If you like avocados, be thankful for global trade. Be thankful for the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. And be thankful for Mexico, the world’s top producer, for enabling us to feed our avocado obsession.
Yes, avocados have become a bit of an obsession for Americans -- especially younger Americans. The hashtag #avocado will bring up millions of images on Instagram, and the avocado became the most pinned food trend on Pinterest in 2015. Millennials are endlessly teased for their avocado fixation. And Super Bowl fans of any age might have a hard time getting through the game without their guacamole (according to a recent New York Times article, Super Bowl Sunday is the top avocado consumption day in the U.S.).
But it was not always so for the avocado. Through the early 1990s, avocados were far from popular in the U.S., even though they have been cultivated in Mexico for 9,000 years. Before NAFTA, almost all the avocados we had were from California where there was only one harvest a year, and Americans consumed just one pound per person a year. It was only after Mexico, Canada and the U.S. agreed to remove barriers to trade and investment via NAFTA in 1994 that the avocado’s popularity soared. Today, Americans consume seven pounds of avocados per person per year. The largest avocado distribution company in the world, based in Michoacan and run by American Steve Barnard, says his business is growing at 10% – 15% a year and is struggling to keep up with demand.
The debate around the good and bad of global trade always is heated. Some groups undoubtedly end up worse off when barriers to trade and investment are removed – most often, the workers who lose their jobs as production shifts to other nations that can produce things better, faster, or cheaper. Yet most economists will agree that the overall good outweighs the bad.
Avocado advocates will tell you that Mexican avocados have been a win-win. Not only has Mexico’s supply filled the gap in U.S. production, but a 2016 study found that the supply chain stemming from Mexican avocados created 19,000 jobs in the U.S. and added $2.2 billion to GNP. California doesn’t have the land and water capacity to expand avocado production meaningfully, but California growers still benefit from high and growing demand. Moreover, other U.S. farmers also have been winners: After NAFTA, U.S. agricultural exports of soybeans, corn and dairy to Mexico have grown fivefold to $18 billion.
The globalization of food supply has meant a spectacular increase in diversification and choice that have changed the way people eat around the world. Avocados are far from the only example of consumers benefiting from trade. Not too long ago, The Economist published some articles on how global consumption of quinoa, a staple of Andean diets, also has soared as people around the world have come to understand its health benefits. Between 2000 and 2014, quinoa exports from Peru and Bolivia more than tripled and helped lift quinoa farmers’ household spending by 46% between 2004 and 2013. That in turn helped their local economies grow. In an article called “In Praise of Quinoa” with the subtitle “The spread of exotic grains is evidence that globalization works,” The Economist affirmed that quinoa farmers in Peru and Bolivia were better off as a result of soaring exports. What’s more, “The globalization and modernization of agriculture have contributed to a stunning reduction in hunger.”
The worry today is that NAFTA is one of President Trump’s big targets. He has called NAFTA “the worst trade deal ever,” and though he hasn’t done anything yet, he keeps threatening to. American avocado lovers should know that they are likely to suffer if we undo NAFTA and put up trade barriers. And Mexico? It will adjust over time. While the U.S. is now by far the largest destination for Mexican avocados, Mexico could shift its exports to the EU, Asia and especially China, where demand for avocados is starting to grow.