Just how sustainable are avocados?

Written by Honor Eldridge

On January 14, 2021
Avocados in a bowl

Over the last few years, dietitians and health advisors have advocated the nutritional benefit of avocados. With high levels of Vitamin C, E and K and providing a good source of folate, magnesium and potassium. As a result, consumption of avocados has skyrocketed. However, what are the environmental and societal impacts of avocados? While there are significant nutritional benefits, the wider production context needs to be taken into consideration.

Avocado production today

The vast majority of the avocados that we eat are from Mexico and total US$ 2.8 billion annually. Given favourable trade relationships with the US (and now with the EU), Mexican production of the fruit exploded. Production is primarily within the Michoacán region of Mexico. However, this seven-fold increase in production has led to considerable issues for local communities and the wider planet.

What are the impacts of avocado farming in Mexico?

  • Food security

The increased focus on export‐based production has raised questions over regional food accessibility and whether local communities have the means to control their own agriculture. Avocados are now priced outside of the reach of many locals for whom avocado has strong cultural ties. Furthermore, subsistence crops have been pushed on to more marginal land (some of which was previously forested) to expand avocado plantations. This marginal land tends to be less fertile and therefore less productive, leading to food insecurity in the local region.

  • Water accessibility

The expansion of avocado production has impacted freshwater accessibility. Globally, around 6.96 km3 of water is used (or the equivalent of around 2.82 million Olympic size swimming pools) for avocado production in 2018. This poses a significant issue for Mexico, which has already doubled its water consumption in the last two decades, resulting in physical and economic stress to the public.

  • Economic wealth

Avocado production is a lucrative and attractive industry in Michoacán and this activity has brought increased wealth to the region. More than 40,000 permanent jobs are associated with avocado production in Michoacán with an additional 60,000 seasonal jobs Wages in the avocado plantations of Michoacán are considerably higher than for other low‐skilled jobs in the region with an avocado plantation worker can earn US$ 60 per day, which is significantly higher than the US$ 5 minimum wage in Mexico, making the work very attractive.

  • Corruption

However, the economic benefits are not without issue. The profitability of this sector has seen larger corporations swallow up many smaller, independent farms. The potential profit has also led to a number of regional drug cartels to move into the avocado business. The Michoacán region has seen a marked surge in violence with gangs extorting farmers for protection and also threatening food inspectors.

What options would be more sustainable?

  • Organic

In terms of avocados, choosing producers that are certified organic would help to minimise your avocado footprint. Organic doesn’t allow the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilisers, which makes it a more sustainable farming method that reduces the damage to the local ecosystem. This means that the soil remains healthy and wildlife can thrive. It also makes it less likely that those avocados were grown on deforested land.

  • Fairtrade

Choosing Fairtrade-certified avocados would also help. Fairtrade means that the farmworkers have received a fair wage for their work. Paying workers properly ensures the wealth stays within local communities and reduces the risk of drug cartel exploitation. The next step of equitable growing would be to support cooperatives where small-scale farmers band together to achieve the necessary size to market their fruit internationally.

  • Local

Given the significant profit in avocados, it makes sense that other countries are trying to challenge Mexican dominance in the market. Countries like Spain, Portugal and Greece are well situated to grow the fruit due to their Mediterranean climate. Given that these countries are much closer to the UK than Mexico is, there are fewer miles for the fruit to travel. Choosing European grown avocados reduces the shipping and can be a more sustainable option than Mexican fruit.

How we can help

It’s complicated and time-consuming to try to balance all of these different tensions and make a decision about what to buy. And this is only one avocado! Imagine trying to consider the impacts of an entire shopping basket.

That is where we can help.

At Greener Beans, we recognise that food production is complicated and that there are no simple answers. We want to make it easier for citizens to make better choices about the food that they buy but without the hassle. Through our research and analysis, we streamline the process for you to make it as easy as possible to make a better choice when it comes to your food shopping. Whether that is an avocado or a loaf of bread.

So let us help you to become a more sustainable shopper.

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