The Cost Of Papayas

The price of food continues to rise, and this season's papaya crop will likely not be an exception.

This thick-skinned tropical fruit with bright-orange, sugary-sweet flesh on the inside is in season from June to September, and demand for it in the US has surged in the past decade, while production of it has lagged. Papayas are also difficult to produce organically, and they're susceptible to tropical storms (hurricane season coincides with papaya season), among other factors affecting the availability of this increasingly popular fruit.

It's nearly impossible to produce an organic papaya free of chemicals and pesticides, says Gilberto Vivas, general manager of Fruta Bomba in Belize, part of Miami-based Brooks Tropicals. Still, many papaya growers like Fruta Bomba spray only when necessary, as opposed to on specific dates. Exposure to consumers is minimal as it only affects the fruit's inedible skin.

"For any farmer to take a chemical and spray is not an easy decision, but the only way to sell an organic papaya is to pick it from the tree and sell it at the market that day," says Vivas.

Outside of the battle to farm papayas sustainably is a fight between two countries — Mexico and Belize — for the largest slice of exports to America and Canada. (During the early 1990s, Jamaica controlled much of the North American market until diseases destroyed many of that country's papaya crops.)

Because the fruit has a short shelf life, zipping it across the U.S. and Canadian borders requires fancy footwork, and Mexico has an advantage given its geographic proximity to the U.S. border. It takes between five and six days to truck papayas from Belize to Canada, or to travel by boat from Belize to Florida.

But while Mexico is closer to the United States border, it grows a less-prized variety of papaya and employs cheaper labor. Choosing Belize over Mexico means buying not only a higher-quality papaya but supporting papaya growers who are less likely to be exploiting cheap labor. Papaya exports can bring in tens of millions of dollars into the small Caribbean country's economy.

Fruta Bomba, the biggest of Belize's four papaya exporters, grows and harvests a Taiwanese type of papaya called Caribbean Red Papaya. This is no small farm. Nine hundred employees work on the 1,500-acre farm in Orange Walk, Belize, just an hour northwest of Belize City, with just a few handling administrative tasks in the office. The number of papaya exporters overall has declined, with many of the farms giving up after failed attempts to get the fruit into Canada and United States before it spoils; Mexico's exports declined 8 percent last year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Fruta Bomba continues to thrive, even after Hurricane Dean in 2007, when many of its crops were wiped out.

Hurricane Richard's brush with Belize in October 2010 threatened Belize and Fruta Bomba's farm. "Fortunately it missed us by a hair," says Vivas.

And on the plus side, if it's a calm tropical storm and hurricane season, papaya prices could actually drop a bit before the end of the season, according to the USDA.