I love avocados. I’ve loved them ever since they were the exotic luxury food of my teenage years when Mum served them with prawn cocktail at her fancy schmancy dinner parties. I loved them even better when there was a sudden avocado glut in 1975 and I was working as a secretary in Shoe Lane, you could get four for 12p at Leather Lane street market. Bliss!
And, oh glory, they are so GOOD for you! No wonder demand has skyrocketed in recent years. Most fruits are chocabloc with carbs in the form of fructose, but avos are brimming with the best kind of fats – monounsaturated fat being its principal fat. Not only that, they’re high in Vitamin C, sodium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, vitamins E, B1, B2 and D, And they contain a shit-load of fibre too!
And so adaptable!
- Smash it on toast for a simply spiffing breakfast!
- Pulp it with honey, oatmeal or yoghurt and spread it on your face for super glowing skin. What’s that if not a win win, a face mask you can eat afterwards? (Perhaps not…)
- Whizz it in the blender with cocoa powder and maple syrup and lo! You have yummy scrummy chocolate icing for your vegan cake…
- Mums listen up – the delicately flavoured, creamy avocado is perfect for baby’s first solid food!
All hail, the mighty avocado, the superfood’s superfood!
Except I think we should think about them a little harder because they’re currently not very good for the planet.
A quick digression
Some people will be disappointed that I’m not addressing the issue of meat. This is for a couple of reasons, but mainly because I’m reluctant to bore you with the obvious. Perhaps I assume too much but I think enough is widely known about the horrors of the meat industry and the methane emissions from cattle. People are turning to vegetarianism – a good thing – in droves without my help. What this blog is for is to raise awareness of other issues that might not be so well known.
Secondly, I’m a meat eater myself. I eat less meat than I did, which is an improvement, but I’m not going to preach what I don’t practice. I admire people who give up meat for ethical reasons, and maybe I’ll join them one day, but like St. Augustine, I say to myself, ‘Lord make me pure, but not yet…”
Finally, I don’t believe there’s a moral high ground anywhere, least of all a moral high ground with Yours Truly standing proudly atop it, but I’ll come back to this point later.
Back to avos
Avocado trees evolved in rainforests, so they have relatively shallow roots. Most of their moisture intake comes from the top 30cm of soil. They don’t have ultra fine roots which can seek out tiny water droplets which are bound tightly to the soil. So they need a lot of water. Various figures are quoted: 2,000 litres per kilo, according to the Water Footprint Network. In very dry areas, much more than that is needed. To grow one single fruit, it takes about 320 litres of applied water – i.e. not rainfall or moisture naturally occurring in the soil.
I’ll repeat that. THREE HUNDRED AND TWENTY LITRES of applied water to grow just ONE fruit. Try that with a watering can!
And yet it’s being grown in large quantities in incredibly dry areas. California, for instance. Yes, California, which suffered more than 7 years of drought from 2011-2018. They’re grown from Monterey down to San Diego County, in spite of the latter being identified as “abnormally dry” by drought.gov. Unsurprisingly, the current California crop is the smallest in more than ten years.
They’re commercially grown in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina and Peru. Not all the areas are suitable for large scale fruit farming and it can have a devastating effect on surrounding areas.
Take Petorca, Chile, where the situation can only be described as desperate. Aquifers have been raided to extinction. Where there was a river, there is now a dry bed. Small farmers in the area can no longer keep animals or cultivate their land. Locals have to use water brought in on trucks. This water is frequently contaminated and has to be boiled before they can drink it. Many people are moving away, especially the young, thus unravelling the social fabric of the area.
But heaven forfend that the hipsters and health nuts should forgo their smashed avocado on toast for breakfast!
It’s not just in Petorca that things are bad. The demand for avocados – particularly in the US – is now so huge that farmers in Mexico are turning away from traditional crops like cucumbers and melons (which need much less water than you’d think) towards avocados – yes, avocados are the new green gold! In the state of Michoacán, Mexico, avocado plantations have increased by 200%. In fact, in 2017, the avocado business was worth $2.9 billion dollars to Mexico. That’s BILLION.
And that kind of money makes people do all sorts of terrible things, even if they don’t mean to do harm.
Wanna be an avocado farmer?
It’s cheap to start an avocado plantation. The start up costs are extremely low. All you have to do is chop down a bit more of the forest. Hipsters, come on down – they’re turning the forests into guacamole!
The trees prefer medium and sandy soil – the kind of soil that loses its nutrients easily. So lots of chemical fertilisers tend to get applied. Nitrogen, phosphorous and potash. In alkaline soil, iron needs to be added.
They’re prone to attacks from insects. Fruit-spotting bugs, mealybugs, mites, helopeltis, Queensland fruit fly, red-banded thrips, swarming leaf beetles and red-shouldered leaf beetle (doncha love the on-trend touch of those red shoulders!)
