TIME North Korea

North Korea Pushes Farmers For More

North Korea Feeding the Nation
A North Korean woman walks on a trail through a rice paddy southeast of Pyongyang, North Korea on June 21, 2014. For more than four decades, farming in the North was characterized by heavy use of mechanization swiftly followed by chronic fuel and equipment shortages and stopgap policies. David Guttenfelder—AP

North Korea needs sustainable agriculture as much as it needs nuclear power to keep enemies at bay, which has led to a push for self-sufficient farming — but for it to succeed the country would have to sanction capitalist-style reforms

Rim Ok Hua looks out over her patch of farm just across the Tumen River from China, where rows of lush, green young potato plants stretch into the distance.

As North Korean farmers go, Rim is exceptionally lucky. The Changpyong Cooperative Farm where she works is mechanized, has 500 pigs to provide fertilizer and uses the best available seeds, originally brought in from Switzerland. In most fields throughout the country, farmers work the fields by hand, or behind bony oxen.

However, this year, even more than most, they are all under intense pressure to feed a hungry nation.

Leader Kim Jong Un has succeeded in establishing his country as a nuclear power, and even sent a satellite into orbit. Now, with prolonged international sanctions and largesse from former communist allies mostly gone, Kim is calling on farmers to win him another battle. In 2012, and again this year, he promised the nation it would never face famine again.

But can isolated and impoverished North Korea ever escape the ghosts of famines past?

For more than four decades, farming in the North was characterized by heavy use of mechanization swiftly followed by chronic fuel and equipment shortages and stopgap policies. That legacy has left its mark not only on the North Korean psyche, but on its countryside.

Hillsides denuded of trees for terraced farming plots produce little but increase the risk of damage from erosion or landslides. Goats, which are everywhere after a mass goat-breeding campaign in 1996, eat their way into hillside shrubs, which makes the landslide problem even worse. Overuse of chemical fertilizers has trashed soil fertility in many areas.

North Korea has struggled to obtain tractor fuel for more than two decades. Housewives, college students and workers brought in from the cities, along with military units, make up for the lack of mechanization at crucial times.

There are many less tangible problems: state-controlled distribution, top-down planning and a quota system that doesn’t fully encourage innovation and individual effort. All these factors make North Korea’s agricultural sector a very fragile ecosystem. Almost as soon as this season’s rice was transplanted, the North’s Korean Central News Agency reported that tens of thousands of hectares of farmland had already been damaged by drought.

Even so, North Korea is by no means an agricultural lost cause.

As the summer growing months approach, the North Korean countryside is bursting with the bright greens of young rice, corn, soybeans and cabbage. On hillier ground lie orchards for apples and pears. Whole villages are devoted to growing mushrooms — another “magic bullet” innovation from the 1990s. It seems every valley and flatland, each nook and cranny, has been turned into a plot for some sort of crop.

In the minds of North Korea’s leaders, agricultural self-sufficiency is as much a key to the nation’s survival as nuclear weapons are to keeping its foes at bay. North Korea needed massive international aid during the devastating famine of the 1990s.

There are some signs of improvement. The combined overall crop production for this year and 2013 is expected to increase by 5 percent, to 5.98 million tons, according to a joint report compiled by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program. The report, released last November, estimated the North would still need to import 340,000 tons of cereals.

About 16 million of North Korea’s 25 million people rely on state-provided rations of cereals, and stunting from chronic malnutrition is estimated to be as high as 40 percent in some areas. But according to U.N. monitors, North Koreans have been getting larger rations of rice, potatoes and corn over the past two years. The production gap in the FAO-WFP report, meanwhile, is the smallest North Korea has seen in about two decades.

North Korean farmers are learning sustainable farming, with more use of manure and better compost, said agricultural consultant Randall Ireson. He recommended rotating and planting a wider variety of crops, particularly soybeans, and using organic fertilizer.

“No magic technology is needed,” he said. “Just good ‘best farming practices.’”

In rural North Korea, some of those changes are well underway.

Nestled in high country near the scenic Mount Paektu, the Taehongdan district became a national priority development area for potatoes around 2002. The Changpyong farm is one of its shining successes.

