Are limes going to be another victim of our world’s insatiable appetites? I use a few each and every week, in soups, in cocktails, in marinades, sometimes even just in water.
A sudden and unprecedented shortage of limes has sent nationwide wholesale prices soaring from around $25 for a 40-pound carton in early February to more than $100 today, panicking lovers of Mexican food and drinks — and the restaurant and bar owners who cater to them. The culprits are weather, disease and even Mexican criminals.
In the 1970s Americans consumed an average of less than half a pound per person of limes a year, most of them grown in southern Florida. Immigration from tropical countries, and the growing taste for their foods, helped raise consumption to over two and a half pounds today. Meanwhile, low-priced competition from Mexico, the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and an eradication campaign to fight canker disease in 2002-06 wiped out the Florida groves.
Mexico is now the world’s largest producer and exporter of limes, and provides some 95 percent of United States supplies. Generally, the lime harvest is smaller and prices are higher from January through March, but in November and December severe rains knocked the blossoms off lime trees in many areas, reducing lime exports to the United States by two-thirds. California, with just 373 acres, is now the largest domestic lime source — but it produces less than 1 percent of national consumption, and its season is late summer and fall, so it’s no help right now.
Other factors may also be squeezing the lime market. Since 2009 a bacterial disease that kills citrus trees, huanglongbing (HLB, also known as “greening”), has spread across many of Mexico’s lime-growing districts. Largely because of HLB, harvests in Colima State, a major producer of Key limes (the small, seeded, highly aromatic type preferred in Mexico), have dropped by a third in the past three years.
and of course, where there’s money, there are criminals:
As a result of high prices and rampant lawlessness in some Mexican regions, criminals who may be linked to drug gangs are plundering fruit from groves and hijacking trucks being used for export, said Bill Vogel, president of Vision Produce, a Los Angeles-based importer. A truck headed for Vision’s sister company in Texas was hijacked two weeks ago in Mexico, he said, and growers and shippers now are hiring armed guards to protect their green gold.