A threat from Mexico?

Update: See the very interesting comment by Dan.

When the California Avocado Commission objected to federal government plans to expand the amount of Mexican avocados imported into the USA and the range of destinations to which they could be shipped–a policy just implemented last month–critics claimed that the domestic avocado growers were concerned only about market competition. The Commission, which we growers fund by a tax on all Hass avocados that we sell,* always claimed that its (our) opposition was based on legitimate concerns over pests found in Mexico and other countries that we do not (currently) have here in California. Of course, producers who will be subject to import competition always make such “objective” claims, so those who are not the producers always have good reason to be skeptical that opposition to expansion of imports is just protectionism based in economic self-interest.

Well, it turns out growers’ fears are real. While the incidence of armored scale in a recent shipment inspected by the California Department of Food and Agriculture was less than initially reported, the pest is indeed arriving on shipments from the south. The CDFA and the federal officials are currently disputing whether armored scale is a sufficiently serious pest to lead to a ban on shipments. So, this policy issue has a federalist dimension to it, with the state agency being more supportive of producers who are concentrated in its state and the federal agency being more attuned to broader trade interests (exactly as we would expect).

The Mexican government in the past has threatened retaliation against imports of US-grown agricultural products if the liberalization of avocado imports is curtailed. So this policy issue certainly has an international-relations, two-level-games dimension.**

There is little doubt that the armored scale could be a serious pest if it ever were to be released somehow from a shipment of fruit and find its way into a grove in California. Because scale do not move much, the threat is not as great as with other pests like the fruit fly. But the threat is significant. For one thing, there is currently no US-approved pesticide that would combat this type of scale for conventional growers, let alone for those of us who are organic. Most of our current scale problem (from other species) is kept in check by biological controls (natural predators, such as wasps, that are released in groves). But there is currently no known predator for the armored scale. It is likely that such a predator exists in Mexico or elsewhere, but is currently being killed by broad-spectrum pesticides being sprayed in Mexican groves. (Broad-spectrum pesticides kill good bugs as well as bad; the bad bugs often are better at developing resistance and thus surviving chemical warfare than are the good bugs.)

Please buy California and organic avocados if you can!

___
* Especially for my students: An excellent case of what I mean by “coercion” of collective action. In order to sell our products legally, we individual growers must pay this tax to support the Avocado Commission’s collective goods of research, marketing, and, yes, lobbying, on behalf of our interests.

** By targeting other US products for import restrictions, the Mexican government could engage domestic actors on this side of the border who otherwise would not care about avocados in opposing limits on avocado imports.

0 thoughts on “A threat from Mexico?

  1. Prof. Shugart:

    Hey, I really enjoy your blog and couldn’t resist commenting on this post. While being a Grad student at Georgetown in their new Democracy Studies program, I enjoy your non-politics posts. I’m a transplanted Californian (from the North), and between undergraduate (UC Davis) and grad school I worked for an international consulting firm that worked on these exact issues.

    Our firm assisted our clients (US food and agricultural exporters) in accessing and opening new foreign markets. Phytosanitary concerns are a very serious issue in food trade through the chain (importers, exports, processors, consumers, etc). However, and you note this well, these issues are sometimes over-blown by governments in order to provide cover for domestic producers. The Mexican government is exactly the same way with US red and golden delicious apples, but their claim was on dumping rather than pests.

    Anyway, my comment is that because there is an issue of pests from a certain part of the world shouldn’t mean that food should never be imported. Treatment regimes and rigorous testing schedules can be established and coupled with strong disincentives for pest detection. I don’t know the specifics of the recent US Avocado policy since I’ve been away from that life for 6 months now, but the CVC’s work should be directed more at lobbying the US government to establish trade and inspection regimes that allow for responsible trade and not just blatant protectionism.

  2. Dan said: “because there is an issue of pests from a certain part of the world shouldn’t mean that food should never be imported.”

    I agree. I personally favor buying as local as possible (and while I favor organic, I prioritize local over organic). But I also favor giving consumers choices.

    San: “the CVC’s work should be directed more at lobbying the US government to establish trade and inspection regimes that allow for responsible trade and not just blatant protectionism.”

    Again, I agree, and the CVC is doing exactly that. As I said in the initial planting, I would not characterize the CVC’s position as “blatant protectionism.”

    Thanks for your comment. It is terrific to have a reader who has experience in this area of trade policy!

    (As an aside, I am very intrigued by that Democracy Studies program at Georgetown.)

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