By Bodil S. Lund
The truth is that I really, truly, deeply love avocados, and I want to eat guacamole with everything all the time. However, we all know (and this is especially true when you live in Scandinavia) that avocados are an exotic, expensive, pollutive, extravagant, unnecessary viand. I need to make sure that I am not affected by a hipster trend that is slowly destroying the water resources and biodiversity in the areas where avocados are grown, and that I can continue to enjoy, in moderation, this insanely delicious superfood with all the vitamins and antioxidants imaginable locked inside their smooth, oh so smooth, belly.
Photo by Marta Weronika
Given the possibility that I have been overcome by a trend and could in fact easily go on living without avocados, I need to take back control of my judgment of avocados. And what better way to do this than by a close examination of the environmental and social impact of the avocado industry. A positive side effect of this examination is that I will also know what I am eating, the impacts of my fancy taste for exotic fruit, and how bad it actually is.
I shall begin on a positive note. The ever-growing avocado industry has resulted in job creation, export growth for some South American, Asian, and African countries, and an increasing focus on labour workers’ salaries and benefits in local areas. All this is largely a consequence of the high profits available in the avocado industry – in 2018/2019 Mexican avocado exports accounted for US$ 2.8 billion. The industry is constantly growing in technology, packing facilities, administrative work, specialized professionals and the like. The local communities are mostly benefiting from this growth in higher wages and growing industrialisation in their areas.
I say mostly benefitting. Of the 5 million tonnes of avocados that are consumed each year, most of them are consumed in the U.S. and Europe, and they are produced mainly in Mexico, The Dominican Republic, Peru, Indonesia, Colombia and Brazil. With growing productions in Kenya, South Africa, Spain and many other countries. The consumption of avocados per capita increased by 406 % in the U.S. between 1990-2017. In comparison, the consumption of commercially produced fruits increased by only 28.5 % during the same period. The global avocado consumption is anticipated to grow at a rate of 6.2 % annually in the next 6 years. We love avocados! And this quickly expanding love does not come problem-free.
Mexican cartels have for a long time had a strong interest in their local avocado farmers and demanded a chunk of the profit in return for not burning down plantations. Around the globe, an increase in the cultivation of land for avocado production poses several environmental challenges and potential damage due to deforestation, alteration of the local flora and fauna, increased use of freshwater, high use of agrochemicals, and added infrastructure to the areas where plantations are created.
In the province of Michoacán in Mexico, where 80 % of Mexico’s production of avocado is situated, and thereby 80 % of 40 % of the world’s total supply of avocado (Mexico supplies 40 % of the world’s avocados), drug gangs controlling profits and deciding over farms poses both a threat to the local communities and especially to the farmers growing our beloved berry. In other areas, such as Chile, fruit and vegetable production is putting a strain on the available sources of freshwater. Some areas in Chile are very dry and therefore a large amount of freshwater from irrigation is needed to replace the lack of rainwater. Due to the lack of water, avocado production fell by 46 % in 2018 in Chile compared to its maximum in 2009, and several areas have been struggling with attaining and keeping water rights in a genuine “war on water”.
Back to Mexico, where the size of the avocado production has led to deforestation, illegal deforestation, as well as other crops being moved to less nutritious fields to free up better spots for avocado growth which have created a concern for food availability for local communities. Since the less nutritious soil where crops are now being grown will give a smaller yield and most avocados are grown for exportation to secure the highest possible profit. Not to mention the biodiversity loss deforestation in the areas will no doubt accumulate.
Furthermore, like many other fruits, avocados are grown as a monoculture, meaning that the same trees grow on the same land year after year after year (avocado trees reach their maximum production when they are around 10-15 years old). Monoculture plantations remove a lot of nutrients from the soil and invite a lot of pests and diseases in, which means that a high amount of pesticides and fertilizers are used in production. Not treating pests in avocado plantations has led to over 60 % loss of profit, and up to 100 % yield loss is a possibility. Which needless to say is devastating for the farmers depending on the production.
