Mexican Avocado Ban Could be Lifted
California growers challenge the proposal citing the threat of insect infestation
IRVINE - 07/19/04 - Imports of Mexican-grown Haas variety of avocados have been banned in California for 90 years, but that all may change as the US Department of Agriculture (DOA) is mulling over a proposal that would allow Mexico to ship the alligator-skinned fruit not only to California, but the rest of the US as well.
California growers, who currently supply the vast bulk of the avocados consumed in the US, are actively protesting the proposed move that would overturn the regulations that now limit Mexican shipments to 31 states during a six-month period every year.
At the heart of the issue, say many California avocado growers, is the concern that the imported fruit could carry pests that could threaten not only the state's $358 million avocado industry, but other produce, as well.
California ranks as the country's number one agriculture state producing and exporting vast quantities of products from peaches, plums, and nectarines to rice, grapes, and citrus fruit.
"If a Mexican avocado brings in a fruit fly, for example, it affects other crops and causes a quarantine," said Jerome Stehly, chairman of the Irvine-based California Avocado Commission.
Last year, total Mexican avocado exports to the US totaled about 30 million pounds, a figure that would expand to as much as 141 million pounds annually if the proposal is adopted.
California's 6,500 avocado growers have until the end of this week to submit comments aimed at persuading the DOA to delay the move for at least another year.
The state now produces about 400 million pounds of avocados annually, making it the nation's leading grower. Most of the crop comes from Southern California, close to the Mexican border.
State farmers have been fiercely protective since the 1914 discovery of seed weevils in Mexican groves that led the USDA to ban avocados from that country.
Since then, the Mexican government has repeatedly sought to regain access to US markets. Despite strong opposition from California growers, the ban was finally dropped in many states in the mid-1990s shortly after the North American Free Trade Agreement was reached.
According to Stehly, the discovery of Mexican fruit flies prompted a quarantine last year of his 1,500-acre citrus and avocado groves in Bonsall, about 50 miles north of San Diego.
The infestation, he said, cost him about $300,000 in lost revenues.
"I grew up in farming and accept it as a risky venture," he said. "But you can't afford" repeated pest infestations and quarantines.
The USDA is pushing for full access to US markets in response to a request by the Mexican government.
Mexico is, by far, the largest supplier of Hass Avocados in the world with the country producing as much as 1.5 billion pounds of the Hass variety of avocados annually.
The Department of Agriculture conducted a risk assessment that concluded "an overall low likelihood of pest introduction" into the US. It cited a study that found the Haas avocado is not a natural host for the Mexican fruit fly.
Larry Hawkins, a spokesman for the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in Washington, DC, told the Associated Press that, "The USDA feels there's a sufficient safeguard to keep pests away from the fruits."
Those safeguards include inspections at Mexican orchards and packing facilities, and requirements that the fruit be moved in insect-proof containers.
"It's one thing to have a series of safeguards and propose to ship it to New York or North Dakota where avocados aren't grown," said Tom Bellamore, senior vice president of the California Avocado Commission. "It's entirely different when you're bringing it here, where pests may thrive on our trees."
Some scientists said pests have steadily invaded Southern California in recent years.
"Lessons from history have clearly shown that when you start to move fruit, plant material, soil - anything in agriculture - from one area to another, you're introducing pests," said Mark Hoddle, an entomologist at the University of California - Riverside.
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