“We don’t need chemical fertilizer,” boasted farmer Jo Kwang Il, one of the cooperative’s 500 workers. “We have pigs to produce tons of manure a year. They also provide meat, so that benefits our whole community.”

For the whole agricultural sector to succeed, more systemic, and politically risky, changes may also be needed, such as relaxing central government command and bringing state-set prices for crops more in line with what farmers can get for surplus sold in farmers’ markets. Farms and divisions within them could then afford to reinvest their profits in small walk-behind tractors, rice-transplanting machines, fuel or fertilizer. This kind of action, however, could move North Korea closer to sanctioning capitalist-style markets and reforms, which it has long resisted.

In the meantime, as she stands near her potato patch, Rim says it’s been nothing but rain here in the high country.

“The weather hasn’t been so good lately,” she said, squinting into the glare of the overcast, late-morning sky. But then, after a pause: “All of us farmers are working harder than ever. It will be a good harvest this year.”

 

TIME U.S. Department of Agriculture

Giant African Snails Seized at Los Angeles Airport

Giant Snails Seized
This photo provided by United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows a person using two hands to hold a single snail from an air cargo shipment of 67 live snails that arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on July 1, 2014. Officials said that the 35 pounds of snails arrived from Nigeria along with paperwork stating they were for human consumption. Greg Bartman—AP

The U.S. Department of Agriculture incinerated a package of 67 giant snails from Nigeria that inspectors seized from the Los Angeles National Airport because the snails are prohibited in the U.S.

(LOS ANGELES) — Inspectors at Los Angeles International Airport seized an unusually slimy package — 67 live giant African snails that are a popular delicacy across West Africa.

The snails — which are prohibited in the U.S. — arrived from Nigeria and were being sent to a person in San Dimas, said Lee Harty, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Customs and Border protection.

The snails were confiscated July 1 and a sample was sent the next day to a federal mollusk specialist in Washington, D.C., who identified them as a prohibited species, Harty said.

The mollusks are among the largest land snails in the world and can grow to be up to 8 inches long. They are native to Africa and can live for up to 10 years.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture incinerated the snails after they were inspected, Harty said. The animals are prohibited in the U.S. because they can carry parasites that are harmful to humans, including one that can lead to meningitis.

The snails are also agricultural pests, said Maveeda Mirza, the CBP program manager for agriculture.

“These snails are seriously harmful to local plants because they will eat any kind of crop they can get to,” Mirza said.

The person the snails were destined for is not expected to face any penalties, Mirza said. She said authorities are investigating why a single person would want so many snails.

“We’re investigating what happened, but it doesn’t seem like there was smuggling involved. When someone doesn’t know a commodity is prohibited under USDA regulations there is usually no punishment,” she said.

Although the agency has found one or two snails that may have accidentally gotten into a traveler’s luggage in Los Angeles, this is the first time that they have confiscated the snails in such a large quantity, Mirza said.

TIME Agriculture

Here’s Why You’re Paying More for Chicken

Cockerel, UK
Universal Images Group—UIG via Getty Images

Modified genes in a key rooster breed has reduced the birds’ fertility

Chicken prices in the United States are reportedly on the rise after a genetic defect caused rooster fertility problems at a time when high prices on other meats were already increasing demand for poultry products.

The standard Ross male, a key rooster breed responsible for fathering up to 25 percent of the chickens raised for slaughter in the U.S., has seen reduced fertility due to a change in its genes, Reuters reports. Poultry producers routinely modify chicken genes to improve yield. As a result, the price of chicken breasts is up about 50 cents per pound and prices in Georgia, a key chicken market, have hit record highs.

Aviagen Group, the world’s largest chicken breeder, discovered the glitch after ruling out other possible explanations for a roughly 2% increase in hatch failure of eggs fertilized by the breed, Reuters reports. Scientists from the company say the genetic tweak made the roosters “very sensitive” to overfeeding.

“We fed him too much. He got fat. When he got big, he did not breed as much as he was intended to,” said Mike Cockrell, chief financial officer for the major chicken producer Sanderson, one of Aviagen’s biggest customers.

The chicken shortage resulting from reduced rooster fertility comes at a time when elevated prices for pork and beef have been increasing demand for chicken as a meat alternative.

