By Jerry Pacheco
During the past twenty years working in Mexico, I have picked up several food tastes that have become part of my everyday life. I don’t mind a “tomatoey” clamato mixed with my beer. I now love to put cilantro, onions, and even cabbage in my posole (pozole in Mexico). And, I picked up the habit of squeezing lime on fruit, vegetables tacos, chicken, and even steaks. Growing up in northern New Mexico, limes were an exotic fruit that we never used in our household, which was accustomed to a very basic diet. I remember going to the store with my mother and begging to buy a couple to try them. We didn’t use them in any food or beverage preparation, so I ate them raw.
Traveling throughout Mexico and working with my Mexican colleagues has made me become addicted to this green citrus fruit, some almost as big as a baseball and others barely the size of a large nut. Nowadays, I always have my refrigerator stocked with these beauties. However, in the past year, the squeeze has been put on my lime addiction.
A friend of mine recently had a birthday party. She had her celebration at a favorite bar and per her Mexican tradition she ordered a shot of tequila for everybody. I am not a big tequila drinker, but it was her birthday so I waited for my glass to arrive. When it did, instead of the traditional lime garnish it came with an orange slice. Puzzled, I asked the waitress about the orange. She proceeded to explain to me that unless the customer specifically asks for lime, drinks were now served with orange slices.
This is not the only incident. I frequently go to a Mexican restaurant that features my favorite style of tacos, tacos al pastor. I love the spit-fired meat with onions, cilantro, salsa and drenched with freshly squeezed lime. To my surprise, the order arrived without the half limes that usually accompany the meal. Again, it was explained to me that only if a customer asks for limes will they come with the meal. I was then offered a little container with lime juice.
Two major factors are affecting the supply and price of limes. The first is a weird disease referred to in Chinese as “huanglongbing”, and in English as either “Yellow Dragon Disease” or “Citrus Greening Disease”. This disease that affects citrus plants is carried by a bug called the Asian citrus psyllid, and causes bitter fruit, while eventually destroying the plant. Citrus growers in Florida have been severely affected by this disease, which is also prevalent in Brazil and making inroads into California.
The other factor is a human one. In Mexico’s interior states such as Michoacan, drug cartels have wreaked havoc on local citrus farmers by the continuing drug wars, and the extortion of farmers by cartel members. This has hampered the production and distribution of Mexico’s famous limes to the U.S. In this manner, the illegal drug industry is not only affecting the supply of drugs to the U.S., it is also affecting a very popular fruit export.
These two factors have caused the price of limes to skyrocket more than 400 percent in some parts of the U.S. Whereas limes used to cost $30 per case, they are now selling at more than $130 in some parts of the country. Restaurant and bar owners, sensitive to how these price increases are affecting their bottom line, are limiting the amount of limes they provide with food and drinks as a garnish – thus, the tendency to substitute other citrus fruits such as lemons and oranges.
Something as simple as a lime can illustrate how economies are tightly tied together by the global market. It is a very classic economic case of supply and demand. Mexico has developed a comparative advantage, due to its weather, soil, and proximity to the huge U.S. market, of growing citrus fruits such as limes. The U.S. depends on Mexico for much of its fresh fruit and vegetables, which supplement what the U.S. grows for its own population. When a hiccup occurs in the production of a particular product in Mexico that is destined for export to the U.S., Americans feel a pinch in their wallets.
So the next time you order your Corona beer and the waitress brings you a bottle topped with a slice of lemon or orange, sit back, relax, pray for stability in Mexico and hope that weather conditions will eradicate that pesky citrus bug. All of us lime lovers are depending on this.