San Diego In late June, officials from the United States Department of Agriculture lifted a ban on picking Hass avocados that had been imposed on growers in Valley Center since Mexican fruit flies were found in the area last December. Testing done in the interim had revealed no evidence that the fruit flies, usually associated with citrus, were affecting the avocados. North County farmers were elated to be able to harvest their avocados, which were beginning to fall to the ground. Growers, under the new agreement, must first remove and dispose of all fallen fruit in their orchards. At the packing houses, 100 avocados from every load are cut open and inspected for evidence of "Mexfly" larvae.
Though the lifting of the picking ban was good news in the short term for local avocado farmers, some in the industry worry that it will hurt them in the long term by opening the door for avocados grown in Mexico to be imported into California.
Since November 2001, avocados grown in the state of Michoacán in central Mexico are imported into 31 states -- California and its neighbors not among them -- during the colder half of the year. Between 1997 and 2001, it was 19 northeastern states during winter months. "That was the first time since, I think, 1917 that Mexico was allowed to export avocados into the United States," says Bob Bednar, who has grown avocados on 20 acres in Valley Center since 1973. "Between 1917 and 1997, there was a restriction placed on them because of the seed weevil and the stem borer."
The seed weevil and the stem borer are pests that can affect avocados. "You can't even spray for them because they are internal," Bednar says, "and they just destroy the fruit."
"We don't even have seed weevil up here," says Jerome Stehly, president of the California Avocado Commission. "That is why we have been trying to keep them out; we don't want it up here. And the seed weevil drills into the fruit and then drills into the seed of the fruit, and that rots it from the inside out. You can't tell until the consumer cuts it open. That is a bad pest. I don't want that thing in my fruit."
"After NAFTA," Bednar continues, "the USDA came up with what they call a redundant process -- there are about seven different processes that they go through -- that should find insects if they are there. And by doing that, and they don't find any insects, then they should be safe for importation. But they restricted it to 19 Northeastern states, where you would have a freeze. So if any of these insects came into the United States, they could not winter over. And since that time, Mexico has been fighting to get the rest of the states. This past year -- I think in last October it started -- they were allowed to bring them into 31 states from October until April 15. These are all non-Sun Belt states."
Along with the stem borer and seed weevil, the Mexican fruit fly was another pest believed by the USDA to affect the Hass avocado. As such it was another barrier against the importation of Mexican avocados into California, where more than 99 percent of United States avocados are grown. (And about 46 percent of California's avocados are grown in San Diego County.) But no evidence was found of Mexican fruit flies infesting avocados in the 150-square-mile North County quarantine area where Mexican fruit flies were found last fall. Thus, another barrier to importation from Mexico was removed. And in June of this year, concurrent with the lifting of the picking ban, the USDA published a 92-page "risk analysis" titled The Importation of the Hass Avocado Fruit from Mexico. The paper opens, "This risk assessment responds to a request to remove certain restrictions on the importation of Hass avocados from Mexico; its purpose is thus to analyze the risks of expanding the existing Mexican Hass avocado-import program to authorize imports of Mexican Hass avocados to all states during the entire year."
The report goes on to advocate year-round importation of avocados from Michoacán to all 50 states.
"In that risk assessment," says Stehly, who manages 1400 acres of avocado groves in North County, "they say that in certain circumstances the Hass avocado can be a host, but that they have a new systems approach that can stop it, meaning they have redundant systems in place that will prevent any infected fruit from reaching growing areas or getting out of control."
Asked how much confidence the Department of Agriculture's pest-screening systems give him, Stehly answers, "Not very much. They had the same systems approach with the Spanish clementine tangerines and the Mediterranean fruit fly. But it came into the United States and got spread all over the country. I'm not convinced with the whole systems approach. With the Spanish clementines, they only shut them down for half a season and then they let them back in. And all they did, with no testing, was lower the temperature in the cooling as a way of saying that that would kill the medfly. And they did not test it; no testing. And then they opened the doors back up for them. And they actually reduced the number of USDA people in Spain checking on the growth to make sure that they were medfly-free. But, you see, it's bigger than just agriculture. Where's our biggest air base in that region? It's in Spain. Who supported us in the Iraqi War? Spain."
Both Stehly and Bednar believe that, due to political momentum, Mexican avocados will eventually be imported to all 50 states. "They're coming," Bednar says. "They've been fighting to get their fruit into the whole United States since the early 1990s."
"After one of the recent meetings between President Fox and President Bush," Stehly adds, "when a reporter asked an aide what they had talked about, he answered, 'Well, they talked about avocados.' Of all the fruits and vegetable commodities there are, they talked about avocados. The deal was made."