Mexico celebrates 20 years of avocado exports to U.S.
The Mexican Embassy and the Mexican avocado industry celebrated 20 years of avocado exports to the United States on Nov. 15 at the Mexican Cultural Institute of Washington.
The uncertain future of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which laid the groundwork for the incredible growth in Mexican avocado exports to the United States, seemed constantly in the air. The evening’s program did not focus on it, however, even though President Donald Trump has threaten to withdraw from NAFTA and made proposals that Mexico has said would destroy the pact.
A panel discussion on “The Future of Food in a Global Economy” organized by Politico was preceded by hors d’oeuvres, tequila tasting and avocado-infused margaritas, and followed by a buffet of avocado foods and more drinks.
With 80 percent of the 2.2 billion pounds of avocados consumed in the United States coming from Mexico, the panel focused on the importance of food safety in international trade and whether there is a conflict between the interest in growing local food production and imports.
“Science unites us all,” said Karil Kochenderfer of Linkages, a consulting firm that brings together food and beverages clients.
“We might have differences in cultures (but) in the end we all have to be safe,”“The more we follow science the more we can move products locally and across borders.”
Francisco Javier Trujillo, the general director of plant health for the Mexican National Service of Agrifood Health, Safety and Quality, said that his country’s avocado industry has constantly improved since 1977 when the Mexican Avocado Producers and Packer Exporters Association was founded in Irving, Texas, to help the Mexican avocado industry grow.
Today “every avocado has a traceability system to track every case back to the orchard and time it was picked,” Trujillo said.
Kathleen Merrigan, the executive director of sustainability at George Washington University who was known as a vigorous advocate for organic and local foods when she served as the first Agriculture deputy secretary in the Obama administration, said she parts company with some of her progressive colleagues who aren’t enthusiastic about trade.
“I think about people buying more fruits and vegetables because the trade doors are open,” Merrigan said.
And the increased demand for more fruits and vegetables in the United States, she said, creates a lot of opportunities for beginning farmers.
Merrigan said, however, that she does favor the geographic indicators that Europeans use to restrict the labeling of certain products such as Champagne and Parma ham and certain cheeses to their place of origin.
Both the Obama and Trump administrations have been critical of European attempts to increase the use of GIs through trade agreements, but Merrigan noted she is from Massachusetts and said, “I don’t think Secretary (Sonny) Perdue (who is from Georgia) wants my growers up in Massachusetts to put Georgia-grown on their products.”
Geographic indicators fit in with consumers wanting “to know more and more about their food,” Merrigan said.
But Darci Vetter, who was the U.S. chief agriculture negotiator in the Obama administration and is now diplomat-in-residence at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, signaled that she takes a more cautious approach to GIs than Merrigan.
“The key is where you draw that line,” Vetter said, adding that she does not believe foods that have been produced outside their place of origin for years should have to give up the use of those names.
On President Donald Trump’s criticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the threat of withdrawal, Vetter and Merrigan seemed to be in agreement, however.
Of the premise that if foreign trade stopped, local producers would prosper, Vetter noted that few consumers “buy everything local.”
Noting that American farmers have been exporting a lot to Mexico since NAFTA was concluded 23 years go, Merrigan said, “I feel the rug has ben pulled out from under them.”
Trujillo also noted that, while U.S. avocado imports from Mexico have grown 300 percent in the last decade, the price of avocados for American farmers has risen, and U.S. avocado-related economic output from packing houses, transportation and restaurant sales has reached $3.5 billion.
After the panel discussion, the attendees watched a film on the growing of avocados in Michoacán, the only place on Earth where avocados grow all the time, and the reason they are now available every day of the year in the United States.
Then a buffet opened with avocados in almost every dish, and a Mexican band played as attendees explored the Mexican Cultural Institute, a 1910 mansion that was the Mexican Embassy until 1989.
The institute, which has a regular schedule of cultural programming. is decorated with murals by Roberto Cueva del Río in the style of Diego Rivera, but the art is focused more on historical figures and heroes than on ideology.