Something as common as the simple lime is proving just how fragile and unpredictable globalization is making the world’s food supply. This unpredictability has increased the price of a lime in the U.S. from 23 cents to more than $1. A 40-pound box that once sold for $16 now goes for $120, and the quality and size are almost like the difference in night and day. Today’s limes are almost flavorless, hardly contain any juice and are shrunken shadows of what they once were.
Because of “The Great Lime Crisis of 2014,” restaurants across the country have stopped selling margaritas and making guacamole. Many bars now charge for a slice of lime.
The lime could well be an endangered species, but even if not, price volatility is here to stay.
So how has globalization caused this crisis? First of all, much of the blame can be placed on a Mexican drug cartel known as the Knights Templar, once led by Nazario Moreno, an evangelical Christian with a fondness for Khalil Gibran and severed heads. They specialize in the methamphetamine trade, but also have a hand in illegal ore mining, and trafficking in avocados and limes.
When shortages increased the value of a truckload of limes to $300,000 last year, the war was on in rural Mexico. This cartel now controls the flow of limes, and indeed, the ability to raise them, thus keeping the price at a great profit point for them.
India and Mexico now grow most of the world’s limes and the United States, which no longer feeds itself, gets about 98 per cent of its limes from south of the border. This wasn’t always the case.
Further due to globalization, the United States’ citrus industry is being driven into poverty.
China has been sending a variety of Asian bugs, bacteria, viruses and other invaders around the world. Since 2004, huanglongbing (HLB) has devastated Florida’s $9-billion citrus industry. It has gobbled half the industry’s value the same way porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, another invader from China, has been decimating the number of hogs in this country, shooting prices through the roof as profits fall through the floor.
Having done away with most of Florida’s limes, HLB is now working on oranges and grapefruit. In 2012, Florida abandoned 135,000 acres of citrus groves due to the ravages of HLB. Eight years ago, the state produced 240 million boxes of fruit. Today, it harvests only 138 million.
The disease withers and distorts trees before killing them. To even temporarily control the disease involves the chainsawing of infected groves, the application of massive doses of pesticides and costly replanting.
Carried by an Asian jumping plant louse, the biological invader probably originated in Guangdong province, and now follows the world’s trade and travel routes. Global mobility certainly has biological consequences. The bacteria most likely came to the U.S. on the orange jasmine plant, while the jumping louse came in on Asian citrus. People carrying curry and orange leaves also have transported the citrus killer. As a consequence, HLB is now ripping through lime groves in Mexico and much of Latin America. California is probably next.
The United Nations sums up the voracious impact of HLB with uncharacteristic bluntness: “Reduced citrus production resulting in both lower incomes and less food available.” Meanwhile, the scientific literature reads like apoclyptic fiction. In 2012, U.S. scientists wrote that “solutions to HLB are needed desperately and must be implemented soon to ensure the sustainability of commercial citrus.”
Since the United States now imports 13 per cent of its grains, over 20 per cent of its vegetables, almost 40 per cent of its fruit, 85 per cent of its fish and shellfish, and all tropical goods such as coffee, tea and bananas, what happens globally will continue to cause sharp reductions in production and increases in prices.
The dying lime trees are sending us a message. It is saying something profound and meaningful. That the rational economic men in suits who promised us more prosperity and stability with globalization lied about a future they could never forecast. As a result, our daily lives have become less secure, more volatile and increasingly unequal.
As a metaphor for the uncharted waters of globalization, the lime foretells a new chronicle in which we can all expect more surprises, shortages and economic gangsterism for dinner. What a brave new world we are facing, and time is running out.