The miraculous avocado, super food packed with vitamins, minerals, and all kinds of nutrients: too good to be true?
The avocado has earned a pivotal place in the palate of conscious eaters. They're delicious, packed with a unique combination of nutrients, and hey, they're a plant, so they've gotta be good for the environment, right?
Well, put in perspective, not really. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Alas for hipsters and health nuts, this is the case for the miraculous avocado. Like any commodity, the apparent benefits come at a high cost, and those at the bottom pay most dearly.
While avocados are far less energy intensive to produce than the dirty three (eggs, dairy, and meat), the benefits of the magical fruit basically stop when you digest it.
Even good foods, when turned into a commodity, become a net producer to climate change and degradation. Any natural organism mass produced upsets the natural order of things. Avocados, benefits aside, are no different. Plus, they're more energy demanding compared with other fruits and vegetables.
Avocados are a mono crop, meaning trees keep producing on the same land for years. This poses several major environmental problems. Number one, it makes the soil susceptible to diseases. Two, the soil invariably suffers nutrient depletion, requiring hefty amounts of fertilizer. Because avocados are often competing with other unscrupulous industries eager for land, stakeholders just assume to slash and burn depleted ground rather than put in the capital to rebuild soil. The desecrated land is often converted for even more unsustainable purposes, such as cattle ranching and agribusiness, which further degrade the land. In some places like California and Mexico, severe erosion and desertification have occurred thanks to avocado farms.
The US is estimated to consume up to 50 million pounds of avocados per week during 2019. That's about eight pounds of avocados per person, per year. While that might not be an alarming number as compared to average meat and dairy consumption (which produces far more greenhouse gases and waste than all plant-based diets combined), avocado production take up a disproportionate share of energy to produce compared to other living foods.
"The environmental impacts from avocados come from the energy, water, fertiliser and pesticide required to grow them, the resources used for packaging materials and the energy used in processing, transporting and keeping them cool to preserve their freshness," said Tom Cumberlege, Associate Director of Carbon Trust in an interview with Vice News. "Some of the biggest markets for avocados are where they aren't grow, like the UK, northern Europe and Canada. As a result, they have to be imported from all around the world. As a general rule, the further away they are eaten from where they are grown, the bigger the environmental impact."
Cumberlege explains that the carbon footprint of an avocado can be several times higher than that of a carrot, onion, or broccoli, but significantly lower than off-season asparagus.
But by far the most sinister aspect of avocados is their insatiable thirst for water.
"Avocados differ from other fruits and vegetables in that they are a particularly thirsty crop, and they are often grown in regions that face water scarcity," Cumberlege said.
California and Mexico's growing regions are already seeing major issues from avocado production, such as droughts and heatwaves.
For context, avocados require around twice the amount of water to grow as an equal weight of oranges. Global production is ballooning rapidly in order to feed the global obsession, and severe deforestation and degradation have been linked to increased production.
Avocados are one of the top 3 crops causing water-related stress in production regions. Furthermore, according to UNESCO, it takes a whopping 523,325 gallons of water to grow one ton of avocados. Considering the average Haas avocado weighs six ounces, nearly 100 gallons of water went into growing your morning avocado. Or the one that you just threw out because it was too ripe.
Avocados also have a social impact. While the avocado boon has undoubtedly brought revenue to avocado producing nations like Mexico, the ramifications run deeper than simple supply and demand. Gangs and cartels, ever the capitalists, demand a cut from the farmers' revenue. This forces farms to pay low wages for their workers and traps laborers in a cycle of exploitation and poverty.
We need to stop treating foods such as avocados as fashion trends or statement pieces, and stop consuming them as if they were produced and distributed locally. Remember, nothing comes for free, especially if it's $.39 on special.
“The lesson is that when we choose a fashionable and trendy import like avocado, we need to be certain that it will benefit the communities that grow it and the planet that supports it, and not only our personal health and food desires.” - E-CSR Media platform
Understanding this will curb demand and reduce the environmental and social impacts of avocado production.
Look for FTO (fair trade organic) avocados. If you can't find ethically produced avocados, there are plenty of other foods that deliver the same health benefits of avocados. And let's face it, having more fruits and veggies to account for the nutritive benefits of avocados means more net living food consumption than if we ate avocados alone (diversity is a good thing!).
So the moral of the story? If you have to choose between a slab of bacon on your toast or an avocado, our miracle fruit wins out every time (from a carbon footprint perspective, at least). But if you already enjoy a plant-based diet, you may want to consider diversifying your diet in order to reduce avocado consumption. If avocados are an integral part of your food regimen, buy fair trade organic if possible. And remember: the farther something travels to get from farm to table, the more moral ambiguity it should raise for the consumer.
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