The Knights Templar & The Avocado Green Rush

In 1099, a group of knights traveled to the Holy Land, banded together in a mission to protect Christian Pilgrims from pirates and gangs. These knights called themselves the “Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon.”  Obviously, the name was quite the mouthful and over time they became known simply as the Knights Templar. The Knights Templar started dressing up in white tunics with a blood red cross stitched along the front and thirty years later they evolved into more of a militaristic monastic group and took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

4686127276_2966aed73c_m Photo Credit: Paul Bratcher Photography Flickr via Compfight cc

The Knights Templar were a feared force during the medieval times and thanks to the support of the Vatican, Kings, and Lords the group as a whole became very wealthy and influential. Then, in 1305, rumours started to spread from an ousted Templar that the group was participating in anti-christian and homosexual activity. Not many thought much of the rumours. However, the King of France at the time, King Phillip IV, had a problem. You see, the King was indebted to the Knights Templar as they had loaned King Phillip some money to help fund a war with England, and the King really did not want to pay that money back. So, King Phillip decided to put pressure on Pope Clement to prosecute the Knights Templar for their rumoured crimes. In 1307, Pope Clement ordered all members of the Knights Templar arrested and all assets seized. Dozens of people were burned at the stake and the Knights Templar were disbanded.

Centuries later in the Mexican state of Michoacan, which happens to grow the highest percentage of avocados in the world,  the Knights Templar re-emerged. You would assume that if you decided to create a group and then name yourself after a medieval band of Christian knights that you thought perhaps, “You know what? We can be like them. We can protect our neighbours and be heroic minus the poverty and chastity part, of course.” The one hiccup of course was that this version of the Knights Templar was a drug cartel.

The Knights Templar of the Michoacan state emerged in March 2011. In public,they said that they were providing an essential service to their neighbours–protecting them from larger criminal organizations. In demonstrations, they would evoke the history of their namesake and use religious imagery to portray themselves in an altruistic manner. Reminding everyone that they were a force for good. However, their role as Mexico’s third largest drug cartel utterly contradicted with their message. In Michoacan and throughout Mexico they were regularly responsible for drug trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion. For reasons we won’t really get into today, let’s just say the U.S government was somehow involved, the Knights Templar were forced to find more profitable avenues to make money due to complications in the drug trade. Their foray into legal trade put them face to face with landowners, miners, and shopkeepers.

It’s in this environment where we learn that there are events that can occur, some random and others more deliberate, that are completely out of our control and yet can have a devastating effect on our lives. There are three elements, one economic policy, one environmental, and one social that thrust the drug cartel–the Knights Templar–into the business of food, and it put avocado farmers in a position where they were forced to wage a war.

On the surface, it was all good news for our Mexican Avocado Farmers. In 1994, NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) came into effect which opened the borders of the United States and Canada. Trade restrictions were lifted against Mexican Avocados and in 2015 the state of Michoacan exported $500 million worth of avocados to the United States and Canada. Then, what seemed to occur almost simultaneously, North American avocado consumption skyrocketed at the same time that California, which produces 90% of avocados in the United States, was going through an historic drought. Avocado prices went up.

Avocados soon became known in Mexico as “green gold.” And, for the Knights Templar, who were already looking for other ways to make money it only made sense to take advantage of the avocado rush. The Knights Templar started charging a fee for every box of avocados gathered by the farmers, they took cuts from sellers of fertilizers and pesticides, and they would force farmers to give away the title on their land. If you did not comply you or members of your family could be raped, kidnapped, and murdered. It was after the rape and murder of Maria Irene Villanueva, whose father was an avocado farmer and could not pay the $600 000 ransom for the safe return of his daughter, that the community had enough. Community members, farmers, and small-business owners became vigilantes hell bent on toppling and kicking out the Knights Templar. In 2014, these well organized and large vigilante groups retook the town of Nueva Italia, the Knights Templar stronghold.

Although the Knights Templar were disbanded, peace in the Michoacan region remains tenuous. The price of avocados are still high, and there have been reports that some members of the vigilante groups have simply replaced the Knights Templar. Another gang by another name. For avocado farmers what is desperately needed is strong and honest governmental institutions that can hold up the rule of law. For us, it is simply a story that occurs thousands of miles away. No one in particular is to blame and I’m not too sure if any action, by us the consumer, is even required. Perhaps, only a pause is needed. For what it does tell us is that if the conditions are right and if food can become a highly valued commodity then what happened and is happening to the Avocado farmers of Michoacan can happen anywhere and that this could be the first story of many.          

The Orange & The Pest

It’s called the Asian Citrus Psyllid. It’s about 3 to 4 millimeters long with a long brown spotted body. A bit of an ugly little bug, and it is currently playing havoc on our citrus trees.

asian citrus psyllid

The story of this little ugly bug starts in southern China in 1919. This was the first year in recorded history when humans, the Asian Citrus Psyllid or ACP for short, and our citrus trees all met. Now, the one thing to note is that this wasn’t and isn’t a very symbiotic relationship. Rather, you could compare it to our relationship with the common flu. Always against us, always adapting, always moving, always one step ahead. The ACP does a few things to our citrus trees, but the most damaging is that it transmits bacteria which in turn creates a disease in the trees. Some folks call it “citrus greening” others call it huanglongbing. First, the leaves on the trees turn yellowish with a blotchy, spotted pattern. Then the fruit that is produced is grown small, lopsided, retains a partially green colour, and contains undeveloped seeds. The juice from the infected fruit then becomes bitter. Finally, in a few years the trees just simply die.

14547196547_56865f4288_mPhoto Credit: agrilifetoday via Compfight cc

Over time the ACP has moved from Southern China, to the Philippines, Thailand and then in 1998 it popped up in Florida, US of A. Now, today, we are going to primarily focus on Oranges, and it can be argued that the two most important regions in terms of the production of Oranges is the United States and Brazil. The United States accounts for 14% of the world’s production of oranges and Brazil accounts for 32%, and both areas are currently under threat by the Asian Citrus Psyllid. To better comprehend the scope of the situation. The Florida citrus industry, alone, is currently worth $10 billion and employs around 76,000 people, and accounts for pretty much the entire U.S orange juice production.  Last year, the United States Department of Agriculture estimated that, in 2015 alone, Florida would experience a 20% decline in production. Florida is now entering a time where it will produce only half of what it was producing just a few short years ago. The end of the citrus industry in this state is in site.

There is no cure for citrus greening, at least, not yet.  Farmers attempt to combat it with more fertilizers and pesticides, which certainly doesn’t help the environment and increases the cost of production exponentially. They have also started placing a type of aluminum sheeting along the ground at the base of the trees. The sheeting acts as a reflector which increases the temperature. The increased heat has led to improved growth and fewer sightings of the ACP. The University of Florida has also announced that it has developed a genetically modified orange tree that appears to be resistant to citrus greening. If or when this tree would be introduced is a long way off and maybe too late to even potentially save these industries.

Since the arrival of the Asian Citrus Psyllid in Florida in 1998 it have now spread throughout the United States and in 2008 was first identified in California. There are no longer many places in the world, if any, that have not been affected by the ACP. And, unless a cure is found or other breeds are developed we might be breezing by more signs in our supermarkets. Perhaps, next time they will read. “Our apologies. Due to the ugly bug called ACP there are no oranges for you today.”