[Reuters]

TIME Diet/Nutrition

The Government Wants Young Farmers To Hit the Hay (Literally)

US-IT-FARMING
Andrew Isaacson watches from the cockpit of a tractor in a corn field as screens show where he has fertilized at the Little Bohemia Creek farm on June 17, 2014 in Warwick, Md. Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images

Intended as a ‘one-stop-shop’ for beginning farmers, it promises the full range of financial and technical support

The USDA has launched a New Farmers website targeted at young people struggling to get their start in the agriculture industry.

The site brings together in one place a number of programs already available to newcomers: It can help young farmers get off the ground with a variety of loans from the Farm Service Agency, which often provides critical resources to those who are unable to get help from traditional lenders. It provides crop insurance for a fruits, vegetables and grains. And through the Transition Incentive Program, it can facilitate transfer of farmland from retiring farmers to new and socially disadvantaged farmers and vets.

What’s more: Aspiring organic farmers can find help with the cost of certification—which is especially relevant, as organic farmers are younger on average, and the market for organic foods shows no signs of slowing. They can also get help with land conservation and soil health.

As the American farm population ages out (the average is now 58), it is increasingly critical that a new generation is in place to produce our food. “We must help new farmers get started if America is going to continue feeding the world and maintain a strong agriculture economy,” said U.S. Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden in the announcement.

If the site proves useful to those getting their start, it just might help launch the next fleet of farmers.

TIME Environment

The White House Wants to Save the Bees

Exchange Busy Beekeeper
Beekeeper Alan Clingenpeel shows the inside of a bee hive in his apiary at his home on May 23, 2014 in Pearcy, Ark. Mara Kuhn—AP

New initiative will combat the decline in pollinators

The White House created a new task force Friday to study and combat the recent precipitous decline in the number of bees in the United States.

The Pollinator Health Task Force will also undertake efforts to increase public awareness of the issue and boost conservation partnerships between the public and private sectors. “Given the breadth, severity, and persistence of pollinator losses, it is critical to expand Federal efforts and take new steps to reverse pollinator losses and help restore populations to healthy levels,” President Barack Obama wrote in a presidential memorandum.

The President’s announcement comes in response to a problem with grave implications for farmers and consumers. At least 90 commercial crops harvested in North America rely on honey bees including nuts, fruits, and vegetables, according to a White House fact sheet. Pollinators also have a profound economic impact: They contribute more than $24 billion dollars to the U.S. economy.

The plan announced on Friday, which includes measures to research the issue and develop pollinator habitats, marks the latest step in the White House’s attempt to address the the decline. The President requested $50 million to combat the program in his 2015 budget proposal.

TIME Environment

Honeybee Deaths Are Down, But the Beepocalypse Continues

Honeybee Deaths Decline
Honeybees at the bee hives at Hudson Gardens in Littleton, Colo. on June 6, 2013. Seth McConnell—Denver Post/Getty Images

A new survey found that nearly a quarter of honeybee colonies died over the winter—and that's an improvement over last year.

How bad are things for the honeybee? Almost a quarter of U.S. honeybee colonies died over the past winter, according to new numbers released this morning—and that represents an improvement. The Bee Informed Partnership—a network of academics and beekeepers—along with the Apiary Inspectors of America and the U.S. Department of Agriculture surveyed 7,183 beekeepers from around the country over the past year. Those beekeepers are responsible for about a fifth of the managed colonies in the U.S., and after a year in which nearly a third of honeybee colonies died, this past winter was a reprieve of sorts. The loss rate of 23.2% was significantly lower than the 29.6% average loss beekeepers have been experiencing since the partnership began the annual survey in 2006.

(COVER STORY: The Plight of the Honeybee)

Yet even if honeybees had it comparatively easy this past winter, the numbers were still much worse than the 10-15% loss rate that beekeepers used to think of as normal—before honeybee colonies started dying off or simply disappearing thanks to colony collapse disorder, which began occurring with troubling frequency around the middle of the last decade. And there’s also the strange fact that 20% of honeybee colonies died during the spring and summer period last year, even though bees usually thrive in the warm weather. There’s no explanation for that anomaly—the survey began tracking summer losses only this year—which has researchers puzzled. “The combination of winter and summer losses was around 30%,” says Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland and one of the leaders of the bee partnership survey. “That is still troubling.”

