In recent years, we have seen a drastic increase in avocado consumption and heard it being praised for its health properties. However, avocados are far from being a “green gold”, their mass production being responsible for several environmental and social problems. The biggest is stressing the water reserves of the regions of production, since each avocado requires around 227 litres of water to grow. Take a deeper look and find for yourself whether the avocado can really stand up for its reputation.
It is safe to say that avocados have become a staple in most Millenials’ diets. We all seem to obsess with this stone fruit that has a creamy texture and high content of healthy fats. This avocado obsession means that around 5 million tons of avocados are consumed worldwide in a year and chances are those numbers will grow. Why? The truth is most people are swept away by the popularity and health benefits of this fruit, not knowing that there’s a vast number of environmental and social problems associated with the current demand for them.
Just to get an idea on what the increasing demand translates to, from 2008 to 2018, avocado production increased by 85,2%, and is currently increasing at an average rate of 5,3% per year. This shouldn’t be a surprise to you, right? Since the majority of us cannot get past eating nachos without dipping them in guacamole, eating salad without adding that extra creaminess, or eating toast without making an avocado one. And if that wasn’t enough, avocados are also now becoming more popular in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industry.
But then, where do most of these avocados come from? In 2018, from the 5 million tons of the total amount of avocados produced worldwide, 44% were from Mexico, followed by the Dominican Republic with 13% and Peru with 10%. In short, Central and South America.
Why aren’t Avocados eco-friendly?
The environmental problem of avocado production is not different from mass demanded commodities such as palm oil, wheat, coffee and soy. Similarly to those, avocados are also mainly grown as a monoculture, which means that the same crop grows in the same land year after year, for many years. This technique may be more interesting for quick financial gains but in the long run it can be very detrimental to the environment, since monoculture plantations leave the soil with fewer nutrients and are more vulnerable to diseases, needing more pesticides and fertilizers than before. If those chemicals get dragged in the runoff waters, they can be responsible not only for contaminating soils but also the surrounding biodiversity. This seems to be already happening in Mexico since the population of monarch butterflies has dropped significantly in recent years. Not to mention that, as with the other crops, the huge demand for more product is responsible for burning forests to make more space to grow, and deforestation consequences thus far we all know: soil erosion, climate change, loss of biodiversity and even development of health problems in the local communities.
One of the aspects that is unique to avocado production is that this crop is one of most water demanding crops to grow. According to Stoessel, F. et al(2012) avocados are among the 2 crops causing more water stress in their region of production and Mekonnen, M. et al (2011) show that their global average water footprint is 1981 m3/ton, or simply 227 liters per avocado (in the figure below you can compare it to other fruits and vegetables). Given the high profit to be made on the fruit, the cultivation of avocado is often prioritized in these regions above other crops, being responsible for excessive extraction of water from aquifers thus posing a serious threat on the local communities ability to have future access to drinking water. Water extraction is also causing several small earthquakes: from 5 January to 15 February 2020, 3,247 seismic movements were recorded in Uruapan municipality and surroundings, the most important avocado-producing area in Mexico.
Furthermore, since most of the avocados produced are exported from Central and South America, the fruit travels long distances before reaching consumers, dragging the carbon footprint up. A study conducted by Carbon Footprint Ltd indicates that the carbon footprint of eating an avocado is five times bigger than eating a banana.
Avocados as a “conflict commodity”
In Mexico specifically, the state of Michoacá, where 80% of the Mexican avocados are produced, drug cartels are seeking profits from avocado’s because of the government’s tight war on drugs. Gangs are demanding protection money from farmers and have repeatedly threatened USDA inspectors when they visit farms. Some local packers and growers have responded by recruiting their own defense forces but this can quickly escalate to violence and human rights abuses in case they end up clashing with criminal groups. Truth being made, when you’re buying a Mexican avocado, chances are that you’re giving a share of the revenue to criminals.
Boycotting Mexican avocados is not the right response,though, given that it is a huge sector that sustains thousands of hard-working peaceful families and that the cartels’ response to this is uncertain: they could just end up preying on farmers more aggressively to make up for the lost avocado income.
Are there any alternatives?
In this way, we should start consuming avocados more moderately, from time to time and ensuring that no avocados goes to waste! Additionally, at the grocery store, we can mitigate some of the environmental and social costs of Michoacán’s avocados by purchasing only those that are certified organic and have a Fairtrade label. The organic certificate indicates that the production is environmentally sustainable and the fair trade label that farmers’ (and their employees) working conditions and wages are fair and better than most in their industry. In the absence of those, we should give preference to the avocados grown in our country (reducing the carbon footprint bill at least) or growing your own avocados if the climate allows.
Avocado lovers: your precious fruit is far from being sustainable. (2018, December 6). Retrieved from Youmatter website: https://youmatter.world/en/benefits-avocados-production-bad-people-planet-27107/
Manuel Ochoa Ayala. (2020, February 24). Avocado: the “green gold” causing environment havoc. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from World Economic Forum website: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/02/avocado-environment-cost-food-mexico/
Mekonnen, M. M., & Hoekstra, A. Y. (2011). The green, blue and grey water footprint of crops and derived crop products. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, 15(5), 1577–1600. https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-15-1577-2011
Mexico’s avocado boom causing deforestation and illnesses in local population, experts say. (2016, November 4). The Independent. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/why-you-should-stop-eating-avocados-immediately-mexico-environmental-damage-chemicals-a7397001.html
Powell, T. (2017, July 19). Revealed: the enormous carbon footprint of eating avocado. Retrieved from Evening Standard website: https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/revealed-the-enormous-carbon-footprint-linked-to-eating-avocado-a3591501.html
Saeed Kamali Dehghan. (2019, December 30). Are Mexican avocados the world’s new conflict commodity? Retrieved from the Guardian website: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/dec/30/are-mexican-avocados-the-worlds-new-conflict-commodity
Stoessel, F., Juraske, R., Pfister, S., & Hellweg, S. (2012). Life Cycle Inventory and Carbon and Water FoodPrint of Fruits and Vegetables: Application to a Swiss Retailer. Environmental Science & Technology, 46(6), 3253–3262.
Sustainable Food Trust – [email protected] (2020, February 5). Sustainable Food Trust. Retrieved from Sustainable Food Trust website: https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/why-our-love-for-avocados-is-not-sustainable