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Lime prices: Drug cartels vs. Corona?

istockphoto/globe staff

Mexico is the world’s foremost producer of limes. More than 95 percent of America’s annual supply of the tart green citrus fruit is imported from our southern neighbor. But the price of limes has soared in recent months; a 40-pound carton that normally wholesales for about $25 now commands four times as much, making Mexican limes more costly than Mexican crude oil.

If you love margaritas, guacamole, or ceviche — and on Cinco de Mayo, who doesn’t? — what is being called The Great Lime Shortage of 2014 is clearly bad news. What isn’t as clear is its cause.

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Is it the severe rains in 2013 that destroyed the blossoms on lime trees in several Mexican states? Is it the outbreak of a bacterial disease, known as HLB, that kills citrus trees and has devastated orchards in Colima, a prime lime-growing region? Is it the terrorism of drug cartels in Michoácan, who have been hijacking lime shipments and extorting huge ransoms — almost $300,000 per truckload — to let them through?

In reality it is all those factors and more. Like every commodity, the price of limes is affected by many elements, some obvious, some subtle. The robust price mechanism of a lively marketplace conveys information about all of them, enabling millions of growers, consumers, suppliers, and importers to adjust to changes as quickly and flexibly as they can. That’s why even in this calamitous year for the lime industry, the fruits are still available for those willing to pay a premium. And why there is hope that by next Cinco de Mayo, that lime wedge with your Corona will once again seem the most normal thing in the world.

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