The real crisis facing Europe? A shortage of Indian mangoes.

 


An Indian laborer rests atop a pile of mangoes at the Gaddiannaram Fruit Market on the outskirts of Hyderabad, southern India, on May 2. (Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images)

The chief (perhaps only) chauvinistic impulse this South Asian reporter finds impossible to shake has to do with mangoes. I have tried other "mangoes" — or more accurately, impostors — from Mexico to the Philippines and many places in between, but nothing comes close to the sweetness, the juiciness, the luscious perfection of mangoes grown in the subcontinent.

So I'm not surprised that many in Europe are up in arms following the E.U.'s recent ban on Indian alphonso mangoes and a number of other Indian agricultural products. The ban on the alphonso, the supposed "king" of the more than 1,000 variants of the fruit you can find in South Asia, was put in place after E.U. inspectors found that some consignments arrived with fruit flies that could potentially harm European crops.

Last week, Indian-origin British MP Keith Vaz ceremonially delivered "the last" crate of alphonso mangoes left in the U.K. to the residence of Prime Minister David Cameron, protesting the strictures of E.U. bureaucracy, which Vaz claimed would cost British importers and retailers "millions of pounds" of lost revenue. India's mango output accounts for about half of the global total; it sends some 16 millions mangoes  every year to the U.K. alone, worth roughly 6.3 million pounds. Indian officials argued that the mango exports complied with E.U. protocols. According to the Guardian, the ban triggered a desperate run on British shops selling the last remaining crates of the crop this season.

Named after a Portuguese colonial explorer who helped spur its wider cultivation, the alphonso mango is grown mostly in western India, primarily in the state of Maharashtra. Some 30 percent of the state's exports go to the mango-mad E.U. The ban has set off a dramatic slump in prices, making alphonsos — usually too expensive for the average Indian — actually affordable. "A box of four dozen Alphonso mangoes, which cost around Rs5,000 ($83) just a few days ago, can now be had for as little as Rs1,000," reports the Financial Times.

This has led to some gleeful reactions in India. An editorial in the Times of India chortled the following last week:

No, this is not pulp fiction. Alphonsos really will be cheaper and more plentiful this summer. And aam admi [a Hindi phrase meaning "common man"] has E.U. to thank for this aam [the word for mango] jackpot. Those jittery Europeans have taken fright at some fruit flies in our mango exports, flies which they fear will wreak havoc on their tomatoes and cucumbers. Imagine sacrificing the king of fruits for salad!

Indian trade officials were bullish this week about the effects of the E.U. ruling, confident other mango-hungry markets would pick up the slack. But they also have threatened to take Brussels to the WTO over the ban.

The irony over this whole incident is that, in the international arena, South Asian mangoes are usually a source of rapprochement, not conflict. Rounds of "mango diplomacy" between India and Pakistan — the exchange of crates of the local delicacies at meetings between the two rivals — are often the only part of the summitry that leaves a good taste in the mouth. In 2010, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "vouched" for Pakistani mangoes and encouraged their importation in a bid to reduce tensions with Islamabad.

But perhaps the best mango-related bit of diplomacy occurred in 2007, when New Delhi and Washington first paved the way for a deal that would eventually see India drop its protectionist ban on Harley Davidson motorcycles in return for the U.S. allowing Indian mango exports. In the annals of soft power, that has to be one of the sweetest deals.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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