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Mexico Facing a Guacamole Crisis

Food
Mexico Facing a Guacamole Crisis
picture alliance / San Diego Union-Tribune / C. Neuman

By Andreas Knobloch

The U.S. has acquired quite a liking for the Mexican dip guacamole. Especially on the day of the Super Bowl, Americans devour the avocado-based dip in immense quantities. According to the Avocado Producers and Exporting Packers Association of Mexico (APEAM), 120,000 tons of avocados were imported by the U.S. for consumption during this year's Super Bowl alone. That's 20 percent more than in the previous year and four times the quantity of 2014.


The Americans' craving for avocado is increasingly forcing taco stalls in Mexico to serve their meat-filled tortillas with fake guacamole. The fake variety still contains the base ingredients of tomatoes, chili oil, salt, garlic and cilantro, but the avocados are substituted by a type of Mexican squash. The dip retains its green color and has a similar consistency and taste to the original. Nevertheless, "it still hurts," the online portal Chilango said.

Recipes akin to one published by food blogger Alejandra de Nava have been in circulation for years now. The uproar around fake guacamole, however, stems from the skyrocketing prices for avocados, making their use in guacamole almost a luxury.

Measly Harvests and Rising Demand

A decline in harvest yields and the rising demand from the U.S. are the culprits, avocado producer Pedro Bucio told the regional newspaper Diario de Coahuila. Supply and demand determine the price. "There are fewer avocados here in Mexico and this shortage has caused the increase in prices," Bucio explained. At the end of June, one kilo of avocados cost up to 100 pesos ($5.24, €4.67).

But Mexico's agriculture minister, Victor Villalobos, blames speculators for the rise in prices. The numbers, however, tell a different story.

The production of avocados in the first five months of this year was down 1.2 percent or 10,000 tons compared to that in the corresponding period last year. Exports, meanwhile, were up by 7.6 percent. In the last ten years, exports have quadrupled. Much of the demand originates from the U.S., where the consumption of avocados is increasing by about 15 percent every year.

In the U.S., avocados are considered "superfoods," which are rich in unsaturated fats, potassium and vitamin E. They also help keep cholesterol levels in check, strengthen the immune system and do not cause significant weight gain despite being a calorie bomb.

While four-fifths of all Mexican avocados are exported to the U.S. today, they were kept away from U.S. markets until 1997 for fear of pest infestations. Mexico sold $2.5 billion worth of avocados to the U.S. in the past year; that's more than the export of oil brought in.

Germany, on the other hand, imports its avocados predominantly from Peru, Chile, Spain and Israel.

Drug Cartels Join the Mix

Even Mexican drug cartels seem to want a piece of the avocado business. Due to its weather and geography, the Mexican state of Michoacan has become a hub for the production of synthetic drugs and, simultaneously, a "paradise" for the cultivation of avocados.

While drug cartels routinely threaten and extort money from farmers, avocado shipments are also often being attacked.

The situation has led some leading producers to form their own security services, the so-called autodefensas, which is a private paramilitary force.

Demand for more acreage has caused an increase in illegal deforestation. Moreover, the cultivation of avocados requires vast amounts of water, which is a scarce resource in the region to begin with and supplies have become increasingly limited due to changing climate patterns.

The problem of rising prices is not entirely new. Two years ago, bad harvests and huge international demand caused a dramatic increase in prices. After all, avocado consumption had increased not just in the U.S., Canada and the EU, but also in China and Japan. Mexico, as the world's largest exporter and the country with the highest per capita consumption of avocados, had even thought about importing the fruit. The average Mexican consumes more than seven kilos of avocados a year.

The importance of Mexico's avocado imports became even more apparent when U.S. President Donald Trump in May threatened to impose punitive tariffs on all Mexican imports, should Mexico not intensify its actions concerning migrants. He then called off his plans at the last minute after Mexico responded with a threat to drastically jack up import costs of avocados, painting a picture of a Super Bowl without guacamole. The downside: Many Mexicans have to content themselves with fake guacamole because of the overwhelming U.S. demand.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Deutsche Welle.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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