Avocados are delicious, but water hungry, and often grown in troubled parts of the world. Is it time to break up with this creamy fruit?
When it comes to defining a generation, few foods can beat the avocado. This creamy green fruit has quickly become a staple of the millennial diet and is found at every Superbowl party and slathered on toast in cafes worldwide.
While avocados are renowned for their cooking versatility and abundance of healthy fats, this green gold has a dark side. The commercial avocado industry has dire environmental consequences for our planet and the people that grow them, which is why we are wondering – is it time to break up with avocados?
Here’s why you might want to start thinking twice about ordering a side of guacamole on your burrito.
Avocados: A Brief History
Avocado trees are native to Central and South America, where they have long been cultivated as a staple food crop by the people who live there. These temperamental trees require heat, humidity, and stable weather conditions to grow, and they flounder when exposed to frost or saline soils.
Spanish colonizers that followed Columbus first brought the fruit to Europe, which expanded its range throughout India and Indonesia. But even so, Mexico remains the largest global producer of avocados today, with over 500,000 acres in production.
Most of the activity happens in the Mexican state of Michoacán, where a full half of all the world’s avocados are raised. This region has transformed beyond recognition in recent decades, thanks to a reversal of an 87-year-old import ban to the United States. In 1997, Michoacán-grown avocados were declared free of an agricultural pest known as the borer worm, and the Mexican market opened to the world.
Within years, avocados were suddenly cost-effective and flooding supermarket shelves. U.S. consumption increased 400% in just a decade, and the rest of the world followed suit. To date, more than 11 billion pounds of avocado are consumed globally each year.
Five Problems with Commercial Avocado Production
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this intensive avocado cultivation has come at a high cost most consumers are unaware of. Here are the most significant social and environmental effects of the avocado industry today.
1. Contributes to CO2 Emissions
Most avocados may be grown in Mexico, but they are eaten around the world. This means that each heavy fruit must be picked before it ripens and shipped in temperature-controlled storage containers.
This transportation has a significant carbon footprint—two small avocados contribute an estimated 850 grams of carbon to the atmosphere, which is more than twice the amount generated from an equivalent haul of bananas.
2. Worsens Droughts
Avocado trees require copious amounts of water to produce fruit. It takes an estimated two thousand liters to get just one kilo of avocados, ten times the amount needed for tomatoes. Globally, about 9.5 billion liters are used each day to support the avocado industry.
The trees take ten years or longer to start producing fruit, and they suck down water in the meantime. A plot of land with 156 trees consumes an estimated 1.6 times more water than the same amount of forest land with 677 trees.
Unfortunately, the trees often do best in arid regions, which puts enormous pressure on water supplies for irrigation. Mexican avocado farmers have been caught illegally siphoning water from villages for their crop, contributing to regional droughts as rivers and wells have dried up. This leads to other unintended effects, as pulling water from aquifers has led to a dramatic increase in earthquakes throughout Michoacán.
3. Leads to Deforestation
The avocado’s growing global popularity has caused demand to skyrocket, meaning more land is put into production. This is leading to extreme deforestation of the highland pine-oak forests in Mexico.
According to a 2018 study, about 1,700 acres of forest are converted into avocado plantations each year (much of it illegally), to the point that they now cover a quarter of Michoacán itself, with dire consequences for the local biodiversity. This loss of forest cover is already affecting the region’s microclimate, as it is becoming more prone to extreme hot and dry weather events with increasingly irregular rainfall.
4. Harms Local Food Security
The avocado industry is making many companies rich, but often at the expense of the people who live where they grow. Increased demand means that many who have relied on avocados as a staple crop for centuries can no longer afford them. And, as avocados are raised as a cash crop, they are prioritized over other farming needs in production areas. In times of drought, this often leads to food shortages.
5. Increases Gang Activity
As the Mexican avocado industry gains market share, it’s becoming increasingly cutthroat. In many regions, gangs and drug cartels are taking over. There are numerous reports of gangs extorting farmers for money by burning down orchards, kidnappings, and even murders if they refuse to pay.
Investing in fences and other security measures to protect their families and property against these threats cuts into these growers’ already meager profits.
So, Should You Stop Buying Avocados? Probably.
Despite their impressive health benefits, avocados are far from guilt-free. If you care about the impact your diet has on the environment (and we all should), then it’s time to have an honest conversation about their role in your daily life.
Minimizing or removing avocados from your meals will shrink your carbon footprint and lead to a net benefit for the planet. Consider filling your plate instead with locally-grown foods cultivated in less resource-intensive ways. One option would be to take the money you otherwise would spend on avocados to join a local farm’s CSA (community-supported agriculture) program.
If you do continue to purchase avocados, source them responsibly and make sure they don’t go to waste. Seek out certified organic or Fair Trade fruits when possible, or purchase them from companies that specialize in the produce that doesn’t make it to the grocery store, like Imperfect Foods or Misfits Market. Both work to reduce food waste by distributing produce that would otherwise have rotted in farm fields or languished in landfills.
Once avocados make it into your kitchen, it’s your responsibility to use them well. Monitor the fruit for signs of over-ripeness and pop them in the freezer if things get close. Frozen avocados make for excellent smoothie bases.
Suffice to say, in today’s world, “healthy” and “good for the environment” aren’t always aligned. Despite their benefits for your body, avocados extract a heavy toll on the environment. If you aim to live in climate-conscious ways, it’s time to reconsider how much room you give the avocado on your plate.
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