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How the U.S.-Mexico border dispute could make avocados ... toast

Americans love their avocados. Or rather, avocados from Mexico. (Paul Sakuma/AP)

In the wake of President Trump’s threat to close the U.S.-Mexico border, fears are growing over the fate of avocado supplies.

Of all the imports and exports that could be disrupted under such a scenario — from auto parts to beef to produce — few have generated more hand-wringing than the pear-shaped fruit. Industry leaders say America’s avocado supply is so dependent on Mexico that we’d run out in weeks, raising the specter of a future with subpar toast, smoothies, salads — and no guacamole.

Americans consume more fresh avocados (7.5 pounds) per capita each year than they do peaches, pears, plums, prunes and nectarines combined. If trends continue, avocados will soon overtake pineapples (7.7 pounds), oranges (8.1 pounds), grapes (8.2 pounds) and strawberries (8.3 pounds).

Mexico’s warmer climate supplies the United States with more of the green-skinned fruit than any other country or the leader in U.S. avocado production, California. Today, avocados account for 6 percent of the average American’s total fresh-fruit consumption in a given year, up from 2 percent in 2000.

Trump’s frustration with migrants crossing into this country from Mexico and his threat to close the border may make the avocado an unintended casualty in the heated immigration debate taking place in Washington. Indeed, vocal avocado advocates have issued dire warnings that a border closing would leave Americans with only a few weeks’ supply.

In a widely read story that swept through Twitter and late-night shows alike, Reuters reported that an avocado apocalypse would be imminent if the border were closed. Steve Barnard, president and chief executive of Mission Produce, the world’s largest avocado grower and distributor, said Americans would run out in three weeks if imports were stopped. California’s smaller crop, Barnard told Reuters, will not be ready for another month or so.

When contacted by The Washington Post, Mission said Barnard was not available for an interview.

The avo-anxiety quickly spread to memes, tweets and puns:

It even got a comic treatment. The audience at a taping of “The Late Show” booed when Stephen Colbert said that the country’s supply could last only a few weeks.

“Holy lack-o-guacamole!” Colbert said, mouth agape. “No avocados? What are we supposed to put on our toast now? Jelly?”

Unlike California, Mexico’s avocado season lasts all year, according to Mission. The season lasts only a few months in Chile, Peru and New Zealand.

California is also contending with possible Listeria contamination, with at least one corporation announcing a voluntary national recall.

Trump’s threats may already be triggering an uptick in prices. Bloomberg News reported that the price for Hass avocados from Michoacan, where the bulk of Mexican avocados are produced, jumped 34 percent on Tuesday alone. That marked the steepest single-day bump since April 2009, according to Bloomberg.

Mexico supplies far more than avocados. In dollar value, for instance, the country supplied half of all U.S. vegetable imports and 40 percent of all fruit imports in 2017, according the U.S. Agriculture Department. Vehicle parts freely cross the border to factories on both sides. In total, U.S. trade with Mexico exceeds $1.7 billion daily, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Nearly half a million people legally cross the southern border every day as workers, students, shoppers and tourists.

Why avocados might be the best way to explain the possible U.S.-Mexico border closure

Several economists, even those who are allies of Trump, have warned that the U.S. economy would suffer in a border closing. The White House has not clarified what Trump envisions, but the president sounded serious last week when he said, “If they don’t stop them, we are closing the border. We’ll close it. And we’ll keep it closed for a long time. I’m not playing games.”

But he may be underestimating this particular American obsession. Avocado growers in California have occasionally been targeted by theft rings. In June 2017, for example, three workers from an Oxnard produce company were arrested on “suspicion of grand theft of avocados,” the Los Angeles Times reported. Police valued the haul at $300,000.

“They are in demand,” according to the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office. “Everybody loves avocados.”

Nutritionists have helped amplify the craze. In addition to being delicious, avocados are full of healthy fats — and shoppers often ignore their calories in the name of a healthy choice. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, said avocados have an “aura of health.”

Three economists ran the numbers on Trump’s border wall. They find it’s a bad investment.

Kale had a comparable moment as the “it” food, said Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst for the NPD Group. Shoppers were suddenly blending and chopping the leafy green in ways they hadn’t before. But with so much kale grown in the United States, that supply was never suddenly threatened by a border dispute, Seifer said.

Avocados also fell into the mainstream as younger consumers traveled the world and warmed up to fruits and vegetables that may have seemed exotic to earlier generations. (Think kiwi or acai.) But if avocados became scarce, those same shoppers could just as easily embrace a new fruit of the moment, said John Stanton, a professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph’s University.

“When you suddenly pull something out of the food supply, it’s a shock to the system,” Stanton said. “Maybe that sounds overly dramatic, but it changes everything up.”

Nestle said that when she was growing up, her family moved from New York to California. She had an avocado tree in her backyard, but having never seen an avocado before, she often tossed the not-yet-ripe fruit into the garbage.

Now Nestle wondered aloud what Americans would do during the Super Bowl. She summarized the plight in a single word: “Gulp.”