Just as troubling: we still don’t know exactly why the honeybee has been struggling in recent years. Actually, it’s not just the honeybee—native wild bees have been dying off in even larger numbers. It’s gotten so bad that yesterday the Xerces Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the U.S. government to list one wild bee species—the rusty patched bumble bee, which is now gone from 87% of its native habitat—as endangered. Bees of all sorts provide invaluable service to farmers; the honeybee alone adds $15 billion in value to crops each year by pollinating everything from apples to zucchini. But as I wrote in a cover story for TIME last year, it’s as if there’s something about the world today—the world human beings have made—that has become toxic to one of our oldest domesticated species. “Too many bees are dying,” says Lisa Archer, the food and technology program director at the non-profit Friends of the Earth. “This is not sustainable over the long term.”

(MORE: The Mystery of Animal Grief)

Many experts put much of the blame down to infestations of the Varroa destructor mite. Varroa are microscopic vampire bugs that burrow into the brood cells and attach themselves to baby bees, sucking out the bees’ hemolymph—their blood—with a sharp, two-pronged tongue. The varroa directly weaken the bees they infest, but the bugs can also introduce bacteria and other viruses, which in turn makes the bees that much more vulnerable to any other kind of shock. Varroa infested hives often need to be replaced every one to two years, while clean hives survive for as many as five years. Back in 1987, when varroa first arrived in the U.S., beekeepers managed more than 3 million colonies. Now they’re struggling to maintain about 2.5 million, and the bad economics are driving some beekeepers away from the profession altogether, partly because the struggle seems like such a losing one. The chemical miticides that beekeepers use on the varroa can be dangerous to their own bees—and then it’s only a matter of time before the mites adapt, and the miticide becomes useless. “Varroa destructor is a modern honeybee plague,” said Jeff Pettis, the bee research leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, at a Congressional hearing on pollinator loss last month. “What beekeepers truly need are long-term solutions to varroa mites.”

The USDA and other groups are working on some of those solutions, including efforts to breed honeybees that are naturally resistant to varroa. But the mites can’t take all the blame. Honeybees are starving as open land—which has the sorts of flowers and plants that serve as a buffet for bees—is filled up with monocultures of corn and soybeans that offer little nutrition. A number of other diseases are afflicting honeybees, including the tobacco ringspot virus, a plant disease that was implicated by researchers earlier this year. What’s more, commercial honeybee colonies may be trucked thousands of miles for work, including the massive and lucrative spring almond pollination in California, which requires billions of bees. The stress of travel can’t be easy on them.

Then there are what are known as neonicotinoid pesticides, which are injected directly into the seed of a future plant. That means traces of the insecticide may always be part of the plant tissue—not at all the case when pesticides are sprayed on crops and can disspiate. A growing but still controversial body of research has implicated neonicotinoid in the death of honeybees, leading the European Union to ban three classes of the pesticides over concern about their impact on bees and other pollinators. Several members of Congress have put forward a bill that would extend that ban to the U.S. A study released last week by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health claimed to find a link between neonicotinoid exposure and low survival rates during cold winters. There’s particular concern that neonicotinoids might have sub-lethal effects on bees—not killing them, but causing enough damage to make them vulnerable to an assortment of other ills. But don’t expect a ban on neonicotinoids any time soon—an EPA review of the pesticides won’t conclude until 2018.

(MORE: America’s Pest Problem)

The chemical companies that make neonicotinoids are, unsurprisingly, skeptical that their products are behind the plight of the honeybee. “Extensive research has shown that these products do not represent a long-term threat to bee colonies,” David Fischer, the director of pollinator safety at Bayer, said in recent Congressional testimony. But the very purpose of pesticides is to kill insects, and no one would deny that such chemicals are almost certainly one of many factors hurting honeybees today. (It’s notable that a recent study found that the diversity of pollinators like bees was 50% higher on organic farms than on conventional farms.) Many independent experts, however, doubt that neonicotinoids should get all the blame. Australia still uses neonicotinoid pesticides, but honeybee populations there are not in decline—something that may be due to the fact that varroa have yet to infest the country’s hives. The recent neonicotinoid study from Harvard has been criticized for feeding honeybees levels of neonicotinoids they never would have experienced in the wild. “[The study] just confuses the issues,” says vanEngelsdorp. “It doesn’t have any bearing on what’s going on.”

