It’s obvious to anyone who visits an American supermarket in winter — past displays brimming with Chilean grapes, Mexican berries and Vietnamese dragon fruit — that foreign farms supply much of our produce.
Imports have increased steadily for decades, but the extent of the change may be surprising: More than half of the fresh fruit and almost a third of the fresh vegetables Americans buy now come from other countries.
Although local, seasonal and farm-to-table are watchwords for many consumers, globalization has triumphed in the produce aisle. And despite the protectionist “America First” message coming from the Trump administration, the growth in imports appears likely to continue.
So this is an apt moment to examine how the shift happened, and what it portends — good or ill — for American consumers and farmers.
“I had no idea that more than half our fruit is imported, and it shocks me that this has happened so quickly,” said Michael Pollan, a professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, whose best-selling books have analyzed the tensions between local and global food systems.
The surge in imports, mostly from Latin America and Canada, flows from many other changes during the last 40 years, starting with improvements in roads, containerized shipping and storage technology. Horticulturists developed varieties and growing practices adapted to warmer climates — enabling, say, blueberries and blackberries to be grown in central Mexico.
Growth in American incomes spurred greater demand for fresh produce year-round. Immigrants brought tastes for the foods of their homelands, and in some cases (like avocados and mangoes) these tastes have became mainstream. Foreign growers took advantage of lower labor costs. International trade agreements reduced tariffs and other obstacles to imports, while many American farmers, facing regulatory hurdles at home, have responded by shifting production abroad, mainly to Mexico.
One crucial part of the story is little known: Over the past two decades, the United States Department of Agriculture has issued roughly 100 new rules allowing specific crops to be imported from certain countries — like peppers from Peru. Crops that previously would have not been approved because they might introduce invasive pests and diseases were allowed in through new “systems approaches” that manage those risks by combining methods like orchard inspections, sprays and bagging of fruits.
Many foreign crops have recently been approved for importation using these protocols, including Chinese apples and Colombian avocados. Some are still in the rule-making process (Chinese citrus, European apples), and others are under study (Brazilian citrus, Mexican guavas).
As a result, the proportion of the imported fresh fruit eaten in the United States rose to 53.1 percent in 2016, from 23 percent in 1975, according to the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service. Fresh vegetable imports rose to 31.1 percent from 5.8 percent. (Still, the United States remains a net agricultural exporter, with grains, soybeans, meat and nuts accounting for most of the trade surplus.)
Greater availability has led to a huge increase in per-capita consumption of many crops, including mangoes (up 1,850 percent from 1975 to 2016), limes, avocados, grapes, asparagus, artichokes and squash. Yet consumption has fallen for other crops — like peaches, oranges, cabbages and celery — that are still primarily grown in America.
Imports vs. Homegrown
For consumers, the chief advantages of the import boom are the increased availability and variety of fresh produce, particularly in winter, when imported berries, grapes and stone fruit now compete with citrus and stored apples…
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