Most fresh fruit and vegetables imported during the winter months could disappear from grocery store shelves across the U.S. within a matter of days. The produce left behind would skyrocket in price by at least 20% to 40%. Cucumbers, eggplants, bell peppers, squash, cherry tomatoes, watermelons and other warm-weather fruits and vegetables Americans enjoy during cold months would become scarce. And you can all but forget about avocados.
That’s the stark warning from experts and industry advocates if President Donald Trump follows through on his threat to close the southern border if Mexico does not stop the flow of undocumented Central American migrants into the United States. It’s something that would impact almost anyone in America who buys fruits and vegetables, says Lance Jungmeyer, the president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, a trade group.
“Shelves will start looking half-empty within a few days, and within a week, they really are half-empty,” he says.
The President has flipped between pulling back on his warning to Mexico and doubling down on his efforts. During a speech at the National Republican Congressional Committee’s annual spring dinner Tuesday evening, Trump claimed Mexico was cooperating in apprehending migrants at the border. “I really wanted to close it. But now Mexico is saying, ‘No, no, no.’ First time in decades,” he said.
By Wednesday, Trump had seemed to have changed his mind, tweeting that without action by Congress, the border, “or large sections of Border,” will close.
Congress must get together and immediately eliminate the loopholes at the Border! If no action, Border, or large sections of Border, will close. This is a National Emergency!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 3, 2019
Trump’s continued threats have highlighted how intertwined the $557 billion trade relationship between the U.S. and Mexico is, particularly when it comes to the food supply. About 50% of vegetables and 40% of fruit imported to the U.S. are grown in Mexico, according to U.S Department of Agriculture data.
U.S. consumers accustomed to year-round access to fresh fruits and vegetables are reliant on Mexico’s produce supply. Much of the produce normally available to American buyers in the off-season would disappear if the border closes, according to Jungmeyer. While southeastern states like Florida and Georgia could grow many of the warm weather vegetables during the winter months, they are not able to grow enough to feed the entire country — largely due to the threat of frosts, freezes and hurricanes. Plus, it would take domestic farms six to eight weeks, or longer, to ramp up production of their crops, from planting to the first harvest. While existing crops could be added to the food supply in the wake of a border shutdown, they would not come “anywhere close to meeting the gap in demand,” Jungmeyer says.
Not having access to produce from Mexico would also cause fresh fruit and vegetable prices to jump anywhere between 20% and 40%, according to Jason Grant, an agricultural economist at Virginia Tech. He bases his estimate on past price increases during events that shut down borders to certain products, such as beef and pork. But fruit and vegetable imports from Mexico are so integral that closing the border would have unprecedented consequences for the U.S., he says.
“This would be significant,” says Grant. “I have not seen anything like this in terms of the importance Mexico has to the fruit and vegetable market.”
The trading relationship between the U.S. and Mexico is so intricate that many grocers supplement their U.S. produce with imports from Mexico throughout the year, depending on consumer demand, says Richard Owen, a vice president at Produce Marketing Association, which represents companies that supply fresh produce and flowers. Furthermore, many U.S.-based agriculture companies, such as Driscoll’s or Mission Produce, grow their products in multiple countries, including Mexico — and a shutdown could hurt their stateside operations.
“This disruption may be perceived as impacting just Mexican growers, but these are U.S. companies,” Owen says. “The ripple effect is directly to U.S. businesses that employ people and supply product into the U.S. marketplace.”
Grocery retailers across the country are already preparing for a scenario in which they cannot get fruit and vegetables from Mexico, Owen adds.
Jungmeyer, who works near the border in Nogales, Az., says more than half of the local economic output is related to fresh produce flowing between Mexico and the U.S.
“Our economies are so intertwined, people would understand within a week or so how this is impacting everybody,” he says.