All in all, the production of our lusciously green berry is somewhat problematic. Some of these problems can be solved by continued research into fertilisation, using pesticides, irrigation, avoiding soil depletion, securing biodiversity in and around orchards. Some of which should be addressed by local authorities (which presents a whole array of related political and socio-economic problems). And some of which can be solved by a simple spread of information.
For instance, I often read concerns and speculations over how much water is used on avocado production, and how this makes avocado production particularly bad. And yes, avocado trees do need A LOT of water. It varies from area to area how much is needed, but in total 6.96 km^3 of water was used for avocado production in 2018. Add this to the fact that it takes a couple of years for the trees to start producing a profitable amount of avocados. However, in general, fruits need a lot of water, vegetables need a bit less, but still a whole lot of water, and in total agriculture uses 70 % of the world’s freshwater. The problem of water shortage is not central to avocado production, it is a global issue that should be addressed in all agricultural food production. Especially in the production of fruits in dry, sunny countries far away from people like me for whom the fruits are produced.
Having looked at all the facts, should I then stop eating avocados? Even if I try to find organically grown fair-trade avocados with a high concern for local areas and workers rights the production will still be using a lot of water, possibly create soil depletion, add a bunch of chemicals to the ground and most likely be planted instead of a wild area with a higher degree of biodiversity. In this sense, avocado production is very similar to any other agricultural production. On top of this, avocados are produced very far from where I live, and the transportation time to my local supermarket is adding high amounts of unnecessary CO2 to our atmosphere. Is Kenya closer to Denmark in transportation time than Mexico? If I am only going to buy avocados from Spain, will I then support an unwanted movement away from South American and African export markets?
There is so much more research I could and should do into the avocado industry before I can even begin to make the argument for or against avocados. I can hardly call my decision to stop eating avocados or to continue to eat avocados sustainable before having done so. I should hardly be viewed as a conscious eater or concerned citizen based on this staggering attempt. Especially, if I now, despite all the continued environmental and social problems, continue to eat avocados.
Anyway, I might start eating fewer avocados… I will try to accept that the most sustainable/regenerative option would be to only eat vegetables and fruits grown in my backyard. I will attempt to eat the avocados with the lowest impact on our climate in transportation time, pesticides and water use, knowing that this is far from good enough. Not only should I cut avocados out of my diet I should also cut bananas, oranges, soy products and many other exotic foods. I should, and I can. I would probably eat just as well if I only ate local food. In fact, I am too rich and white and privileged to not do whatever I can for the environment – and not eating avocados would be such a small thing to do! Almost as easy as not eating meat – which I am also trying not to do.
The reason why avocados suck is that they remind me of my selfishness, my laziness, how I so easily succumb to trends, my spineless “fight” for the environment, and my constant silent agreement to the capitalist system that supports my every need.
- Siddique, H., 2016, Rising avocado prices are fuelling illegal deforestation in Mexico, ,https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/aug/10/avocado-illegal-deforestation-mexico-pine-forests
- Dorantes, L., 2004, Avocado: Post-harvest operations, Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations, ,http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/inpho/docs/Post_Harvest_Compendium_-_Avocado.pdf
- Sommaruga, R., Eldridge, H., 2020, Avocado Production: Water Footprint and Socio-economic Implications, Wiley Online Library, ,https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1746-692X.12289
- Goncalves, A., 2018, Avocado Sustainability: What are the Social and Environmental Impacts of Avocados? ,https://youmatter.world/en/benefits-avocados-production-bad-people-planet-27107/
- Wasilwa, L. et al., n.a., Status of avocado production in Kenya, ,https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Lusike-Wasilwa/publication/267683079_STATUS_OF_AVOCADO_PRODUCTION_IN_KENYA/links/58f5ae67a6fdcc11e56a0129/STATUS-OF-AVOCADO-PRODUCTION-IN-KENYA.pdf