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Mexico praises lifting of last U.S. avocado import barriers

MEXICO CITY (AP) -- Mexican officials celebrated the lifting of the last remaining U.S. barriers to avocado imports on Friday, saying it will boost the economy and could help stem the tide of migrants heading north to find work.

President Felipe Calderon led the celebrations in his home state of Michoacan in central Mexico, which produces 80 percent of the country's avocados and also is one of the leading sources of migrant workers in the U.S.

A healthy avocado industry "undoubtedly contributes to detaining the migration of more men and women to the U.S.," Calderon said.

Beginning in 1914, U.S. authorities prohibited the importation of Mexican avocados, saying they were infested by agricultural pests.

In 1997 the United States started allowing avocados from Michoacan to be imported to 13 U.S. states, and gradually eased other barriers in the next decade.

By the end of 2005, all Mexican avocados were allowed in every U.S. state except California, Florida and Hawaii. The last restrictions were lifted Friday, and the first avocados were shipped out to those states the same day.

Jorge Fernandez, president of the Michoacan Avocado Producers Association, said that as a result of the complete opening of the U.S. market, Mexico is expected to send 180,000 metric tons (198,000 U.S. tons) of the fruit in the 2006-2007 season, up from 136,000 metric tons (150,000 U.S. tons) the previous year.

The opening comes as farm groups and opposition parties in Mexico are calling for the government to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement, under which the Mexican market will be opened to U.S. grain imports next year.

The recent rise in world corn prices, and consequently in the price of Mexico's main food staple, the tortilla, has given additional impetus to those calls.

Calderon has said he will not challenge the NAFTA opening, and said Friday the best way ahead is to promote market access and better opportunities. He said the government has earmarked $16 billion this year for agricultural support programs.

"I share the concerns of social groups, workers, unions, farmers, and political parties about the conditions in our agrarian sector and, of course, the next steps in the opening to goods trade with the U.S. and Canada," he said.

While Mexican agricultural exports have expanded fourfold since NAFTA went into effect in 1994 and Mexico runs a trade surplus with its northern neighbor, "it's still little compared with what Mexico is capable of producing," he said.

One in four Mexicans live in a rural area, but agriculture accounts for only about 5 percent of gross domestic product, he added.

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