Depending on who you ask, fruit and vegetable imports are either a boon or a bane for American consumers and the U.S. economy.

But which is it, really?

These divergent views on fresh produce imports came into sharp focus with the a recent National Public Radio feature called “The Fruits Of Free Trade: How NAFTA Revamped The American Diet” noted the 20-year anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The feature gives a shorthand account of the rapid growth in the winter season variety found in the fresh produce department. From the story’s beginning:

“Walk through the produce section of your supermarket and you’ll see things you’d never have seen years ago — like fresh raspberries or green beans in the dead of winter. Much of that produce comes from Mexico, and it’s the result of the North American Free Trade Agreement — NAFTA — which took effect 20 years ago this month. In the years since, NAFTA radically changed the way we get our fruits and vegetables. For starters, the volume of produce from Mexico to the U.S. has tripled since 1994.”

 The story goes on to interview Jaime Chamberlain, president of J-C Distributing Inc., Nogales, Ariz., who told the NPR reporters that the elimination of tariffs has created market opportunities to invest in year-round produce sourcing in Mexico.

The NPR NAFTA feature, published online Jan. 9, pulled in 78 reader comments and rising by that same morning.

The tone of the consumer opinions shows some resistance to the growth of imports for a variety of predictable and debatable reasons. There was one who called the NPR feature a “puff piece” and sounded the alarm about pesticide use and working conditions in Mexico. Others speculated about the environmental impact of transporting imported fruits and vegetables. Lamenting the plight of the middle class, one reader said Ross Perot was right about free trade agreements. Another described the appeal of the local food movement.

She wrote:

“Those who don’t care about where their food comes from should read “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver--for starters. Once you realize your buying decisions actually have a real, measurable effect on your local economy it becomes more difficult to continue buying those tomatoes from Wal-Mart.”

Yes, but perhaps not as difficult as buying local tomatoes in February in a Chicagoland supermarket.

There were a few readers of the NPR piece who admitted the pragmatic approach of buying local when possible but looking to imports in the dead of winter. Another questioned where “local” bananas could be found in the U.S. at any time of year.

Certainly, there is no doubt that imports are taking a rising role in fresh fruit and vegetable availability compared with decades ago.

A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service report titled “Imports contribute to year-round fresh fruit availability” said the import share of overall U.S. fresh fruit use expanded from 36.3% to 49% between 1990-92 and 2010-12. The report said that the import share of U.S. avocado consumption jumped from 9.4% in 1990-92 to 70.3% in 2010-12. Kiwifruit’s import share of consumpton rose from 51.2% to 75.6%, while the import share for blueberry consumption increased from 13.2% to 49.5%, the USDA said.

Fueled in part by greater imports, U.S. per capita use of all fresh fruit grew from 93.4 pounds in 1990-92 to 104.7 pounds in 2010-12, the USDA said. Showing the biggest growth were blueberries (+681%), papayas (+441%) mangoes (+252%), limes (+213%), cherries (+211%), pineapples (+200%), avocados (+189%, tangerines and tangelos (+159%), and strawberries (+116%).

For avocados, the USDA observed the startling fact that average annual U.S. avocado imports reached 420,954 metric tons in 2010-12, a whopping 2,214% increase since 1990-92. The agency noted that avocado imports have overtaken domestic production since 2005, when Mexico gained year-round access for its Hass avocados to 47 U.S. states.

Even so, the USDA said avocado imports from Mexico and Chile also complement California’s output, with more than 70% of domestic shipments between May and September in 2010-12, while more than 70% of imported avocados were marketed between October and April.

The USDA ERS report looked at imports grapes, avocados, oranges, strawberries, and apples and reached a conclusion that bolstered the view that imports help U.S. consumers and the U.S. economy. “Increased imports help to make up for seasonal shortfalls in domestic fruit production, which can help lower prices and smooth out price fluctuations in the domestic market,” the report said.

And despite increased imports, the USDA said that domestic fresh-market fruit production has maintained its level and even shown an upward trend in most for the five leading fruit imported fresh fruits. “It appears that imports have grown mostly to satisfy increased consumption rather than to replace domestic production.”

Disregarding all other notions and social motivations, then, we can say with confidence that imports are certainly more boon than bane to U.S. consumers and the fresh produce industry.