The Dark Side of the Avocado

By: Sarah O'Leary

 

Avocados have become a staple food of the American diet. From the avocado toast fad to Kourtney Kardashian's avocado pudding sensation, the demand for avocados has grown substantially. Luckily, they provide numerous health benefits. According to Medical News Today, the avocado, often considered “green gold”, is packed with essential nutrients and vitamins. It is the only fruit that provides oleic acid, a healthy monounsaturated fatty acid, making avocados a great meat substitute for vegetarian and vegan diets. All these ingredients combined contribute to potential health benefits, including increased cardiovascular health, improved vision, osteoporosis prevention, protection against cancer, healthier pregnancies, lower risk of depression, improved digestion, and natural detoxification (MedicalNewToday, 2017). These potential benefits are all very appealing to consumers; however, they come at huge costs, specifically, to the environment and society in Mexico and beyond. 

Mexico has become the leading producer and exporter of avocados in the world. The US Department of Agriculture reported that in 2019 to 2020, Mexico exported “nearly 964,000 metric tons valued at over $2.4 billion” of avocados to the United States, which is “a historical record for both quantity and value” (USDA, 2020). Given the food’s high demand, avocado farming has been extremely lucrative for Mexico’s economy. However, there are major environmental and societal problems that arise due to this industry.

The environment suffers significantly in several ways. For one, avocado production has a huge carbon footprint. Due to the specific climate that avocados require to thrive, the fruit travels a longer distance in order to reach consumers in the northern hemisphere. For example, Mexican avocados travel 5,555 miles to reach the United Kingdom in a temperature-controlled storage unit, which is extremely energy intensive and high in CO2 emissions (Sustainable Food Trust (SFT), 2020). This contributes negatively to climate change. 

In addition, there are many detrimental impacts on the environment that farming avocados has. In a report on the water footprint of crops done by the The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization “around 9.5 billion litres of water are used daily to produce avocado - equivalent to 3,800 Olympic pools” (UNESCO, 2010). This demand requires a huge extraction of water, which takes water away from other crops, local communities, and ecosystems. In addition, “avocado-related water extractions have opened up subsoil caverns”, which is causing seismic movements or small earthquakes (World Economic Forum, 2020). 

Moreover, avocados are grown in monoculture (“the cultivation of a single crop in a given area”) with high chemical usage that degrades the quality of the soil (compared to rotational farming where various crops are planted on a rotating basis and nutrients are naturally returned to the soil). These chemicals increase the production of avocados, which creates demand for additional farmland and leads to deforestation. As young avocado trees grow beneath a forest canopy, Mexican farmers are quick to cut down the rest of the forest in order to provide the avocado trees with proper sunlight. This heavily impacts the biodiversity of that ecosystem. With this resulting uniformity, if a disease outbreak were to occur, it would have the potential to kill off all the crops because there no longer is biodiversity and therefore very little resilience. In addition, essential wildlife species will no longer have the biodiversity that they need to survive in the area. As this ecosystem breaks down, the health of the avocado trees will suffer and will eventually get to a state when it can no longer produce avocados. This means that this method of farming avocados is ultimately self-defeating. Furthermore, although most of the trees in Mexico’s canopies do not produce consumer goods, they still play a vital role in the fight against climate change because they absorb excessive CO2 from the atmosphere.

In addition to the severe environmental problems, there are many societal problems that arise from this seemingly-thriving industry including as violence, child labor, and modern slavery. The most severe problem involves Mexican drug cartels. The financial success that Mexico is having with selling avocados has attracted drug cartels. As the Mexican government increasingly cracks down on illegal drugs, the avocado industry has become a prime target for cartels to make up for lost revenues from drug sales. To gain dominance, cartels engaged in extortion, demanded protection money from farmers, threatened the USDA inspectors, and participated in cash crop trades (SFT & Wbur, 2020). A criminal group called Viagras, were successful in gaining control of territories used by avocado farmers in Mexico. Soon after, they announced “a tax on residents who owned avocado trees, charging $250 a hectare in “protection fees”” (LATimes, 2019). Not only were local residents victims of extortion, but they were also victims of violence between cartels fighting over the territory.

Many people think that the best way to resolve the environmental and societal problems is to boycott avocados; however, many experts strongly advise against this. Falko Ernst, International Crisis Group senior analyst for Mexico, claims that “a boycott would mean pulling out the rug out from under [peaceful local families’] feet, and most likely prompt criminal groups to prey on civilians more aggressively yet to make up for lost avocado income.” Instead, Ernst states that consumers should “voice their expectations towards companies and to not remain silent bystanders to human right crises.” To help further alleviate this issue, international certification, trade agreements, and reduction in avocado consumption need to be implemented. 

While there are clearly pros (health benefits) and cons (environmental and societal impacts) of the avocado industry, more thought will need to be given to ensure we continue to reap the benefits while also addressing the problems. The first step in addressing the problems is to ensure that we are all educated consumers.