James Werrell

Pass the guacamole before it’s all gone

Commentary

James Werrell

Several years ago on a trip to Florida, my wife and I stopped at a roadside stand that made the irresistible offer: “10 Avocados for $1.”

We should have resisted, even at that price. Every guacamole lover knows that the shelf life of a ripe avocado is about 15 minutes, and all of the 10 avocados we bought were various shades of brown when we cut them open.

Even so, the risk had been worth taking. Back then, avocados were a seasonal luxury in the United States, available only during a growing season from March to September, and usually they were expensive.

As a tropical fruit, avocados are grown domestically in Florida and California, with California producing nearly 90 percent of U.S. avocados. Two decades ago, California was the main supplier for the nation, according to an informative article by Adam Sternbergh posted online on Slate magazine. But the supply still was limited by the growing season.

That changed in the 1990s, when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) began allowing avocado imports from Mexico, which meant fresh “guac“ for the multitudes year ’round. U.S. consumption continued to climb as Mexico gained full access to the U.S. market in 2007.

Sternbergh writes that while some California farmers had feared the competition would put them out of business, instead imports from Mexico had the effect of changing America’s eating habits, sending the demand for fresh avocados to the moon. Americans ate 1.9 billion pounds of avocados last year, according to The Washington Post, about twice as much as in 2000.

California growers prospered as more and more Americans were introduced to the wonders of the avocado, which not only tastes great but also has the added cachet of being good for us. California now produces more than 350 million pounds of avocados a year, much of which never leaves the West Coast.

Avocados, once viewed as exotic, now are commonplace. We eat them not only in guacamole but also on sandwiches, tacos and wraps, in salads, energy drinks and just by themselves.

Even fast-food joins have gotten in on the act, offering burgers and chicken sandwiches topped with avocados. There are, in fact, recipes for batter-dipped fried avocados.

Unfortunately, there is a dark cloud on the horizon – perhaps one the color of an overripe avocado. It takes a lot of water to grow and maintain avocado groves in California, about 72 gallons per pound of avocados, according to Sternbergh. And California is just entering its fourth year of severe drought, with nearly the entire state drying up.

That doesn’t pose an immediate threat to the avocado crop this year, say growers, but it soon could if the drought continues indefinitely.

Avocados, of course, are not the only crops affected by drought. California almonds, which require enormous amounts of water, are threatened.

The price of lettuce, berries, broccoli, grapes, melons, tomatoes, peppers and packaged salads reportedly are likely to rise in the next two to three months. The state also could lose about a quarter of its $5 billion rice crop.

Even the price of wine could rise!

To head off the effects of the drought, California Gov. Jerry Brown imposed mandatory water restrictions for the first time in the state’s history, seeking a 25 percent reduction in water usage.

For now, though, the restrictions don’t apply to the agriculture industry. But that could come later.

The historic drought is the result of the lack of snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, whose runoff provides California with much of its water supply. Areas that ordinarily are covered in up to 5 feet of snow now are covered in brown grass.

If you weren’t concerned about global warming before, maybe an empty guacamole bowl will change your mind.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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