Oh, and they get diseases too. Root rot, bacterial soft rot, stem-end rot, cercospora spot, black spot, pepper spot, anthracnose…
Bring on the chemical sprays! Cue more environmental degradation…
According to Greenpeace Mexico, “the lack of coherence between the public policies linked to land use and forest resources is allowing the transformation of the area’s ecosystems into avocado monocultures.”
Farmers are rapidly thinning out the pine forests to plant avocados trees. This is potentially disastrous. Is there anyone on the planet who doesn’t know that large scale deforestation is a calamity in the making?
The kind of profits that avocados can generate have attracted the attention of the cartels. In Mexico, a drug cartel known as los Caballeros Templarios, (the Knights Templar) have obtained full and detailed information on every avocado farmer in Michaocán through their State Committee of Vegetable Health. Civil servants can just as easily terrorised into compliance as farmers or pushers. So the Templarios know exactly how much land the farmers have and how much fruit they produce.
The farmers get a phone call. There’s a price: 10¢ per kilo produced, $115 per hectare of land. Exporters must pay more – $250 per hectare. Those who refuse to pay face kidnapping and death.
Packaging and transport
Consider too, how the avocado arrives on your plate.
They’re harvested unripe, and when they get to the packing house, they have to be hydro-cooled in their bins to remove any residual heat. Then they’re washed with sanitiser and polished, and once they’ve been sorted, weighed and individually labelled, they’re packed in single layers in trays, crates, or cartons which are loaded onto pallets and taken to the cooler until the transport is ready.
The avocado is a sensitive bugger. They need a very particular temperature and the humidity must be just right, or they’ll spoil. So their stowage space must be cool, dry and well ventilated. It’s an awfully long way from Peru to the fashionable cafés of Seattle and Toronto and London – and that means a lot of cooling, a lot of electricity. And a lot of pallets and crating and packaging materials which have to come from somewhere – more waste.
We really don’t know enough about how avocado workers are treated, but I don’t suppose the cartels in Mexico care about them all that much. In Chile, water rights are available to be bought and resold to the highest bidder, so you can happily ruin the lives of your citizens by drying out the land.
And you wouldn’t want to be a trade union leader in Guatemala. In the last 12 years, 68 trade union leaders and representatives have been killed. Murdered, to be precise. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Factor in the attempted murders, kidnappings, death threats and instances of torture and you really wouldn’t want to stick your head above the parapet to fight for better conditions and pay.
Moral high ground
So you see where I’m going. Is it better for me to eat an avocado from South America which has
- drunk 320 litres of water
- contributed to pollution, deforestation and aridification
- contributed to human misery on an impressive scale
- earned a shitload of airmiles
- created a lot of packaging waste
… or a pheasant shot here on the farm? Or a lamb raised by our pal, a good and caring farmer up the road and whose land is better suited to raising sheep than growing corn?
And shouldn’t all these be occasional luxury foods and not daily staples?
The choice isn’t ever that simple, I know, and it’s not a particularly fair comparison. But it’s one of the reasons I’m unlikely to become a vegetarian this side of Christmas.
If you must…
… buy fewer or buy Spanish. Spain is the only European country which produces avos for export. It would be sad never to taste an avocado again, so try and find out where they come from.
And yes, it’s very healthy – but you can get all those nutrients elsewhere.
Mercifully, I gather that in the hippest millennial circles, avocados are now considered SO last year – thus demand is slipping slightly. OMG, can you IMAGINE the SHAME of eating something unfashionable?
Just in case you feel a little relieved at this news, it appears that the Chinese middle class have discovered the delights of what they call the alligator pear and imports to China are rising. God help the poor old planet if the masses start demanding them too.
Many thanks to Malachy O’Neill for his excellent research.
Photo of avocados at the top by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash
The photo of the Kansas house is from Shutterstock.
Note: I prefer the spelling of chocabloc to the uglier chockablock.
28 thoughts on “AVOCADOS…”
You speak from the heart and I thank you for doing all that research. Like you, I loved them when my mother did prawn cocktails in the 1970s, and I have enjoyed them from time to time ever since, though never in great qauntity. They are yummy, but I refuse to contribute to us ruining the planet. I did not know that if I *must* eat an avo, I should buy a Spanish one. I will keep that in mind, but still limit myself to about one a month. This blog of yours is worth its weight in gold. Well done and keep up the good work – where do you find the time?!?! Good luck with the current show. Best wishes, Janet (Berridge)
How nice to hear from you here! Thanks Janet! Hope you’re well.
The perfect excuse not to slice avocado into my warm pigeon salad( as if I needed one!). Game rules, vegetarians are made of meat.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Many years ago – possibly 20-ish – I encountered a (side)dish described as pea guacamole. Astonishingly, this turned out to be mushy peas with bits of garlic and possibly a hint of lemon juice.
There are alternatives out there.
I’ve made the same with broad beans. Delish – and a great improvement on mushy peas!
