Why are limes so freakishly expensive in New Zealand?

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that limes get expensive while out of season. But they’re very, very, very expensive right now. Is there something more worrying going on? Alex Braae reports.

There’s nothing like a squeeze of lime juice to make the flavours of a guacamole sing, not to mention to make a mojito possible at all. Unfortunately, picking up a few limes for the purpose right now will probably break the bank.

Prices for the small green citrus fruit have shot up this summer to extreme new highs, with reports of a single kilogram costing as much as $80. That’s many times higher than prices at the peak of the growing season, in which a kilogram can often be bought for a single digit.

Chris Snelson, a grower at Te Puna Limes near Tauranga, says there’s a straightforward reason why they’re so extraordinarily expensive right now.

“I can answer that incredibly quickly. They’re all imported. We’ve got no limes at the moment.”

He said unlike lemons, which can be grown all year, limes only start being picked in New Zealand in February. Right now, those in the shops are imported. “Everything’s coming from the States [at] a huge price and they’re knobbly little things, horrible things.”

Snelson said that we could expect the price to drop dramatically when New Zealand limes begin to be harvested, with retail prices likely to be around $10-$12 a kilo.

But that may not be the full picture. Limes are often expensive, but similar stories from December 2013 showed that the price spike was more like $30-$40 a kilo. So why are they so much higher now?

Limes are an essential ingredient of many fine cocktails (Getty Images)

The answer could have something to do with less stable weather patterns in other parts of the world. Over 2019, lime production in the key growing country of Mexico was absolutely hammered by drought. Freshplaza reported in September that wells are running dry, trees are under extreme stress, and the crop is suffering as a result.

New Zealand’s limes aren’t necessarily imported from Mexico. But this country is part of a global food supply system, which means we are affected by market conditions in other countries.

According to Tridge.com, a global food market intelligence service, limes right now are experiencing an astonishing price spike. In their global index, the average price of limes as of December 15 was 48.6% up on a month prior, and 68.2% up on one year prior.

Petra Mihaljevich, the marketing manager at Auckland supermarket group Farro Fresh, said that prices for limes in their stores right now were more like $40 a kg, so still elevated. She said the supermarket imports from a range of countries, but much of their stock came from California.

Mihaljevich said that according to Farro’s suppliers, “the reason the price is so high is that they’ve had a lot of rain, so their supply has been more restricted, and that bumps the price up”.

California’s long-running drought was in fact broken in the second half of 2019, with above average rainfall. Mexico and the US are the second- and seventh-largest lime-producing countries in the world respectively.

It isn’t necessarily something that can be solved quickly by local fruit suppliers either. “The other thing you’ve got to consider is that they’re probably coming here on a ship, so you’ve got a bit of time in transit,” Mihaljevich added. “You kind of need to plan quite far in advance.”

Such incidents can be expected to continue as food production is affected by climate change, according to a wide range of academic research. It’s not necessarily a linear pattern – in some instances it will have a positive localised effect on particular crops, but in many instances the opposite will occur.

The point was made clearly in a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report into land use, which noted that “the stability of food supply is projected to decrease as the magnitude and frequency of extreme weather events that disrupt food chains increases”.

So in the immediate term, is there any solution that lime-lovers can turn to? Unfortunately, the answer is probably no – a typical lime tree takes at least three years to start growing fruit after being planted. You can buy pouches of lime juice: they’re better than nothing, but, well, just not the same.

But if the prices do come down sharply again, there’s one good option, according to editor of NZ Gardener magazine Jo McCarroll.

“They freeze brilliantly, with no loss of quality,” she told The Spinoff.

The best way is to squeeze the juice into ice cube containers, but you can also just put whole bags into the freezer and then squeeze the air out, McCarroll suggested. After that, you just thaw them on the bench before using them. Right now McCarroll has about 20 kilos of limes stored like that, which makes her exceptionally well placed to ride out the global turbulence in food production.


The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.


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