How Lemons Shaped One Of The World's Largest Criminal Organizations

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What do lemons and oranges have to do with The Godfather? According to a paper published in the Journal of Economic History last month, a booming citrus industry is to blame for the rise of the Sicilian Mafia during the 19th century.

The demand for lemons and oranges exploded in the 18th century after James Lind, a British Navy surgeon, came to this startling revelation: scurvy could easily be prevented, by eating citrus fruit.

Until this point, lemons had been considered luxury goods, used for decorations and scent but not food. Then, between 1837 and 1850, Sicilian exports of lemon juice rose from 740 barrels to almost 20,707. Land devoted to citrus fruit cultivation in Sicily increased from 7,695 hectares (19,014 acres) in 1853 to 26,840 hectares (66,320 acres) in 1880.

James Lind was the military surgeon who discovered a way to prevent scurvy, a disease that did more harm to the British Navy than the French and Spanish fleets combined. Wikimedia Commons/Hudson, A.E.A

Sicily was one of the few places in Europe with the climatic and geographical sweet spot required to grow lemons, and it proved extremely fruitful (pun intended). “[C]itrus cultivation yielded more than 60 times the average profit per hectare for the rest of the island,” John Dickie, a specialist in Italian history at University College London, explained in his book Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia

But lemons were extremely vulnerable to thieves who would sneak into lemon orchards at night to steal the valuable commodity. This is where the mafia (or, rather, the proto-mafia) stepped in. Lemon producers hired men in the "mafie" to protect their precious crops and act as intermediaries between retailers and exporters. From here, they developed into a protection racket and, ultimately, a violent criminal organization we know as the Sicilian Mafia.

Using two different data sets (the Damiani Inquiry (1881-1886) and a report by Cutera, a police officer in Palermo, in 1900), the team revealed a correlation between the intensity of mafia activity and the production of citrus fruit – a parallel matched by no other industry or crop.

Map from 1900 pinpointing mafia activity in Sicily. Towns marked in red indicate Mafia activity, whereas those in black were safe. Wikimedia Commons/Antonino Cutrera

The study authors explained that the organization “arose as a response to an exogenous shock in the demand for oranges and lemons”. They may have been helped by a weak rule of law and a poverty-stricken population, but they got their break in the citrus business. 

“The point to take away is that super-normal profits, together with weak institutions, may cause a [gap] that can be exploited by illegal activities,” study author Arcangelo Dimico told The Washington Post

The citrus industry may only be part of the story, Baris Cayli, from the University of Derby, told The Times. "The fundamental reasons were social injustice in the agrarian economy, the lack of effective land policy addressing the needs of peasants, the governance of land by mediators, the link between the political class and elites, and the nationalization process.” 

The moral of the story here – when life gives you lemons, establish your own international crime organization.

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