The overturning of the ban and the arrangement of the first post-ban shipment was largely spearheaded by a Pennsylvania dentist named Bhaskar Savani, who was born and raised in Gujarat but moved to the United States in 1990 to attend dental school.“My father used to come in the summertime and smuggle mangoes for me. And he got caught one time,” Dr. Savani told me over the phone in December. “I was outside of JFK Airport looking for him. Sure enough, he shows up three hours later; he was smelling like mangoes completely. He said he had to stay because the USDA inspector told him to throw the mangoes in the trash can. He ate as much as he could, like three or four kilos of mangoes.” This episode set the young dentist off on a convoluted six-year mission to understand and eventually defeat the ban.
Savani’s research convinced him that the ban was as much due to political reasons and bureaucratic inaction as it was due to legitimate phytosanitary concerns. Mango stakeholders with operations in Latin America, the source of nearly all mangoes eaten in the US, feared competition from India, with its copious production of delicious mangoes. And the potential pests could be neutralized by irradiating the fruit, a practice that had already been employed in sterilizing meat and other produce, and which harms the taste and texture of a mango less than the hot water treatment used for most mangoes imported from Latin America.
It was on a visit to India in 2006 that Bush tried an Alphonso mango, announcing to Singh that it was “a hell of a fruit.”
I regret to inform you that your mangoes suck. You may think I’m making a snap judgment with that statement, but the current mango production and importation infrastructure nearly guarantees that if you eat a mango in the United States, it is one of a few varieties grown in one of a few places. According to the available USDA data for 2017, 73.3 percent of mango imports into the US came from Mexico. Add in Peru and Brazil, and you can account for over 90 percent. (India, on the other hand, represents just 0.18 percent of American mango imports, or about one in every 500 mangoes, despite growing almost half of the world’s supply.)
The system of growing Florida hybrids in Latin America—mostly Mexico—and sending them to the US by truck or container ship isn’t perfect. But the industry is content for now; high quantities of mangoes can reach stores without spoiling, sell for cheap, and please consumers that don’t realize how much better mangoes truly can be.
“Whenever these mangoes hit the United States, whether [the shipment is] arriving in Newark or whether it’s arriving in some other major airport, the word spreads like wildfire, and the mangoes are gone within a day."
India, unlike Mexico, is very far from the United States. This is, and always has been, the primary obstacle to mass importation of mangoes from India. Ground shipping is out of the question, unless James Bond or Bruce Wayne wants to lend Dr. Savani some high-speed, amphibious trucks for cheap. At two to three weeks or more, the marine voyage is just a bit too long, and the fruits didn’t hold up so well the few times importers have tried this method.
So, just how expensive are the scarce Alphonso mangoes that reach the US?Because there is no well-established infrastructure or standard supply chain, prices vary significantly. One listing on Amazon sells a box of six Alphonsos for $155.97 including shipping, or just about $26 per mango. These are probably flown on-demand, one box at a time, with no economy of scale.But the biggest surprise of my conversation with Savani, after all this research about the inaccessibility of his product, was that the good dentist manages to sell his mangoes for a pretty damn reasonable price. He sells each box of ten to 12 Kesars for around $30 wholesale to members of the Indian-American community. And in another surprising revelation, Savani told me that in the past few years he’s been selling his Kesars (which he markets as “Saffron mangoes”) for between $2.99 and $3.49 each through FreshDirect, a grocery delivery company that services some of the urban and suburban Northeast.
Many of the experts I spoke with hinted that the major stakeholders in the current mango business are incentivized not to market Indian mangoes, because they mostly have financial interests in Latin American production areas. But Will Cavan, a former importer and prolific blogger of mango-related issues, basically suggested a conspiracy. (Savani called Cavan the “Trump of the mango world,” in the sense that he speaks his mind and often butts heads with authority; I’m not sure the size of Cavan’s hands or the power he wields over a nuclear button.) For years, he has been lobbying against the National Mango Board, the body responsible for marketing mangoes in the United States, through his International Mango Organization blog.
“If the National Mango Board really cared about flavor, they’d be blind to the origin of the product, and they’d try and make some straight blind testing and see what the consumer really chooses."
After this diatribe, please allow me to contradict myself: I don’t necessarily think Indian mangoes should be imported to the United States on a large scale. Even if a company like Amazon were to streamline the supply chain, the carbon footprint of any mango traveling 9,000 miles would still be huge.We could, however, still potentially be eating Indian mangoes without the egregious carbon emissions: We could grow Indian mangoes in the Americas. This is already happening on a small scale, but it’s not easy. “Certain fruits have a certain place in the world where God has created that perfect environment,” Savani said. “It’s very difficult to replicate things like soil conditions and air conditions.”
Successfully growing Indian mangoes might not necessarily require finding microclimes that mimic the Southwestern Maharasthra coast for the Alphonso or the Girnar foothills of Gujarat for the Kesars. It might, instead, be a matter of breeding new mangoes with Indian genetics that could survive in new places.
"My opinion about the Alphonso is that it’s a wild and undomesticated mango. If you take the Alphonso from the homeland, it’s not happy almost anywhere […] It’s super sensitive."
Whether Amazon figures out how to ship mangoes from India for cheap, or whether someone finds a pocket of Mexico that has the exact same weather conditions as Ratnagiri, or whether Ledesma manages to breed a less finicky Alphonso, one thing is clear: Better mangoes are likely in our future.And we deserve better than the Tommy Atkins or the Kent. But maybe it’s up to us, America’s curious and hungry, to demand change. Call your congressional representative; call Jeff Bezos; picket the National Mango Board; print a copy of this article, fold it into a paper airplane, and chuck it over the White House fence. If we can send astronauts to the moon, surely we can realize the as-of-yet unfulfilled promise of abundant Indian mangoes in American grocery stores.Maybe we should divert some of NASA’s funding for this. Nothing delicious grows on the moon, anyway.