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Mexico avocado price sparks fears of unrest

Avocados

Recently, it's felt as if the whole country has been talking about the same thing - and for once it's not football or the latest hit telenovela. Around dinner tables, in street markets and at work, it's the price of avocados that has been on everyone's mind. 

From costing a couple of dollars per kilo earlier this year, avocados went on a constant price climb which appeared to know no end - rising all the way up to $5-6 per kilo. I heard of sightings of a kilo of avocados for more than $8. 

In a country that takes its food seriously, this was a recipe for disaster.

Soft as butter and slightly sweet, avocado was first grown around 12,000 years ago in the south of Mexico. It's now a delicacy prized the world over. 

But the origins of its name are not so elegant. The word avocado comes from "aguacate" in Spanish, which in turn comes from the Nahuatl Mexican native language "ahuacatl", referring to a certain intimate part of the male anatomy. **

In Mexico - where 40% of the world's avocado crop is grown - this fruit is sacrosanct. In fact, Mexicans are estimated to eat up to 8kg of avocado each, every year.

Avocados go with everything: they are a key additive to the delicious tortilla soup, a layer in the Mexican multi-level sandwiches known as tortas and - last but not least - they are the basis of that most famous of Mexican dips - guacamole.

And you don't want to mess with Mexicans and their food. Back in 2007, the rising price of tortillas - the flat-corn bread that is a key source of calories for the poor - sparked a series of protests around the country known as the "tortilla wars".  So, with prices through the roof, was I about to witness an "avocado war"?

If I was, I had to find out the reasons for the price hikes. And here I discovered that there is something else aside from food that Mexicans seem to enjoy - urban legends.

Anger brewing

I talked to a security expert who claimed he knew the reason for the spiralling price. The great majority of Mexican avocados come from the state of Michoacan, in the west, a region badly affected by the presence of drug cartels.

The cartels, the expert told me, are expanding into the business of extortion, and are targeting avocado growers. The criminals demand a fee for every kilo that is transported through the dangerous roads of Michoacan, and that fee forced up the final consumer price.

Nonsense, the head of the local avocado producers' association told me. The cause of the price increase is simply a bad harvest. 

Carmen, our cleaning lady, had her own conspiracy theory. "I blame the gringos," she told me. "Americans have taken a liking to guacamole, so all our avocados are heading north." Social networks were brimming with comments about how "aguacates" were quickly vanishing from Mexican dinner tables - and the anger seemed to be brewing.

But then, an epiphany. I was sitting in the back of a cab, silently hating Mexico City traffic, when an ad burst on to the radio - from a local supermarket, promoting a kilo of avocados for just over $2. Was it over?

At my local food market, I confirmed it. At most stands, avocados now are around $3 per kilo, and the prices still seem to be falling. But if there's something I learned over the last few months, it's that I can't always be sure that I'll be able to have my avocado - and eat it.

** The testicle.

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