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Last Mango in Paris

Published by Forbes on 2007-06-18

George Bush's effort to lift the 18-year-old U.S. ban on importing Indian mangoes accelerated last year during a visit to India when, after biting into the peach-like flesh of an Alphonso, he said to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, "This is a helluva fruit!" The president's enthusiasm proved fruitful for the two countries - the first shipment of coveted Alphonsos arrived in New York in May - but the diplomacy has spawned yet another manifestation of the law of unintended consequences.

"Definitely a war!" claims Mohan M. Shah, a veteran New York businessman whose family orchard in Bhagalpur, Bihar, one of India's poorest regions, contains more than 4,000 trees producing the savory langra mango. "America's appetite for mangoes is now 250,000 tons a year, and it can easily double with Indian mangoes being allowed in. But where are these mangoes going to come from, and at whose expense?"

India, with 14 million tons of some 1,000 varieties, produces more than 50% of the world's mangoes annually. But it manages to export only 56,000 tons, about 75% to the Middle East - mainly the Gulf sheikdoms - and the rest to Britain, France, Germany, and Southeast Asia. That is because nearly 40% of all fruits and vegetables in India do not make it to the market on account of poor storage facilities, terrible roads, and high domestic taxes, says Rajan Dhawan, a major New Delhi-exporter. This is particularly frustrating to farmers because India, the world's biggest producer of milk, is also the world's second largest producer of fruits and vegetables, after the U.S.

Of the U.S.' $200 million in annual mango imports, 63% comes from Mexico, with the remainder coming from Peru, Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras and Haiti.
Mango boosters such as Ron Somers, president of the U.S.-India Business Council - an arm of the Washington-based U.S. Chamber of Commerce - contend that the mango has the potential to significantly increase the current annual bilateral trade of $32 billion between the two countries, but he frets that neither India's supply of mangoes nor the distribution chain in the U.S. can sustain a significant growth in exports at present. Somers, who spent 12 years in India as a corporate executive, is widely called "Mango Sahib" in the two-million-strong Indian diaspora community in the U.S. - and in India as well - because of his persistent lobbying to get the U.S. Department of Agriculture to lift its ban on Indian mangoes.

Somers and Bhaskar Savani, a Philadelphia dentist who owns a 150-acre mango farm in Motabhamodra in India's western Gujarat state, were allies in that cause. The U.S.D.A. was concerned that Indian mangoes might bring to American shores the mango weevil, sternochetus mangiferae, a federally quarantined pest. (That is one reason mangoes from Hawaii aren't permitted into the continental U.S.). Somers and Dr. Savani got the U.S.D.A. to accept gamma radiation of mangoes, a technique developed by the Homi Bhabha Atomic Research Center in Nasik, in India's western Maharashtra state. Such radiation isn't harmful to human consumers, but it destroys the DNA of the mango weevil, and of fruit flies.

Now that the ban is lifted, consumers such as Preeti Dawra, a business consultant in Singapore, are worried that Southeast Asia's supply of Indian mangoes may suffer as more of them are flown to the U.S., where they retail for as much as $3 apiece. (In India the Alphonso sells during its May-August season for the equivalent of $1 per piece.)
And just as wine lovers fight over which geographical combination of soil, grape varietal and climate makes the best juice, mango lovers take great regional pride in their fruit. Dawra says that her Pakistani friends aver that their country's Anwar Ratole mango is far superior to Indian mangoes, and that Europeans, Americans and Asians should be paying more attention to them. With Pakistani and India already battling over claims to the Himalayan mountain state of Kashmir since their independence from Britain 60 years ago, the mango is now emerging as another element in their respective efforts to harness favorable world opinion.

Then there's France, where, says Monique-Marie Steckel, director of the French Institute-Alliance Francaise in New York, Indian mangoes are not only favorites of newly elected President Nicholas Sarkozy and his predecessor Jacques Chirac, they are highly sought by haute chefs. "I myself always prepare a special dessert of mango mousse mixed with basil leaves," Steckel says. "The French have always considered the Indian mango a royal fruit. I cannot imagine that we will face a shortage."

Steckel was actually echoing a sentiment by the late President Charles de Gaulle, who told then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1969 that he viewed the mango as one of India's great contributions to world culture. He noted that the paisley pattern favored by the French was actually in the shape of the mango. Mrs. Gandhi, who was fluent in French, gifted de Gaulle with a crate of Alphonso mangoes.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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