Is it possible to eat sustainable avocados?

Avocados are probably the world’s most controversial fruit. The issues reach from a high water footprint to the involvement of drug cartels. Yes, drug cartels...

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Frank Holleman | 01-12-2022

Netflix offers plenty of good drug series, from Breaking Bad to Narcos. It is hard to imagine what innocent citizens have to go through when their towns are controlled by maniacs like Tuco Salamanca. It is is even harder to imagine that an avocado in the supermarket has anything to do with it. Before we dive into the world of crime, let’s take a closer look at this remarkable fruit.

The popularity of avocados is undeniable. You can find them in every supermarket, trendy restaurant, Instagrammable toasts and as decoration on boxer shorts. With the help of marketing campaigns and social media promoting it as a ‘superfood’, avocado consumption has more than quadrupled since 1990.

Before avocados became globally popular, avocados were cultivated for thousands of years in the central and eastern parts of Mexico. Avocados are still part of the Mexican modern diet, with an annual consumption of 8 kg per person, which is much higher than the American or European average (Statista, 2021; Sánchez-Colín et al., 2001). Nowadays, Mexico supplies half of the world’s avocados. They are also cultivated in countries such as the Dominican Republic, Peru, and Indonesia.

The environmental effects of avocado cultivation

The growing demand for avocados has pushed its cultivation to industrial agriculture. This has increased the yield of avocados but at the same time these, vast monocultures cause lots of environmental problems.

So how bad are avocados? A German study looked at this question in 2019 to help conscious consumers, who want to buy tropical fruits such as bananas, pineapples, and avocados.

Low carbon footprint 👍

On this blog we usually look at the carbon footprint of a product and this is where the avocado scores similar to most other fruit. In the German study, its emissions are higher than bananas and pineapple but I looked up some numbers for other (tropical) fruits. The impact of avocados is comparable to mango or apricots. Overall it’s quite low despite the long distances that avocados often travel (transport by boat does not cause high emissions).

Since there is nothing extraordinary about the carbon footprint of avocados while there is definitely lots of debate about them, it’s time to look at some other environmental indicators.

High land use – especially for a fruit 👎

Avocados require a lot more land than bananas, apricots and mangos. There are a few crops that have an ever higher land use for the same weight, such as olives or peanuts. But it’s not a fair comparison because one serving of avocado is much heavier than a serving of peanuts.

land needed per kilogramm

Like always, the land use of all of these products pales in comparison to that of beef. According to Dutch statistics, beef requires around 7 times more land than avocados.

So we could almost say that the avocado land use is less of a problem than that of meat, but there is one big thing to take into account. The optimal climate and altitude for avocado growth are the same as the regions where temperate forests grow, which has caused a lot of deforestation in Mexico.

Very high water use 👎👎

We don’t often look at water use because it can be misleading. If a certain crop requires a lot of freshwater it’s not automatically bad: it makes a huge difference whether you are growing it in rainy Ireland or in sunny and dry California. High freshwater use is only an issue in a location that suffers water shortages and where water has to be drawn from aquifers.

Avocados are very thirsty plants. From all food products, nuts and olive oil have one of the highest water footprints but if you look at serving sizes, avocados are in the same range.

water used for irrigation

The avocados’ need for freshwater does not have to be an issue in wet places like Indonesia, but it is definitely a problem for some of the top producing countries like Mexico or Spain.

If this were all there is to say about avocados, we would conclude that avocado has a higher impact than most other tropical fruits and that we should preferably buy it from places that have a lot of rainfall.

But of course this is not where the avocado story ends.

Avocado as the new blood diamonds?

Avocados are called the ‘green gold’ because it is one of the few crops where farmers can earn serious money. And this has not escaped the attention of drug cartels. There are multiple gangs that have ‘diversified’ their business and are taking control of avocado plantations.

They are ‘asking’ the farmers for a share of the profit, cutting down forests to plant more avocados, and are fighting over territory with other gangs.

Avocados are one of the most popular products with these crime gangs but they also apply this new business strategy to limes, papayas, strawberries, illegal logging and mining.

So should we boycott all avocados from Mexico? An opinion paper in the New York Times and an interview in The Guardian both argue that this would be the wrong response. It would take away the income from farmers while the gangs would turn to other methods of earning money and become even more aggressive.

Conclusion: don’t make luxuries a daily habit

The avocado is a great symbol for everything that’s wrong with our food system. But it’s just that: a symbol. It’s a product where many of the worst social and environmental problems come together, but these same problems can also be found in other products. From cocoa farmers who are ripped off to huge monocultures of pineapple that destroy biodiversity.

Perhaps the problems are more visible because avocados have suddenly become extremely popular. So the problems that avocados create are more visible than with other tropical fruits like bananas or coffee.

The underlying theme for many tropical fruits is that rich, Western countries have turned resource-intensive products into a staple of everyday life. It requires a lot of effort, space and water to grow crops like cocoa or avocados. They are a luxury in nature. And if we try to produce too much of such a product, it’s the people and environment in the producing countries who are paying the price for it, through terrible working conditions and monocultures.

So, what can you do? What is the solution?

One avocado per month

I wish I could give you practical advice about which avocados to buy but there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer. I want to propose a pragmatic way to deal with this dilemma.

The current European average for avocados is about 1kg per person per year. In the Netherlands, it’s 2.3 kg, which means about 15 avocados a year. What if we take this as our yearly avocado budget? Since not everyone eats avocados, the average would actually go down.

This amounts to roughly 1-2 avocados a month. That means no daily avocado toast or poke bowl every week. For our Fork Ranger recipes we’ve decided to use avocado only for more authentic Mexican recipes. This way we’re honouring the avocado as Mexican food and automatically reduce how much we eat it.

So enjoy this unique fruit once in a while, but don’t make it a daily habit.

What do you think? How do you deal with avocados? Let me know in the comments!