Recently, I came across an article about avocados. Surprisingly, it was not about salads or smoothies. Rather, it was about how avocados might be hurting the planet. Shocking right? Well, for me it really wasn’t. Over the past few years, healthy eating, veganism and general sustainability has gained prominence across the world. The increased consumption of processed foods, alongside the myriad of health challenges it leads to have resulted in a shift in dietary patterns across the globe. People now consume a lot more fruits, vegetables and meals rich in natural dietary fiber such as whole grains. These foods were previously relegated to the background as ‘second thoughts’ but now, they are the new sheriffs in town.
Salad has become the new staple and avocado for one, has found love in the hearts and bellies of probably every vegetarian under the sun. You can find avocado almost everywhere, from grocery stores and farmers’ markets to family tables and restaurant menus all over the world. I can even go as far as labeling this green tree fruit ‘the potato of fruits’ because it comes in hundreds of varieties, all of them are equally amazing. It is no wonder then that Washington Post dubbed avocados ‘America’s Favorite Fruit’ seeing as between 2007 and 2013, consumption of avocado grew by over 300% in the United States.
Now on the face of it, this development is nothing short of awesome. I mean, avocado offers such a litany of health benefits that our growing love affair with the fruit is understandable. Eating green is all shades of awesome for our environment and our agricultural systems are finally getting some much deserved credit and boost.
What’s more, our farmers are continually being encouraged to produce more of this fruit just as more people embrace healthier diets and lifestyles. The catch though is a simple lesson entrenched in an even simpler saying; ‘Too much of everything is bad’.
Now you might not know this but avocado trees are quite sensitive to soil-water availability such that even mild moisture stress can lead to significant reduction in yield. That been said, it takes over 320 litres of water to grow a single avocado. For some context, it takes about five litres of water to grow a tomato and some 22 litres for an orange. Higher demands mean more water and quite naturally, this has harmful effects on the water supply of the places that grow the succulent avocado. This situation isn’t limited to avocados though; similar issues surround the large scale production of potato, rice, pineapple and soybeans, alongside other plant-based foods. All of which lead to the question: Can we truly have a guilt-free agriculture? Well, not if we keep eating the way we do.
The real problem is overconsumption. Avocado and other tropical foods have been grown for millennia in South America and Africa. Not until high global demand for these products did these problems present themselves. No matter how sustainable a practice is, when abused, cracks are guaranteed to show. The law of diminishing returns preaches this very gospel.
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Agriculture can never be totally guilt-free. Even if we decided to grow all our food in labs, there will always be direct and indirect costs to their production. The cost may come in the way of increased use of energy to grow them or in higher prices which will make people work even more to afford food. Farming by its very nature involves taking something from the earth. This is inevitable and the only real question here should be ‘how much cost is too much cost?’ If we hope to feed the whole world through mass-scale agriculture, what costs are we willing to pay?
This is not a problem that certifications and transparent supply chains can solve. This is because sustainable production is still production. The fact that it is organic and certified does not in any way reduce the number of gallons of water used to produce a crop. Nor does it reduce the number of miles that it has to travel to get to the consumers. What we can do, however, is ensure that we do not eat our way to disaster and that is precisely what we are doing at the moment.
The way forward is to take as nature gives and for what it’s worth, that is the practice in most African regions. One of the most effective ways here is to return to the Earth’s original food calendar; that is growing food in seasons. Anyone who has knowledge of growing food and has every spent time at a farm understands that nature has a season for every crop and the farmer tailors production to do the same.
The opposite is of course the reality in most of the Western world. Modern consumers are used to being spoilt for choice and want to eat what they want when they want it. Shops and industries are expected to have and supply all foods to their consumers at the drop of a hat, all year round. Consumer demands incentivise farmers to clear more land, to plant more crops, and maintain this tempo in and out of season, perhaps constructing special greenhouses with fancy temperature control devices to kickstart seedling growth and accelerate maturity. In the drier seasons, farmers will require more water to grow crops ordinarily suited for rainy periods and so, if we want truly sustainable, guilt-free agriculture, we might want to consider the seasonal consumption of the produce we consume.
In my city for instance, corn flourishes during rainy seasons and so when the dry periods of the year set in, we frankly do not expect to consume as much corn as we had during the rainy season. With this understanding, no local farmer or food company is burdened with pushing their farming practices to unnatural levels in a bid to provide us with corn all year round. Instead, they channel their resources to the production of plant-based foods suited for dry weather.
Now it is important to note here that this may be the reason why we do not necessarily have super-advanced agricultural systems; but that is kind of the point. Technological advances ill-conceived sometimes spell doom for communities and the planet. This explains why I believe that the best outcomes is applying the ‘nature first-approach’ to agriculture and being sensible in implementing ‘advanced’ technology of Western agriculture.
This means that a change in our sustainable worldview is crucial. That just because something is deemed to be sustainable because it grows in the ground, does not mean it must be abused. It is important to address these issues now because if ignored for much longer, we may just fall back into the old thinking that created the same culture of unhealthy consumption that we have chosen to tackle by ‘eating green’ in the first place.
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Cover image by Daria Shevtsova.