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Last Updated: Monday, 15 September, 2003, 07:05 GMT 08:05 UK
Mexican farmers' avocado trade battle
By Franc Contreras
BBC News, Mexico

US growers fear that Mexican imports will damage crops
US growers fear that Mexican imports will damage crops

As world trade talks collapsed in Mexico, another trade dispute is threatening to sour relations between the US and its southern neighbour. Despite a free trade deal, the US has been reluctant to open its market fully to Mexican avocados, claiming that they are infested with bugs.

The agricultural dispute is centred in the Mexican state of Michoacan, whose lush fields are covered with avocado groves.

Now (US producers) are faced with having to go to head-to-head competition with the biggest and most efficient producer in the world and it's frightening to them
Dale McNeal, lawyer for the Mexican avocado producers
They produce one million tonnes of the green fruit each year - more than anywhere else in the world.

The vast majority of Mexican avocados are consumed locally.

They are the Hass variety, a pear-shaped fruit with a thick, rough skin and a large wooden seed inside.

Free trade deal

For 80 years, the US has banned Mexican avocados from entering American soil.

Farmers protesting

US growers allege that they were infested with Mexican fruit fly.

In 1997, after the US and Mexico joined together in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the ban was partially lifted - but only in a limited number of US states during half the year.

Now California growers are alarmed over reports that the US Department of Agriculture may be considering lifting the ban entirely.

"Avocados are always used as a pawn in the trading process. Whenever the United States talks to Mexico about opening up other agricultural commodities to US growers...it always comes back to avocados," says Jerome Steyhle, chairman of the California Avocado Growers Commission.

"Our concerns now are that if you open it up and you have Mexican avocados just down the street from my groves and other growers in California, if they make a mistake and the pests are in the avocados you're not a couple of states away, you're in California and that is a big problem," he says.


But Mexican growers argue that California growers are simply protecting their market share.

"The producers in California are relatively high cost producers compared to their counterparts in Michoacan, Mexico. And they've enjoyed protection," says Dale McNeal, a trade lawyer for the Michoacan avocado producers.

"They've enjoyed the world's biggest competitor being excluded from their market for most of the last century. And now their faced with having to go to head-to-head competition with the biggest and most efficient producer in the world and it's frightening to them."

In Michoacan, the US Department of Agriculture has been conducting rigorous inspections of the avocado crop since 1997 - and not a single shipment has been turned back because of the pests.

Lower prices

So the Mexican avocado growers like Benjamine Gayeb are confident.

"I think competition is good. Who will come out on top? The consumers. Because they will end up with first rate products, no matter who produces them," he says over a lunch of avocado soup, avocado with shrimp, and avocado ice cream.

"We'll all have to worry about quality. That could help prices of avocados in the United States."

At the moment US consumers pay as much as $2 for a single Hass avocado.

In Mexico, you can purchase two kilos for the same price.

Mr Gayeb is convinced that increased Mexican imports would cause prices to drop.

But he says that shouldn't worry the California growers too much.

He argues that there is a growing appetite for avocados, and plenty of room for everyone around the table.

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