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How NAFTA fueled the great avocado boom

Delicious, great for you, and in your kitchen in part because of free trade.
Delicious, great for you, and in your kitchen in part because of free trade.

You probably eat a lot more avocados than your parents did a few decades ago. Same goes for papayas and bell peppers. It might be because you have a refined palate or because you've gone and become a foodie, but really, you also have NAFTA to thank.

It's easy to think of changing tastes as being just that — ephemeral shifts that just sort of happen. But trade policy has a hand in what's popular, helping to drive food trends. A new report from the Department of Agriculture (first reported for NPR by author Tracie McMillan) sheds some light on just how much the American diet has changed since NAFTA.

A huge influx of Mexican produce

NAFTA, the trade agreement between the US, Canada, and Mexico implemented in 1994, loosened tariffs and rules on a variety of goods, allowing them to flow more freely across our northern and southern borders. And when that happened, it made some previously tough-to-find foods more available to American eaters year-round.

When it comes to US trade in produce with Canada and Mexico, the pipeline sending fruits and vegetables from Mexico to the US is by far the biggest. Both imports and exports between the US and its two NAFTA trading partners have grown, but US imports of fruits and vegetables from Mexico have soared since the early 1990s.

Fruits and vegetables NAFTA

(Source: USDA)

You can see a few areas where Mexican goods have slowly taken over the US market. Whereas in the early 1990s Mexico accounted for none of the avocados and just 11 percent of the bell peppers eaten in the US, these days it's nearly half of both. For papayas, it used to be 27 percent. Now it's 72 percent.

And Americans' appetites for lots of these foods have only grown. We eat two kilograms of avocado per person per year now, three times what we did prior to NAFTA. We eat twice as many strawberries per person, packing away 3.4 kilos per person each year, and three times as many limes as we did prior to NAFTA. The below chart summarizes a few of the fruits and vegetables that have grown more popular since NAFTA...and whose imports from Mexico and Canada have substantially grown since NAFTA.

NAFTA fruits veggies

Canada accounts for a much smaller share of US imports on many fruits and vegetables than Mexico, but after NAFTA, the US started bringing in a lot more of some Canadian vegetables. Today, the US is a net importer of cucumbers and mushrooms from up north, whereas prior to NAFTA it had been a net exporter.

New technology and new rules came into play as well. More and better greenhouses, for example, allowed Canada to grow more vegetables, the USDA says. Avocados are another example. Until 1993, the US didn't allow avocado imports from Mexico for fear that the fruits would bring with them the avocado seed weevil. But NAFTA started the process of relaxing that rule.

Fruit from Mexico, corn (and corn syrup) from the US

While NAFTA helped change the US diet, it also sent US foods north and south of the border. One huge area was corn. US exports of corn to Mexico, for example, more than quadrupled between the early 1990s and 2012.

Corn exports Mexico

(Source: USDA)

Not that all this new, freer trade made everyone happy. Trade agreements are about trade-offs — the Mexican avocado industry exploded after NAFTA. But many of its corn farmers suffered, as US corn flowed into Mexico. Likewise, sugar trade provisions made both as part of NAFTA and since then have created an ongoing battle between Mexican and US sugar farmers. A country may make overall gains from trade, but it won't make everyone in that country happy.

And NAFTA's effects on food supplies are about more than new, exciting foods and higher profits (or losses) for farmers. NAFTA may have helped Americans to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, but it also may be making Mexicans' food choices less healthy, as McMillan points out. Along with corn, the US has ratcheted up its exports of high-fructose corn syrup and other processed foods, for example, to Mexico. One 2012 study linked NAFTA to Mexico's ongoing obesity epidemic.

It's also true that Americans may have started liking bell peppers or berries a lot more (or that Mexicans may have started eating more corn), even without NAFTA's help. The USDA report itself attributes the changing US consumption of many of products to "changing diets." But it also says that the ability to get so many more fruits and vegetables in the off-season helped get Americans to eat more fresh produce. What NAFTA helped do was make many types of food more widely available to a lot more people.