In recent years, avocados have become synonymous with Millennial culture. Instagram is filled with photos of stylish avocado-dressed grain bowls. Every hipster café features avocado toast on their menu. ‘Clean’ beauty lovers proclaim its benefits while cute cartoons of smiling avocados decorate t-shirts. Avocados have even been blamed for the lack of home ownership amongst the under-35s. Seen as a healthy and ‘sustainable’ food choice by those trying to reduce their meat consumption, it is worth taking a deeper look to consider whether avocados really stand up to their reputation.
Indigenous to Central and South America, avocados have long been a staple food of the region. Avocado is a derivative of the Spanish word aguacate, which in turn comes from the Aztec word ahuacatl. For over 3,000 years, local people have relied on the fruit for nutrition. Avocados have high levels of oleic acid (a monounsaturated fat), making it beneficial for individuals whose diets are not high in animal fats (meat, dairy, fish) and it has good levels of B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin E and potassium. Indigenous tribes across the Americas learnt to cultivate avocado trees successfully and the fruit increasingly took on an important cultural role within their communities.
Following the discovery of the New World, a flood of new foods returned to Europe as explorers and colonists sailed back across the ocean and transatlantic trade began. Chocolate, coffee and potatoes suddenly entered the European diet and avocados made a similar debut. Spanish colonisers brought avocados to Europe in 1601, and soon, as European expansion continued, the avocado was cultivated across the globe, particularly in India and Indonesia.
Today, avocados are found in a wide variety of locales. However, avocados can be quite temperamental to grow. Avocado trees need to have stable conditions and do not react well to frosts. Wind also negatively impacts the tree due to the decline in humidity. It requires 1 metre deep soils and does not react well to salinity. These growth conditions make it highly susceptible to extreme weather events, which are all the more common due to climate change.
Despite the fact that avocados can be grown across the world, the primary producers of avocados globally remain in Central and South America, in part due to the topographical specificity of growing the fruit. Mexico is the largest producer (2.02 million metric tonnes in 2017). In Mexico, avocado production accounts for over 500,000 acres and has been steadily growing as demand for the fruit in the Global North increases. The global industry today is worth $5.6 billion annually.
This increasingly international trade comes with a significant carbon footprint. Carbon Footprint Ltd estimates that two small avocados in a packet has a CO2 footprint of 846.36 grams (almost twice the amount of a kilo of bananas). Due to the production of avocados in Central and South America, the fruit travels long distances in order to reach consumers in the Global North. A Mexican avocado would have to travel 5555 miles to reach the UK. Given the distances, fruit is picked before it’s ripe and shipped in temperature-controlled storage, which is energy intensive.
Mexican dominance of the avocado industry was not always the case. Global avocado trade has shifted dramatically since 1997 when the United States lifted a ban on Mexican avocados that had been imposed in 1914. The ban was created in response to a fear of agricultural pests coming into the US with the import. At the time, most of the avocados consumed in the United States had been grown in California and Florida.
When President Clinton lifted the ban on the import of Mexican avocados into the US (as stipulated by NAFTA), the market-share of Mexican avocados in the US sky-rocketed. Today, 75% of avocados eaten in the US come from Mexico, which has decimated the US’s domestic industry that grows 90% of US avocados, particularly in California. President Trump has raised the issue with the Mexican President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, when negotiating the newly agreed USMCA that will replace NAFTA.
However, exporting avocados has not brought stability and prosperity to Mexico. Given the rise in price of avocados in the global market, cultivation of the fruit has increased considerably. This has given rise to plantation-style farms where avocados are grown in monoculture with high agrochemical inputs and exploitative practices that degrade soil fertility. These practices drive up productivity to the detriment of the environment and there have been accusations of deforestation associated with plantation expansion, which has negatively impacted biodiversity. Due to the uniformity and longevity required for export crops globally – despite the significant range of avocados available – 80% of fruit are Haas and are descended from one specific tree (located in La Habra Heights, California) that has a tough skin, making it easy to transport. Because only one variety of avocado is typically grown within plantations, it means that a disease outbreak would have the potential to decimate the entire crop since there would be little to no resilience built into the cultivation, as occured when Panama disease broke out and destroyed the Gros Michel banana.
The increase in production has had negative impacts on local food security. The booming global demand is causing prices to rise, and it is therefore becoming difficult for local communities to afford to purchase a food stuff that is culturally associated with their region. These tensions are only likely to worsen in the coming years with China increasingly looking to import avocados as a rising middle-class demand access to a Western diet.
Water too presents an issue. Each avocado requires 320 litres of water. Given the high profit to be made on the fruit, the cultivation of avocado is often prioritized above other crops. Since avocados tend to be grown for export and not for local communities, this prioritisation has a negative impact on local food security. Furthermore, the water is exported within the fruit and is lost to the local ecosystem where the fruit was grown. The UK’s imports of avocados contain over 25 million cubic metres annually of virtual water – equivalent to 10,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. With global temperatures rising and water becoming scarce, this has serious impacts on local communities who do not have access to drinking water.
This story is further complicated by a strong presence of drug cartels in the central region of Michoacán which produces 80% of Mexican avocados. Gangs have been known to demand protection money from farmers and have repeatedly threatened USDA inspectors when they visit farms. There has also been a marked upsurge in violence in the region due to the profits associated with the cash crop, forcing farmers to invest in expensive fencing and armed security.
This means that despite bold claims that avocados are a clean and sustainable superfood, the reality is that avocados have serious environmental consequences. Avocado production, like our food system, is much more complicated than we might first think. As consumers, we need to understand the impact that our choices have and consider them before we decide what to buy and what to eat. It is only by understanding and appreciating the complexity of our food system that we can begin to change it for the better.