Living in the Bay Area, one might believe that the “Locally Grown” movement has taken off so dramatically that farmers in the U.S. are struggling to meet the demand for fresh produce in cities and towns across the country. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Statistics from the USDA and elsewhere tell the real story. Consumption of fresh produce fell last year, continuing a multi-year trend, as did the amount grown in California and the U.S. Imports of produce increased, compounding the problem for American farmers. Not coincidentallly, prices paid to U.S. farmers for fruits and vegetables decreased overall while prices paid by consumers…you guessed it, increased.
Farmers in the U.S. pay much higher wages than those in countries like Mexico and Peru. And we face continually tightening regulations intended to protect the environment and the safety of consumers…who are responding in droves by buying food that is less environmentally responsible and less safe to eat. And cheaper, of course.
But lower wages and lax environmental laws are not the only problems with produce grown overseas. In Mexico, drug cartels eager for a way to launder their piles of illicit cash have now essentially taken over the avocado industry. And an article in today’s New York Times documents how they are now muscling into the lime business, encouraged by a shortage that has caused a price spike for the tangy green fruit.
There are so many problems with this trend it’s hard to list them all. The cartels use time-honored tactics like extortion, bribery, theft and murder. So it’s hard to imagine they treat their workers with anything like respect or fairness. And having developed environmentally catastrophic ways of maximizing yields on their pot and cocaine crops, why would they not apply these methods to any other they produce.
Yet an increasing percentage of produce sold in the U.S. comes from Mexico: Tomatoes, peppers, melons, onions, garlic, and asparagus are the main ones. It used to be primarily during our winter, but more and more crops are grown there instead of here. Is it really in the best interest of the United States to be dependent for any part of our food security on Mexican drug cartels?
As far as organic produce is concerned, I fear the day is approaching when “Mexican Organic” will mean exactly the same thing as “Chinese Organic” — i.e, absolutely nothing. For the time being, I would say that buying from a known source such as Del Cabo or my favorite coffee growers, Cafe Mam, is probably still safe. But I won’t be buying organic avocadoes from Mexico any longer.