Despite the ruinously high levels of losses of recent years, beekeepers have managed to keep the number of colonies in the U.S. stable—and they’ve managed to keep meeting the pollination needs of farmers. Be glad they have; honeybees are responsible for one out of every three mouthfuls of food you’ll have today. But it’s expensive and dispiriting to keep replacing dead honeybees year after year, as researchers scramble to figure out just what’s killing them. Improving trends notwithstanding, we lost a quarter of our honeybee colonies over the winter—and that shouldn’t be good news.

TIME States

Young Children Are Getting Sick Working on U.S. Tobacco Farms

Tobacco farm - Warfield, VA
Tobacco farmer in Warfield, Va., on Aug. 30, 2013 Matt McClain—The Washington Post/Getty Images

A new Human Rights Watch report finds that child laborers, some as young as 7 years old, who work on tobacco farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, "get so sick that they throw up, get covered by pesticides and have no real protective gear"

Children as young as 7 years old are suffering serious health problem from toiling long hours in tobacco fields to harvest pesticide-laced leaves for major cigarette brands, according to a report released Wednesday.

New York City–based advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) interviewed more than 140 youngsters working on tobacco farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, where most American tobacco is sourced.

They reported nausea, vomiting, headaches and other health problems associated with nicotine poisoning, known colloquially as green tobacco sickness, which is common among agricultural workers who absorb the toxic substance through their skin.

“The U.S. has failed America’s families by not meaningfully protecting child farmworkers from dangers to their health and safety, including on tobacco farms,” said Margaret Wurth, HRW children’s-rights researcher and co-author of the report.

“Farming is hard work anyway, but children working on tobacco farms get so sick that they throw up, get covered by pesticides and have no real protective gear.”

Much of what HRW documented remains legal. While strict provisions govern child labor in industrial environments, U.S. agriculture labor laws are much looser, allowing 12-year-olds to labor for unlimited hours outside of school on any size of farm. On small farms, there is no minimum age set for child workers.

HRW called on tobacco giants to ensure safe working practices and source responsibly. The global tobacco industry generates annual revenues of around $500 billion, but some 6 million people die each year from smoking-related diseases.

Not everyone favors stricter controls. Republican Kentucky state senator Paul Hornback says he worked in tobacco fields from when he was 10 years old and doesn’t think further legislation is necessary. “It’s hard manual labor, but there’s nothing wrong with hard manual labor,” he told the Associated Press.

TIME Environment

It’s Hard Out There for a Honeybee

Honeybees
Honeybees still face a variety of health threats Photographer's Choice RF via Getty Images

Honeybees in Kenya are infested with parasites, but they still thrive — unlike their American cousins. Are there lessons for U.S. beekeepers?

Commercial honeybees might be America’s unluckiest laborers. They’re infested with pests like the Varroa destructor mite and the Nosema ceranae parasite; infected with diseases like the Israeli paralytic virus and the tobacco ringspot virus; dosed with pesticides like clothianidin and imidacloprid; starved of nutrition thanks to crop monocultures; shipped around the country to be worked half to death in almond fields and apple orchards; and victimized by a still mysterious malady called colony-collapse disorder (CCD). It’s little surprise that U.S. beekeepers lost about a third of their colonies over the winter of 2012–13, and if early reports from states like Ohio are any indication, this year could be even worse.

But there’s a place where honeybees are apparently doing much better: East Africa. In a study that came out recently in the journal PLOS One, researchers from Kenya and the U.S. surveyed honeybee populations at 24 locations throughout the African country. And the scientists found that while honeybees in Kenya suffered from some of the same problems as their Western counterparts, the African bees remained much more robust. “I was amazed by the lack of manifestation of ill health in the bees,” Elliud Muli, lead author on the paper, told National Geographic.

What’s protected the Kenyan honeybees? African honeybees rarely encounter the sorts of pesticides that are in heavy use on American farms — and which pose a clear danger to American bees. The African bees also generally stay in one place, while the biggest honeybee keepers in the U.S. will move their colonies thousands of miles for major events like the California almond-tree pollination, which requires an astounding 60% of all hives in the U.S. Without those additional stressors, the Kenyan honeybees seem capable of thriving even in the presence of dangerous pests.

