Throughout the course of human history, the most unlikely of commodities have been targeted by criminals. In 2011, a Brazilian gang stole 55 tons of corn from a moving train. In an unexpected turn of events in 2004, 1,800 manhole covers were stolen in Shanghai, leading to eight deaths. And now, next to manhole covers and corn in the canon of improbable mass thefts, we have a new offering: the humble avocado.
The Guardian reports that avocado crime is sweeping New Zealand, as unprecedented demand for this most precious of fleshy fruits causes criminals to focus their attention on the fruit. Mass thefts from orchards, with up to 350 avocados stolen at a time, have caused concern among North Island growers. A single avocado can set you back over $4 in the country. If the crime wave goes unchecked—there have been nearly 40 large-scale thefts this year, and more suspected—there are real fears that avocado on toast will become the expensive preserve of the Kiwi elite, rather than an accessible (and Instagrammable) luxury for the masses.
The preferred method for theft is in the dead of night, with the crop pilfered from the tree and sold on the black market to independent food markets in south Auckland. Given that prices increased 17 percent in 2015 alone, with an additional 96,000 households purchasing the fruit, New Zealanders are waking up to the possibility that their appetite for guacamole might be funding nefarious criminal gangs.
"These stolen avocados can carry risks," police sergeant Aaron Fraser told the publication. "They are unripe, some have been sprayed recently and they may still carry toxins on the skin. But with the prices so high at the moment, the potential for profit is a strong inducement for certain individuals."
Richard J. Campbell is the director of horticulture at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Florida, and an expert on the global avocado trade. He is unsurprised by the booming avocado black market. "Of all the tropical fruit, avocado has had the fastest-growing demand. Supply just hasn't been able to keep pace."
Campbell explains that the nature of the avocado crop also increases its potential resale value. "Avocados are storable, and that's the real key—as it opens up huge possibilities when it comes to marketing fruits that are more perishable." This, he explains makes it a hugely desirable (and pricey) fruit.
Despite this, avocado growers just haven't been able to keep pace with demand. "It's a fruit crop that takes a long time to come into production, and there just aren't enough trees to come into production quick enough. There are a lot of issues in the nurseries, and people just can't get trees."
Like a Taylor Swift showmance, avocados have also fallen victim to their own overexposure. "There's been a perfect storm of marketing with avocado," he says, pointing out that there was barely any avocado consumption in the US ten years ago. "All it takes is a few Super Bowl parties making guacamole and a few restaurant chains like Subway picking it up and putting it on their menu and suddenly you have a huge spike in demand."
Our insatiable demand for ripe avocados also plays into the hands of criminal gangs. "As a grower, I can cut off the water to the tree and keep the fruit on there. That's a real asset for us, but the longer the fruit is on the tree, the more susceptible it is to theft, because storing avocados on a grove out in the field is not as secure as storing them in a packing house you can lock."
"If they're organized, [thieves] have crews that go in at night or at the end of the day when everyone's left." Light-fingered avocado pickers might even masquerade as official staff when lifting the crop. "You often don't know if it's your crew picking or someone else's, unless it's your grove. Most avocados are picked by contract growers, and nobody really knows who's who."
Despite this, Campbell doesn't think the avo-bubble is about to burst. "I think it's going to go on for a while, because there's a lack of nursery trees which means that demand will always outstrip supply. As you can store avocados on a tree you can also artificially short the market, which is a great marketing tool growers use. So we're still going to be seeing high prices for a few more years."
If imagining a world without easy brunch access to avocados makes you panic, a word of warning: "Here in Florida, we're threatened by a disease that can threaten our entire industry, and that same disease may compromise the Caribbean," Campbell says.
Meanwhile, the recently ended El Niño weather phenomenon may place additional pressure on the markets. "Last year was an El Niño year, so this year we'll be seeing the results of it. In the year that it hammers it killed a lot of trees, so you're not going to have those avocados. You'll get the fruit off them, but the trees won't produce any more crops.Trouble is, El Niño only comes every 20 years, and none of us remembers 20 years ago, right? Everybody forgets."