Is the Lime an Endangered Species?

We're used to the elusiveness of certain scarce and seasonal gastronomical treasures like black truffles that are priced and meted out accordingly. But no one could have predicted the strange twist that threatens to turn guacamole, Key lime pie and margaritas into rare delicacies.

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.

“I cringe every time customers ask for limes,” said Armando De La Torre Jr., an owner of two Guisados restaurants in Los Angeles, adding that the price spike cost his family at least $2,000 in the past month alone.

“We really don’t have much choice except to pay up,” said Phil Ward, owner of Mayahuel, a Manhattan bar that specializes in tequila and mescal. “A margarita has to be made with lime juice. We would never use lemons, or bottled lime juice, which is pasteurized and has a different flavor.”

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.

The disease has not yet reached Veracruz State, Mexico’s leading source of Persian limes — the large, seedless type exported to the United States, also known as Tahiti and Bearss — but the shortfall of Key limes is most likely spilling over into the Persian lime market. If HLB invades and takes hold in Veracruz, as it probably will in a few years, the era of cheap limes may well be over for good. The lime hysteria we’re starting to see now may be only a taste of what’s to come.

Farmers have already been stripping their trees to cash in on sky-high prices, said David Krause, president of Paramount Citrus, which grows Persian limes in Tabasco State for the United States market. Such premature harvesting exacerbates the shortage because the fruit never grows to normal size and is 20 to 40 percent lower in volume, he added.

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.

The produce wars on the ground are not limited to limes. Criminal cartels now control, to a shocking extent, the growing and packing of much of the Mexican produce on which United States consumers depend. An article last November in the Mexican newspaper Vanguardia reported that the Knights Templar drug cartel has used kidnapping, murder, money laundering and terror to take over the lucrative avocado business in Michoacán, the top state for production and export of the fruit.

Criminal elements also have significantly infiltrated the Mexican mango industry to launder money, said Richard Campbell, a horticulturist and mango expert who travels to Mexico several times a year as a consultant. “Many growers don’t go to their fields because they’re afraid,” Mr. Campbell said. “I’m sure that this has lowered the quality of the mangoes, because it’s harder to control quality.”

All of this suggests an uncertain fate for limes, a fruit we’ve taken for granted for so long. This time the crisis is likely to be temporary. As new crops mature, prices should be back down near $30 by June, and there should be plenty of limes this summer, Mr. Vogel said. But it is important to recognize that we do give up a measure of food security by importing from countries destabilized by the drug trade, corruption and unchecked crime.

While it is ironic that the current lime crisis may in some part be blowback from our own drug policies, it is crucial to remember that a few months of inconvenience to American margarita lovers is trifling compared with the anguish of Mexicans whose livelihoods and lives have been destroyed.

David Karp is a columnist on farmers’ markets and produce for The Los Angeles Times who has worked as a citrus researcher for the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences at the University of California, Riverside.