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The Hidden Cost of Avocados

Ziryan Aziz explores how avocado agriculture is causing excess emissions, water shortages, earthquakes and violence in Chile and Mexico.

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Photo by Anne Nygård

Smashed, on toast, and served for brunch, avocados have become a popular feature of many Western diets in recent years. Offering a wide range of health benefits, this ‘superfruit’ has become synonymous with healthy eating, Instagram-worthy aesthetics, and millennial culture. Due to its high monounsaturated content, it is also valued as an alternative to meat for those who adhere to a meat-free diet.

Indigenous to Central and South America, avocados have been a staple food for indigenous cultures for over 3000 years. However, since the arrival of European powers in the Americas, avocados have been shipped across the Atlantic, and a growing market for the fruit has taken hold in Europe and North America. The UK is Europe's second largest consumer of avocados, behind only France, and demand for avocados is set to grow as a Chinese middle class look for a more Western diet. However, this global production of the fruit has begun raising eyebrows amongst environmentalists as the environmental and socio-economic strains of the industry come to light.

In the UK some cafes have taken steps to begin stripping avocados from menus, such as the The Wild Strawberry Cafe in Buckinghamshire. The cafe made headlines when it became one of the few establishments to distance themselves from the green fruit, citing environmental concerns, criminal practices, and questions over sustainability. In 2018, the Tincan Coffee Co in Bristol also announced it would stop serving avocados to its customers due to ethical considerations.

What Avocadoes Need to Grow

Cultivating avocados on a mass scale comes at a cost to the environment that is different when compared to many other fruit. One problem is the CO2 emissions produced during the logistical transfer from tree-to-plate. Avocados, which are primarily grown in the Southern-hemisphere, have to be transported thousands of miles to the UK via sea and air before being bought and consumed.

During that period, the fruit is constantly refrigerated due to its short shelf life, adding to its carbon footprint. According to a study by Carbon Footprint Ltd, two small avocados in a pack have an emissions footprint of 846.36g of CO2, almost twice that of a kilo of bananas (480g), and three times a large cappuccino with milk (235g).

Another major concern is the water consumption required by avocado plantations. It has been estimated that the global avocado industry requires 9.5 billion litres of water daily, roughly the same size as 3800 Olympic swimming pools. A kilo of avocados requires 2000 litres of water, around ten times as much as is needed to produce a kilo of tomatoes, and four times needed for a kilo of oranges, according to the Water Footprint Network. Although this is significantly less than the water requirements for livestock like beef, because avocados are temperamental to grow and can take up to 10 years to bear fruit, the local ecosystem and biodiversity suffers over a long period.

In 2018, major supermarkets in the UK came under scrutiny regarding the growing concern for the water crisis in the Petorca region of Chile, the country’s biggest avocado growing region, which was attributed to the increasing demand for avocados in the UK. In what is naturally an arid and dry region, human rights concerns have been raised as local people and small farmers have been at the mercy of big agribusinesses, whose large plantations have been building illegal pipelines, draining the local rivers and aquifers, resulting in a drought.

Facing anonymous death threats for speaking out, activists and local residents now live on rationed water, brought in via trucks, and many smaller farmers are migrating North for other job prospects.

Avocados in Mexico

However, it's not just Chile that has felt the strain of avocado production. In the Mexican state of Michoacán, large scale avocado farming continues to bring both economic benefits and deadly problems for locals. The southern Mexican state of Michoacán is an important producer of the fruit, producing 8 out of 10 avocados grown across the country, and 5 out of 10 avocados globally. Annually, this generates over £1.8 billion a year for the economy, proving to be very lucrative for some local farmers.

Since the US ban on importing avocados was lifted in 1997, the price of Mexican avocados has skyrocketed, turning the native fruit into a cash crop and kickstarting a green gold rush as farmers look to sell across the border to the world's biggest consumer of avocados, the US.

One of the major environmental issues is the removal of pine forests to make way for plantations. In a study at the university of Miami, it was estimated that:

“Approximately 20,000 hectares of forest in Michoacán are converted for agricultural use each year. In the years 2000-2010, it was estimated that the expansion of avocado farming contributed to 1,700 acres of deforestation per year.”

Farmers are also exploiting loopholes in the law by burning fields and wooded land intentionally to be able to grow avocado, which further contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Much like in Petorca, Chile, larger agribusinesses have reportedly been illegally tapping into the water supply of nearby towns and villages to fuel their plantations, as the underground reserves and rivers have dried up. This stretch for water has even led to an increase in seismic activity in the area, as water extraction has opened up subsoil caverns.

Further complicating the matter is the strong and violent presence of drug cartels in Michoacán. Gangs and cartels are known to demand protection money from farmers using violence, and are involved within the trade itself. As a consequence, there has been a rise in violent crime in the region, the exploitation of workers, and farmers investing in armed private security, also known as ‘avocado police’. This cartel intrusion into the sector has created concerns amongst some buyers that Mexican avocados are becoming a ‘conflict commodity’.

Concluding Comments

As more research is carried out on the negative environmental and social impact of the avocado industry, consumers can make a more informed decision on the source of their avocados, as well as begin to engage in a discussion about whether the quantity of avocados we consume is truly justified to offset climate change and resource depletion.


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