That doesn’t mean that pesticides alone are causing CCD — but they sure aren’t helping, as even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun to realize. Last year the EPA ordered changes in the labeling of neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been linked to high rates of honeybee deaths and which have been banned in Europe. American honeybees also suffer from a lack of nutrition, as bee-friendly wild spaces are converted into corn or soybean fields that offer them little forage.

A Department of Agriculture program announced this winter will put $3 million toward encouraging farmers and ranchers in the Midwest to plant bee-friendly plants on the edges of their fields. That will help, but far more must be done. As I wrote in our TIME cover story on the subject last year, it’s as if the modern American environment itself is hostile to the health of honeybees. Even the hardest-working members of the animal kingdom can only take so much.

TIME Agriculture

Why There Is No Lime Industry in America Anymore

Dairoby Aldana sorts limes that have been imported from Columbia at SA Mex produce on March 26, 2014 in Miami.
Dairoby Aldana sorts limes that have been imported from Columbia at SA Mex produce on March 26, 2014 in Miami. Joe Raedle—Getty Images

Bad weather, disease and other factors affecting Mexico’s lime industry have made prices in the U.S. skyrocket

Across the U.S., ice waters are being served without their usual lime wheels, while lime wedges on gin cocktails are getting thin — if they’re still there at all. Bad weather, disease and crime have been ravaging Mexico’s lime crop, and because America depends almost exclusively on Mexico for its limes, domestic prices are skyrocketing.

A standard 40-lb. box of limes that would have cost a San Francisco bar manager $20 a few months ago now costs more than $120. And many of the limes in those boxes are juiceless nubs; with prices so high, Mexican growers are stripping everything they can off their trees to ship across the border, regardless of quality. Unfortunately, as one USDA Market News spokesperson says, it’s not like restaurants or grocery stores can call up Florida to get limes from domestic growers instead.

That wasn’t always the case.

Once upon a time, back in the 1940s and 1950s, there was a growing lime industry around Homestead, Fla., a town at the southern tip of the state where the humid climate is particularly suited to supporting lime trees. Unlike avocados or mangoes, limes provided year-round work for people like Craig Wheeling, a former fruit-company executive who at that time was a young man, learning the ropes on his father’s lime farm.

“In 1960,” he says, “the only game in town was really the Florida-grown limes.”

As the industry grew, so did Americans’ appetite for limes. Immigrants flooded into the country from Latin America, lands where limes are more central to cuisine, and Americans developed a taste for the fruit. Today Americans consume nearly 10 times the amount of limes they did in 1980; as the population has grown from 226 million to 317 million, a half-pound of consumption per person each year has become three.

The first natural disaster struck in 1992. Hurricane Andrew, at the time the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history, made landfall in Dade County and nearly wiped Homestead’s lime groves off the map. “The impact on lime trees was devastating,” Wheeling says. “The hurricane picked up the trees and blew out the fences and the irrigation risers, virtually destroying all the plantings of the industry.” The larger businesses with more resources replanted their trees, Wheeling says, and by 1999, “we had a fabulous year.” America’s lime industry was back, and Florida growers were printing a little American flag on each piece of fruit so consumers would know where they came from.

But during most of the 1990s, when Florida was rebuilding after the hurricane, people still wanted their margaritas and ceviche. “There was a vacuum,” says Jonathan Crane, tropical-fruit-crop specialist at the University of Florida. “Mexico stepped up their production to take advantage of the U.S. being out of the market.” As Homestead slowly regrew its groves, a Mexican industry, built on much cheaper labor and land around Veracruz, became established, with trees planted specifically for exporting their goods to the U.S.

Wheeling, who had become president at the country’s biggest lime producer, still remembers seeing the next disaster hit, a quieter one but equally deadly for the industry. A disease called citrus canker appeared on a tree in the middle of the lime groves of his company, Brooks Tropicals, in 2000. At the time, Crane says, “the dogma” was that citrus canker would weaken trees to the point where they would die. The much more powerful citrus industry to the north, producing Florida’s famous oranges and grapefruit, was worried that the disease would spread to its crops, and so was the government. Because citrus canker spreads by wind and rain, an eradication program was established in 1996 to destroy all the citrus trees planted anywhere near an infected one. “The state of Florida agriculture department would order them destroyed, send in bulldozers, pile up the trees and burn them,” Wheeling says. By 2007 the industry had been wiped out again.

