Avocados are bountiful in our food culture and all over Instagram. But communities in Mexico are suffering because of our fetishisation
Are avocados now toast, at least for the thoughtful eater? There was only ever one way for avocado adulation to go, and that was down. Just have a look at Instagram: avocado roses, avocado brownies, guacamole 100 ways, and avocado smoothie (again?) Even though the hipster diet deifies the avo as a staple, boredom with their ubiquity would surely have ushered in peak avocado in the fullness of time.
But what seemed a crisis in the long term now presents as a clean-eating emergency here and now with urgent warnings that in Mexico, the unprecedented international appetite for this unique fruit is indirectly fuelling illegal deforestation and environmental degradation. Those oblivious to such things in far-flung places will no doubt carry on regardless. But what are those who view the avocado as a basic food group supposed to do?
The problem is created by the fact that its now theoretically more profitable for Mexican farmers to grow avocados than most other crops. So much so that in Michoacn, the state that produces most of the countrys avocados and arguably the worlds avocado capital, growers are ignoring the law and thinning out mature pine forest to plant young avocado trees instead.
But whats so bad about swapping one type of tree for another? Permanent forest doesnt need to be sprayed with fertilisers and pesticides. It takes care of itself and acts as a vast carbon sink. Avocado plantations, on the other hand, need repeated cycles of chemical inputs. They drink up irrigation water too, lots of it, putting pressure on local water reserves. By one estimate it takes 272 litres just to grow about half a kilogram (two or three medium-sized) avocados.
The thirsty avocado isnt just testing water levels in Mexico either. In California, avocados now vie with almonds as the top water-guzzling crop.
Its a moot point whether the Mexicans who actually grow these on-trend fruits eventually harvest their fair share of the economic benefits. This lucrative trade is increasingly controlled by a drug cartel known as the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar). So when you buy a Mexican avocado, a greedy share of revenue may well accrue to criminals.
You might think, OK, Ill buy avocados from some other less problematic source then. But would an avocado from Chile, Peru or the Dominican Republic automatically be more sustainable or equitably produced? The fact of the matter is that we know pitifully little about the environmental and working conditions of faceless people in faraway places who grow fruit for our tables, but I have seen enough of foreign fruit farms to suspect the worst. Fields of abysmally low-paid, often migrant workers who toil and live day-in-day-out in a trashed environment amid polluted water courses and pesticides; the latter decaying workers fingernails from dipping saplings into chemicals.
In most of the fruit-growing countries of Latin America, if you talk back to the management, you can expect a knock at the door of your shanty. As Banana Link, the group that raises awareness of conditions in the global food industry, has documented, Guatemala is the most dangerous. Any activist for fruit workers there courts summary dismissal or worse: kidnapping, torture, and murder. Perhaps the Caballeros Templarios in neighbouring Mexico are more tender-hearted and environmentally aware?