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The 9,000-Mile Sea Journey of an Irradiated Indian Mango

Can the delicate mango ever become a seafaring fruit?

Ripe mangoes

Ripe mangos. (Photo: Ramnath Bhat // CC BY: 2.0)

Farmers in India say the unique aroma and taste of the Alphonso mango comes from the nutrient rich, blood-red soil and the winds blowing over the orchards from the Arabian Sea. The distinct sour perfume of unripe mangos fills the air every harvest across the hillsides in Maharashtra State’s Western Ghats. 

Once ripe, the saffron-yellow mango is known for its intensely fruity taste. The cult delicacy has a passionate fan base in many Persian Gulf states and India. But until just a few years ago, the Alphonso and every other variety of Indian mango was illegal in the U.S.

A bug problem caused the two-decade ban on American imports of Indian mangos, to the great dismay of fans in the country’s large South Asian community, who insist mangos from India are more complex in flavor than the Latin American mangos typically found on U.S. grocery shelves. Fears over fruit fly infestation kept the fruit away until 2006, when U.S. authorities relaxed the ban—with some conditions. 

Since then, all mangos moving between India and the U.S. have been expected to undergo irradiation treatment. The U.S. approved irradiation as a safe quarantine treatment for fruit and vegetables in 2002. Fruits from countries including Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam face similar exposure to radiation to eradicate any invasive species they may be carrying.

Normally, fruits like mangos are exported via planes. Yet since Indian mango orchards are thousands of miles away from the U.S. shops, high transports costs weaken the incentive for exporters to compete with mango-producing countries such as Mexico. But this month, state officials in Maharashtra say Indian mangos were sent to the United States by ship for the very first time. Indian press declared it an historic moment. 

In the sphere of Indian-American mango relations, it was progress.

The mangos traveled on a ship like this one. (Photo: Patrick Denker // CC SA: BY 2.0)

India produces more than half of the world’s mangos every year, yet it exports relatively few of them. The experiment to transport the “King of Fruits” by sea may change that. Shipping mangos abroad nearly halves their transport costs.

To get to New York by boat, one mango takes a 9,000 nautical mile journey. In late June, Alphonso, Kesar and Banganapalli varieties departed the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust in Mumbai, for an expected 22-day journey to New York. Indian exporters hope this lengthy voyage, from orchard, through radiation treatment, and onto a container vessel bound for the Eastern seaboard, will provide a new template for unleashing their mangos on the U.S. market. 

Not everyone agrees, however, that the delicate mango can survive such an arduous journey. 

“We gave up on sea,” says Jaidev Sharma, president of Mangozz, a company that imports mangos from India to the U.S. His company experimented with a sea shipment in 2008. The results were so bad, he says, that the company did not publicize the long-awaited arrival of their mangos.

At sea, the mango is kept at a low temperature to slow down the process of ripening. Mangozz’s shipment never ripened properly, and tampering with the ripening process is risky. After the batch softened up at room temperature, the seafaring mangos lacked their distinctive taste. 

Still, mango exporters and state government officials in India have confidence the fruit has the resilience to survive the journey. 

An Indian mango tree

A mango tree. (Photo: Public Domain)

Mango cultivation is a 6,000-year-old tradition in India. The mangos in Maharashtra State grow in orchards known locally as Aamri. To harvest the semi-ripe mangos, pickers use a net attached around a metal ring on the end of a bamboo pole. A sharpened arrow-shaped tool, stuck to the metal ring, called a zela, is used to dislodge the mangos into the net. The mangos are then placed into a wooden box lined with straw. 

From here, the mangos meant for export to the U.S. are transported to one of two irradiation centers, one at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Lasalgaon, and a second one in Vashi, near Mumbai. The Vashi irradiation hub is new; the Maharashtra state government built it in part to help boost mango exports. 

At the facilities, exposure to radiant energy such as gamma rays renders any bugs unable to reproduce on the long journey to the U.S. Insects are in effect, sterilized, which does not actually kill the bug living inside the mango at the time. The energy waves directly attack the molecular structure that form the pest’s DNA. (The European Union lifted its own ban on Indian mangos this summer, but does not approve of irradiation treatment. Mangos destined for Europe are instead submerged in water at 48 degrees Celsius.)  

The final domestic stop for a mango is a shipping container terminal or a plane. India exported 700 tonnes of mangos to the U.S. this year, more than double what it sent last year. The first sea shipment carried a reported 18 tonnes

Box of Alphonso mangoes

Box of Alphonso mangos. (Photo: Chris Conway and Hilleary Osheroff  // CC BY: SA 2.0)

There are some 1,000 types of Indian mango, and dozens of subspecies and countless hybrid varieties. And some of the very best mangos may never reach the U.S, at least not in bulk. In Devgad, a collection of villages in the Konkan region of Maharashtra, more than 700 farmers produce the Devgad Alphonso. This mango is unsuitable for long-haul travel to the U.S., says Omkar Sapre, head of marketing for the Devgad District Mango Growers Cooperative.

The ocean-bound shipment of mangos in June from India to the U.S. was an experiment to make it easier for producers in Maharashtra State to compete in the American market. But no one back in India knows whether it has arrived in New York yet, and how the produce looked after nearly a month at sea, says Vivek Bhide, president of the Konkan Cooperative Association of Alphonso Mango Growers and Sellers.

There could be a future for sea shipments of mangos with the right logistics, and if the selection of the species is correct, says Sharma, of the Mangozz company. But after his experience of receiving a ship full of flavorless mangos, he says he will leave it to others to experiment.