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Global Economy

Is an "Avocado Gate" imminent? The cruel business with the super fruit

We actually only know avocados as a superfood for dips and other delicacies. But behind the green fruit is a cruel business of threats and violence. Not only German discounters want to put a stop to these machinations.

    We actually only know avocados as a superfood for dips and other delicacies. But behind the green fruit is a cruel business of threats and violence. Not only German discounters want to put a stop to these machinations.

The Super Bowl is not only a highlight for fans of American football or the halftime show – Mexican avocado producers also enjoy it every year.

The avocado cream guacamole as a dip should not be missing at any sensible Super Bowl party – the advocacy group "Avocados From Mexico" has been making sure that this is not forgotten for years with expensive commercials during the game.

The green fruit is imported primarily from the western Mexican state of Michoacán. "No matter who wins the game tonight, the avocado produced in Michoacán is already the real winner of the night," Gov. Alfredo Ramírez wrote on Twitter on February 13, the day of this year's Super Bowl. In reality, the reputation of Mexican avocados suffered over the weekend.

Because an inspector from the US Agency for Animal and Plant Health (APHIS) was threatened two days before the game, the US suspended avocado imports from the southern neighboring country. According to Ramírez on Radio Fórmula, the threat was a call from a Mexican jail after the inspector thwarted an attempt to pass out out-of-state avocados as Michoacán. The fruit may only be imported into the USA from Michoacán – because US inspectors check them for pests there.

Profitable business with avocados

But Michoacán is also one of the areas in Mexico that suffers the most from violence from drug cartels and other criminal groups. They also have a hand in the business of avocados and other products, for example by extorting protection money. Soldiers were recently sent to an area in Michoacán where, according to media reports, a cartel controlled the cultivation of limes – an important ingredient in Mexican cuisine – and manipulated prices.

Despite criminal interference, avocados – also known as "green gold" – are one of the most lucrative commodities for Mexican growers. The avocados for the Super Bowl had already been delivered, but the US import ban caused major losses in income. In the US, there was talk of an impending avocado shortage.

According to government figures, the United States imported 1.2 million tons of avocados last year for around three billion dollars (about 2.6 billion euros) – of which 1.1 million tons and 2.8 billion dollars were imported from Mexico. Around 80 percent of the avocados exported from Mexico are shipped to the United States.

Last Friday, the US agency Aphis reported that its inspectors had resumed their work and that avocados were being imported from Mexico again. Additional safety measures have been taken together with the Mexican plant protection authority and the association of avocado exporters.

Organized crime and corruption

The import ban only lasted about a week. However, he drew attention to a problem that is far from being solved. "The fact that avocados, like other intrinsically legal markets, are driving violent confrontations and violence against producers and exporters is nothing new, but one of the hallmarks of the mutation of Mexican organized crime," says Falko Ernst, Mexico expert at International Crisis Group, the German Press Agency.

"The criminal actors have no intrinsic interest in using these types of threats to harm the avocado industry from which they make a living," explains Ernst. "But there is such a strong internal fragmentation within state institutions – for example due to inconsistent patterns of corruption – that there is no effective authority that could enforce certain basic rules and set limits."

The security consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft warned at the end of 2019 that avocados, like so-called blood diamonds from Africa, could become the next "conflict commodity". Global demand for it has risen sharply. This also leads to illegal deforestation in Mexico, the largest export country.

Market in Germany quadrupled

In Germany, too, the hearty fruit has been booming for years. Around 117,000 tons were imported last year – almost four times as much as ten years earlier. According to the Federal Statistical Office, only a good eleven percent of this came from Mexico – Peru is Germany's largest supplier.

When asked, the Rewe Group emphasized that it does not purchase any avocados from Mexico at all. The discounter Aldi announced that its avocados came only "to a small extent" from Mexico. The low-cost provider emphasized that it expressly distances itself from unfair business practices and does not tolerate any type of blackmail in global supply chains. He is also not aware of any specific violations by his suppliers and producers.

Discounters set new criteria for avocados

At the same time, Aldi announced that it would start evaluating its avocado suppliers this year as part of its efforts to promote sustainability in purchasing, including with regard to how they deal with human rights and the environment.

Competitor Lidl announced that it currently only offers avocados from Spain, Israel, Morocco, Kenya, Chile and Colombia. The dealer emphasized: "We fundamentally distance ourselves from any violations of the law." Lidl has therefore developed its own code of conduct, which must be observed by all business partners. © dpa

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