Paris, France: Guacamole, avocado sauce, oil and finally, the ultimate Instagrammable meal, the avocado toast: this native fruit of Mexico can now be found everywhere in the world, from social media posts to trendy restaurants and your vibrant vegan salad.
But why this recent boom? As consumers worldwide have become more mindful of what they’re putting in their bodies, the health benefits of the avocado and meal versatility has made it an indispensable part of every conscious foodie’s kitchen.
It’s also packed full of vitamins K, C, B and E and loaded with heart-healthy fatty acid and fibers so consuming avocadoes regularly is believed to lower cholesterol levels, help with skin regeneration, and it doesn’t hurt that it adds wow factor to any dull meal look, particularly on Instagram.
But as with every trendy commodity, look beyond the fuss and the benefits and you’ll quickly find out how destructive the production of avocado at an industrial scale. Not just for the environment, but how the growing global demand for the fruit is bringing farming communities into poverty and violence.
A deadly production
The avocado became a highly sought after “superfood” about 10 years ago and as a result of rising demand, avocado farming quickly became the lucrative business opportunity in Mexico. Mexico is the world’s largest avocado producer. Conditions are perfect here for growing avocados. As it yields more cash than any other crop, some have nicknamed the fruit ‘oro verde’ which in Spanish means green gold.
In Mexico, most of the production is concentrated in the state of Michoacan and is estimated at 2 billion pesos a year (roughly $112 million USD). This huge profit potential has attracted many drug gangs to the avocado business, including the largest in the area known as the Caballeros Templarios, or the Knights Templar, who control the local trade from production to distribution. Their presence brings traffic and violence, making farmers and estate owners give up a percentage of their income, implementing illegal taxes, threatening and even killing those who don’t comply with the cartel policy.
Even local politicians are getting involved wanting a slice of the profits and if their demands aren’t met, they too prevent products from reaching the market so tonnes of avocado just sit there, rotting.
And then there’s the intimidation and violence. In May, seven members of the same family were found shot in the state of Michoacan for refusing to be extorted. Many other local farmers fear for their lives and their families’ with some giving up ownership of their farm land to avoid the threat of death. Considering that the “guac” frenzy doesn’t seem to be slowing down, you begin to see the scale of this problem.
A heavy environmental burden
But growers and communities aren’t the only ones suffering from the avocado boom.
Mexican farmers have been cutting down the country’s pristine forests to plant more avocado crops, even hiding the trees under the tree canopy to avoid government regulations. By deforesting tropical forests, they discard valuable carbon sinks to plant mono cultures requiring chemical inputs and huge amount of water, completely upsetting the balance of these fragile ecosystems. These forests are also home to many native species such as the migrated monarch butterflies that suffer greatly from heavy changes in their environment causing their numbers to dwell significantly each year, despite actions to create natural reserves and replant thousands of trees.
In South Africa where water resources are scarce, the 1,000 litres needed to produce a single kilogram of avocado (three or four avocados at the most) worsen the drought that has been hitting the country for several years now. Unscrupulous farmers are installing pipelines to bring in water from the mountains depriving nearby communities and livestock.
But that’s not the worst of it.
Whether the avocados come from South Africa or Central America, the growing of the crops is not the only environmentally damaging step of the production process. Once grown (but not yet ripe) they must travel to a port, be loaded on a boat and cross seas and oceans to reach their destination. The transport is highly energy intensive and once it arrives at its destination, the fruits remain in a room full of ethylene to help ripen them before being sold to retail shops and consumers.
The avocado footprint on the planet is enormous, making it a commodity with one of the highest environmental and social impacts, alongside unsustainably-grown soy and quinoa.
But as with most harvests from the earth, it’s all about balance. I still eat avocado, but I pay a lot more attention to where it comes from, favoring fair trade and organic labels, all the while steadily reducing my consumption from several a week to three a month at most – at least until I move to a tropical location where I can grow some in my own backyard!