem. The authorities have been unable to show any scientific evidence supporting their recent decision”. There are even rumors that part of the motivation may be the repaying of political favors to supporters of the current government with clear economic interests. Already, campaigns like the one below stress that consumers should support local production through purchasing national avocados.
In response to the disruption in their supply chains, food chains such as Subway have changed their offers, taking avocado out of their offer of ingredients. A publicity stunt saw the Minister of Information march up to a store, purchase three avocados outside the door and offer them to the employees, asking them to make him a sandwich with avocados and thereby dispel the myth of non-availability. There is now also a Facebook group dedicated to donating avocados to the food giant.
It’s a tough call – has the previous government been lax in their implementation of phytosanitary precautions? The Chamber of Exporters and Importers of Perishable Products (CEIPP) likes to point out that of all other countries, only New Zealand has also banned Mexican avocados. But is that to say that Costa Rica is too cautious or that other countries are too foolhardy? Many other nations also don’t grow avocados and would thus be less worried about importing a disease.
Then, from a food miles perspective it is certainly more efficient to focus on Costa Rican produce. However, as my fruit dealer said, “is our country now like Cuba or Venezuela where we are told which things to buy?” If there is a difference in product, who should have the prerogative to limit the choice set?
Ultimately, as a member of the WTO, Costa Rica might be in trouble if it truly cannot show a scientific basis for its import ban of avocados, since such behavior could be interpreted as a non-tariff barrier and Mexico could take action through the WTO institutions. While phytosanitary measures have a bit more leeway, they are theoretically only allowed for a limited time without solid scientific grounding.
We will see whether the governmental decision endures the public outrage even that long. I certainly hope that my guacamole cravings will soon be fulfilled again.
Featured image by Jaanus Silla, via Flickr CC.