This time, Crane says, there was a prohibition on replanting citrus in the area for years, for fear that new trees would also get infected. Farmers turned to other crops, like avocados and vegetables. Wheeling says farmers feared a new disease would arrive, and the low costs of production in Mexico were impossible to beat. “You’re not going to get rich having your trees destroyed every 15 years or so,” he says. “Given all the risk, it was hard to justify going back in and growing them.” His business shifted to papayas, and imports from Mexico increased. Today the U.S. gets some 97% of its limes from Mexico, followed by Guatemala with a paltry 1.5%.

In other parts of the U.S., the climate isn’t as suited to supporting a lime industry, experts say, even in places where backyard growing is popular. Limes are the most “cold tender” of citrus trees, says David Karp, who has worked as a plant specialist of the University of California at Riverside. So in California, he says, “90% of the time you’d be fine, but if there’s one cold day, you lose your trees and crops die. If you’re a backyard grower, it’s no big deal.” Currently there are about 400 acres dedicated to lime-growing in the state, enough to support some local farmers’ markets; by contrast, 41,000 acres of California land are dedicated to lemons. And importing limes from Hawaii isn’t worth the cost, Karp says, especially when Mexico is so close by.

The most tragic part of the Florida story may be that citrus canker wasn’t actually as harmful to lime trees as scientists thought at the time. Crane is currently helping Florida growers experiment with new plantings, having published a paper earlier this year suggesting it would be profitable to produce limes in southern Florida again, partly because of their resistance to disease. “There’s a tiny bit of lime out there,” he says. It may resurge. In the meantime, the U.S. will be beholden to other countries for wheels and wedges.

TIME Smart Spending

Your Grilling Season Budget Just Went Up in Smoke

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Mike Lang—Getty Images/Flickr RF

It’s finally the time of year to break out the barbecue and cook outdoors. Now if only you could afford some steaks to toss on the grill.

This shouldn’t be coming as a surprise. Beef prices have been rising sharply since the beginning of the year, and the increases have come as a result of factors in play long before then. Thanks to long periods of drought, shrinking cattle herds, soaring feed prices, and high demand among consumers, analysts have been saying that beef prices will remain high for years to come.

So this week’s Associated Press headline indicating that beef prices in the U.S. have hit their highest levels in nearly three decades shouldn’t catch anyone off guard. Just how high are prices? USDA choice-grade beef reached $5.28 a pound in February, up from $4.19 a year prior and $3.97 in 2008, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Retail beef prices usually decrease after the winter holidays, hand in hand with a fall-off in demand after the period of New Year’s parties and Christmas gatherings is over. But that never really happened in early 2014. A Department of Agriculture reported released earlier this year indicated that average beef prices were up to $5.04 per pound, a record high that was quickly surpassed when the next Department of Agriculture study was published.

What’s a hungry home griller to do? Well, there’s always Meatless Monday. Long before the dramatic rise in beef prices, the concept of scaling back on meat consumption has been pushed as a way to improve one’s health and finances. Data cited by Bloomberg News indicates that Americans are eating less red meat than they have in the recent past. The USDA forecasts that Americans will eat an average of 101.7 pounds of red meat this year, compared to 104.4 pounds in 2013.

Even so, due to the exceptionally small number of cattle in the U.S., as well as growing demand for beef overseas, the supply-demand ratio has pushed prices higher—and likely, higher still down the road. Understandably enough, beef prices generally rise during “grilling season,” which peaks from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Penny-pinching experts always roll out essentially the same handful of tips for coping with higher meat prices. You can make do with cheaper cuts, for instance, or eat more pork, poultry, or yes, even vegetables. Buying in bulk—at a warehouse club like Costco, or perhaps via a service like Zaycon Foods, which sells meat wholesale in church parking lots and other prearranged locations—is a classic bit of advice.

In fact, not that this will do us much good now, but back in January, observers who were taking note of the trajectory of wholesale prices were advising people to stock up on beef and freeze what meat couldn’t be used in the short-term. Prices were high then, but forecasts indicated that they’d be higher later on. And now we know, the forecasts were correct.

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