During my first year of university, I went to the supermarket to buy an avocado and (it’s with great shame that I confess this) I came back home with a mango. Considering the sheer number of avocados that I eat today – in salads, on toast, as guacamole, you name it – it bewilders me that just a few years ago I did not know what an avocado looked like from the outside. Realising that my friends and family have also gone from ignoring them to loving them in just a few years, I decided to embark on a mission to find out as much as possible about the social and environmental impact of making avocados a staple in one’s diet. Here’s what I found.
Avocado production and consumption
Mexico is the largest avocado producer on Earth – but competition is rising. In 2017, Mexico was responsible for 33% of global production – within Mexico, the Michoacàn region is the most productive.1 According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation Corporate Statistical Database, Mexico is followed by Dominican Republic, Peru, Indonesia, Colombia, Brazil, and Kenya. It makes sense that most of the top producers are South American countries – avocados have been a staple food in South American diets since around 500 B.C.
Global production has spiked over the past couple of decades, bringing many other countries to scale up or trial production. In 2016, the world produced 2.6 times as many avocados as it did in 1997. In 2016, Mexico alone produced the equivalent of the overall world avocado production of 1997!
Although Europe still consumes four times less avocado than the US – 500 thousand tonnes per year, which is around one kilo per capita per year – the European import value of avocados almost tripled in the period between 2013 and 2017. The main supplier to the European market is Peru, followed by Chile, South Africa, Israel, Mexico and Kenya.2
Spain is the main producer of avocados within Europe and, in an attempt to grow local markets, pilot programmes are being run in Portugal, Italy, and Greece – with production in these countries climbing year over year.3
Impact of avocado production on the environment and communities
This intensification has come with consequences. Several journalistic and institutional reports have investigated the consequences of increased avocado production, in particular in Mexico. Respectively in 2014 and 2016, articles published in the Wall Street Journal4 and the Guardian5 claimed that rising avocado prices fuelled both illegal deforestation and farmers’ extortion in Michoacàn by criminal organisations such as Los Caballeros Templarios (The Knights Templar). Avocados were compared to Africa’s “blood diamonds”.
A report by the FAO6 also highlighted the weakness of small farmers in Michoacàn, who often lack resources to pack and transport their fruit, and who also lack legal documentation, without which payment is not guaranteed. The result is an economy that rewards middle-men with little skin in the game. The people who make significant profits are in fact not the farmers, but those who take care of transport and packaging.
Use and accessibility of water in avocado production also has an impact on surrounding habitats and communities. The ‘average’ avocado water footprint is a rather abstract measure, considering that avocados grown in different parts of the world require incredibly different amounts of ‘applied water’ to grow. ‘Applied water’ means irrigation water – not the rainfall or natural moisture in the soil. Since avocados can adapt to a wide variety of soils, from dry to moist, farmers will apply different amounts of water depending on the season (avocados grow all year, although peak season is in the summer), and farmers from warmer or drier climates will apply more water than those from cooler or more humid environments.
“In the Philippines, where it rains a lot and there is very high humidity, they will have to barely irrigate,” claims Dr Mary Lu Arpaia, Subtropical Horticulturist at the University of California, Riverside, “but in Chile or California, areas of South Africa, Israel, Spain and other areas with a mediterranean climate, you will end up applying more water.”
Environmental and social issues arise when an extremely dry climate is matched with ruthless production. Petorca belongs to the region in Chile from which we typically import avocados – and it is known to be a very, very dry region. Here, it takes about 1,280 litres of applied fresh water to produce one kilogram of avocados – so it takes about 320 litres of applied water to grow one single avocado (against the average 70 litres!).7,8
To get around this problem and ensure access to fresh water, the owners of some big avocado plantations in Petorca have installed illegal pipes and wells to divert water from rivers to irrigate their crops. In doing so, they caused a regional drought. Small farmers with shallow wells are left with no water, and residents often have to use contaminated water delivered by truck to cook, clean, or wash themselves.9 Cases like this one highlight that the avocado water footprint is much more complex than a simple number, and has direct consequences on entire communities.
What you can do
Finding out about water footprint, illegal piping, drug cartels, lack of payments, and deforestation helped me realise that picking avocados is not just about finding the perfectly ripe. It’s about fair-trade.
Look for fair-trade labels
These guarantee that producers were paid at least the Fairtrade minimum standard, and earned the Fairtrade Premium to invest in their communities and ecosystems – for example by starting reforestation and preventing water contamination.
Find ethical producers
Browsing to find ethical producers (spoiler alert: it’s not that easy) I also came across the Global Social Compliance Program (GSCP) launched by the Sustainable Supply Chain Initiative, a robust programme which benchmarks and recognises sustainability standards, providing buyers and suppliers useful information to identify supply chains that are socially and environmentally responsible.
Consume in moderation
We could apply a broader and perhaps simpler principle: moderation is best. Lowering the demand might help to stabilise the supply – and even though this is not a sure outcome, as consumers we have more power than we sometimes think. Especially because we love this weird and wonderful fruit, we could cherish it by eating it in moderation, thanking nature for each avocado that ends up on our plate – and always reminding ourselves that not even the best guacamole is worth the suffering.
Image credit: Thought Catalog