A Lack of Limes

When food is readily available at your grocery store, it’s easy to forget about how it got there. That’s a lesson much of North America is learning the hard way with limes, currently hard to come by after Mexico—the world’s top producer—produced a smaller crop than expected this year.

Food analysts have wrung their hands over the Great Lime Shortage of 2014. Output is a quarter of what’s normal during the peak spring season. Fortunately people don’t depend on limes like they do corn or potatoes. No one ever died from not drinking enough mojitos. But the fruit points to the complex equation that needs to balance for food to make its way to your stomach.

For limes, that equation has variables like climate, botanical health, and both international and local economics. This year, all of those factors came up short in Mexico. Heavy rains inundated fragile crops and a bacterial infection took out others. Sensing opportunity, Mexican cartels also seized lime-growing land in the state of Michoacan. The combination has increased lime prices more than 400 percent in a year.

Other foods can find it far more perilous. History’s most famous food shortage, the Irish Potato Famine of 1845, led to the death of more than a million people. Evidence exists that a coffee shortage could be next due to historic rains in Brazil (fortunately coffee isn’t a live-or-die food either, but it certainly commands dependence). For the past several years we’ve heard of an impending banana shortage, as an unfortunate confluence of a global banana monoculture and a fungus disease slowly diminishes crops across Asia and Australia.

Will limes be back? I’d say so. The same cartels that saw financial opportunity will realize there isn’t as much reward when yields are drastically reduced. Central banks in the United States and Mexico can tweak interest rates to fuel trade relations, which will lead to the easier transport of the limes. The only thing cartels and political leaders can’t do is actually grow more limes. Better seeds and growing methods help, but mother nature is the constantly moving variable. We’ll just hope the next commodity shortage isn’t so sour.