Avocado production impacts on the Environment
This intensification has come with consequences. Several journalistic and institutional reports have investigated the consequences of increased avocado production, in particular in Mexico. Respectively in 2014 and 2016, articles published in the Wall Street Journal4 and the Guardian5 claimed that rising avocado prices fueled both illegal deforestation and farmers’ extortion in Michoacán by criminal organizations such as Los Caballeros Templarios (The Knights Templar). Avocados were compared to Africa’s “blood diamonds”.
A report by the FAO6 also highlighted the weakness of small farmers in Michoacán, who often lack resources to pack and transport their fruit, and who also lack legal documentation, without which payment is not guaranteed. The result is an economy that rewards middle-men with little skin in the game. The people who make significant profits are in fact not the farmers, but those who take care of transport and packaging.
Water footprint of producing Avocados
Use and accessibility of water in avocado production also has an impact on surrounding habitats and communities. The ‘average’ avocado water footprint is a rather abstract measure, considering that avocados grown in different parts of the world require incredibly different amounts of ‘applied water’ to grow. ‘Applied water’ means irrigation water – not the rainfall or natural moisture in the soil. Since avocados can adapt to a wide variety of soils, from dry to moist, farmers will apply different amounts of water depending on the season (avocados grow all year, although peak season is in the summer), and farmers from warmer or drier climates will apply more water than those from cooler or more humid environments.
“In the Philippines, where it rains a lot and there is very high humidity, they will have to barely irrigate,” claims Dr Mary Lu Arpaia, Subtropical Horticulturist at the University of California, Riverside, “but in Chile or California, areas of South Africa, Israel, Spain and other areas with a mediterranean climate, you will end up applying more water.”
Environmental and social issues arise when an extremely dry climate is matched with ruthless production. Petorca belongs to the region in Chile from which we typically import avocados – and it is known to be a very, very dry region. Here, it takes about 1,280 litres of applied fresh water to produce one kilogram of avocados – so it takes about 320 litres of applied water to grow one single avocado (against the average 70 litres!).7,8
To get around this problem and ensure access to fresh water, the owners of some big avocado plantations in Petorca have installed illegal pipes and wells to divert water from rivers to irrigate their crops. In doing so, they caused a regional drought. Small farmers with shallow wells are left with no water, and residents often have to use contaminated water delivered by truck to cook, clean, or wash themselves.9 Cases like this one highlight that the avocado water footprint is much more complex than a simple number, and has direct consequences on entire communities.
What you can do?
Finding out about water footprint, illegal piping, drug cartels, lack of payments, and deforestation helped me realize that picking avocados is not just about finding the perfectly ripe. It’s about Fairtrade
These guarantee that producers were paid at least the Fairtrade minimum standard, and earned the Fairtrade Premium to invest in their communities and ecosystems – for example by starting reforestation and preventing water contamination.
Browsing to find ethical producers (spoiler alert: it’s not that easy) I also came across the Global Social Compliance Program (GSCP) launched by the Sustainable Supply Chain Initiative, a robust programmed which benchmarks and recognizes sustainability standards, providing buyers and suppliers useful information to identify supply chains that are socially and environmentally responsible
We could apply a broader and perhaps simpler principle: moderation is best. Lowering the demand might help to stabilize the supply – and even though this is not a sure outcome, as consumers we have more power than we sometimes think. Especially because we love this weird and wonderful fruit, we could cherish it by eating it in moderation, thanking nature for each avocado that ends up on our plate – and always reminding ourselves that not even the best guacamole is worth the suffering.
Disclaimer: This article is originally published on https://youmatter.world/en/benefits-avocados-production-bad-people-planet-27107/