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U.S.-Mexico trade: Beyond the avocado moratorium

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Now that avocado imports have resumed after a nearly week-long interruption, it may be time to look at the issue in a larger perspective.

The ostensible reason for the moratorium was a threat made to a member of the U.S. inspection team in Michoacán and concerns about the team’s safety as a whole.

As I suggested in a previous column, a deeper motive probably lies in American exasperation with cartel involvement in the green gold, which the Mexican federal government has been either unable or unwilling to curb.

Last week, Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) said about the moratorium: “In all of this there are also a lot of political interests, and political interests, there is competition; they don’t want Mexican avocados to get into the United States, right, because it would rule in the United States because of its quality.”

In itself, this statement is somewhere between incorrect and meaningless. Protection of the U.S. avocado industry is not the issue. It is already facing tremendous hurdles in California (where avocados are grown), of which labor and water costs are only the most obvious.

Nor can the domestic industry supply the nation’s demand—certainly not on a year-round basis—and no one seriously pretends that it could.

Whenever there is a trade issue, it is useful to look at the larger context. If the U.S., say, imposes trade restrictions on French wine, it is comparatively unlikely that its main intention is to protect the American wine industry. It is probably a retaliation for French limits on imports of some completely different American commodity.

Given the gargantuan size of U.S.-Mexico trade on so many fronts, it’s hard to draw an immediate causal connection between the avocado moratorium and issues involving other industries.

Instead, let me (somewhat arbitrarily) limit myself to agricultural trade.

Such as that decidedly important item: corn. According to USDA’s Economic Research Service, corn, cracked corn, and distiller’s dried grain with solubles (DDGS) accounted for 21 percent of Mexico’s agricultural imports from the U.S.—an average of $2.736 billion in 2016-20.

In 2021, AMLO announced a ban on genetically modified (GMO) corn for human consumption that is to take effect in 2024, prompting fears among American corn growers that they would lose their single largest export market.

In October, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack met with his Mexican counterpart to discuss this issue.

“I was certainly pleased to hear from the secretary an understanding that while there may be decisions made in Mexico not to cultivate (genetically engineered) corn, it doesn’t limit the ability of Mexico to import GE corn,” Vilsack was quoted as saying afterward. “The reality is they can’t produce enough for their needs.”

Another issue is a ban on the herbicide glyphosate, also due to take effect in 2024. An article of the Mexican decree says that the nation will “refrain from acquiring, using, distributing, promoting and importing glyphosate or agrochemicals that contain it as an active ingredient.”

AMLO’s decree, whose stated goal is “achieving self-sufficiency and food sovereignty,” is “no model of clarity,” says Marc L. Busch, a professor of international business diplomacy at Georgetown University.

Depending on how it is applied, it could convulse the corn trade between the two nations.

As AMLO’s comments about the moratorium hint, the U.S. government’s real motives may have more to do with these issues than anything directly pertaining to avocados. The U.S. may be sending a signal that if Mexico decides to play hard with its new rules, the U.S. has some weapons of its own.


Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.