Glad to see your justified critique of the avocado mania isn’t driven by an anti meat eating zeal, as sadly so much of this narrative is these days. I won’t say the “v word” here, or otherwise I will default into rant mode and end up frothing hemp seed mylk or worse. We need to rethink animal husbandry and reward regenerative stock-rearing approaches which contribute to carbon sequestration (think grazing and manure), There’s a consumer cost, of course, but weaning ourselves off badly-produced, too cheap, feedlot meat would be better for the animals and ourselves. I have no objection to eating animals, just less and better quality ones. Certainly in preference to swallowing soylent green – a metaphor here for the hysteria for plant-based eating which is just as destructive to the planet as industrial meat production (think soya and oil palm cultivation). On the avocado point, one could include other trendy things like almonds here, also a California monoculture, also water voracious and detrimental to bees and depleting of soil. Through no fault of their own, these foods have become the victims of marketing and uninformed demand in affluent markets. People in western countries are so disconnected from the origins of what they eat that they have no appreciation of what happens in terms of agronomy, labour, transport, processing, retailing and the rest of the chain to get their chosen — virtue-laden, health halo’d — food into their hands. So maybe we just have to sit tight and let the “so last year, dahling” tag work its magic on consumption, though it probably won’t help with finding good avocados in stock in the supermarkets. Spain does produce good ones, so too does Israel so make sure you read origin labels.
Great comment, thanks for taking the time.
Almonds are pretty bad for water consumption too. Again, try and buy Spanish ones if you can. California uses about 8 trillion litres of water a year just for growing almonds. And it goes without saying that you shouldn’t be drinking bottled water… but that’s a different story, of course.
Yes, I’ll be covering almonds later in the series. I probably won’t do bottled water as it’s so obvious.
What irritates me about the bottled water thing is that the health standards for tap water are much higher than for bottled water. And still people buy the dammed stuff.
First class explanation.
Can you please run for prime minister????
I think I’d be very practical!!!
Fascinating. I never eat them. Alas, this has nothing to do with principles and everything to do with the fact I don’t like them. However, I have never eaten foi gras, and that is entirely to do with principles (just to prove I have some).
LikeLiked by 1 person
Love your analysis, and agree – however avocados are also grown commercially in Australia, mainly in dry areas and irrigated from our ever diminishing River Murray. I have tried to grow them in my small orchard in the Adelaide Hills, but they really need more water and more sheltered condition than I can realistically provide. Still in drought and with our changing weather we now only plant what will grow under “natural conditions”. Like you we fight for animal rights, but also eat meat a couple of times a week – mainly pastured, organic chicken, lamb when it is not at luxury prices, but rarely beef. Please keep on investigating these issues, and we will keep on making a small contribution to sustainable living and ethical practices.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Way to piss on my avocado bonfire! I guess I’ve been willfully ignorant for a long time. Glad to know the facts even though you’ve broken my heart into a million pieces. Mushy peas it is!
Sorry, I know it is quite depressing… but thanks for reading and posting a comment.
Thanks for your generous comment. I knew that avos are grown in Oz and NZ too, but after some research I felt that the article would get too long if I tried to cover antipodean produce as well. I’m not sure how much we import from your part of the world, though I’m sure the information is out there. However, most of the avos we get here are from California, and Central/South America, so I concentrated on them. I’ll keep pegging away as long as I get encouragement from people like you! And please share…
I’m baffled. When I lived in Lusaka we had an avocado tree in the garden which never got watered. It used to fruit in October, at the end of a 6 month period of no rain. The fruits were large and deliciously nutty in flavour. The trees that fruited during the Rains – Dec to April tended to be watery.
How interesting. I made a decision to exclude Africa, the Caribbean, Indonesia and the Antipodes because I felt the article was getting too long, and I don’t want to test the patience of my readers. Also the information available is quite confusing.
Kenya does export enough avocados to make it onto various lists – e.g. from http://www.worldstopexports.com/avocados-exports-by-country/ which seems like a reliable enough website…
15 countries that exported the highest dollar value worth of avocados during 2018
Mexico: US$2.4 billion (41.8% of total exported avocados)
Netherlands: $904.2 million (15.8%)
Peru: $722.3 million (12.6%)
Spain: $346.9 million (6.1%)
Chile: $323.2 million (5.6%)
United States: $179.6 million (3.1%)
Kenya: $119.1 million (2.1%)
South Africa: $116.7 million (2%)
New Zealand: $71.4 million (1.2%)
Colombia: $62.7 million (1.1%)
France: $62.2 million (1.1%)
Israel: $59.8 million (1%)
Dominican Republic: $59 million (1%)
Morocco: $56.7 million (1%)
Germany: $53.2 million (0.9%)
(Who knew Germany exported avocados!!!)
Elsewhere, an equally reputable looking website – https://www.tridge.com/intelligences/avocado/ZM/production – puts Kenyas output at 3.2% of world output which is rather different. Given that the bulk of our imports apparently come from California and South America, I felt it was best to concentrate on them. Although it is very difficult to find the exact figures. HM Govt websites are quite opaque!
Speaking with my gardener’s hat on, I would hazard a guess that a few things contributed to your delicious avocados which fruited so well in spite of the aridity. Firstly, the cultivar was obviously suited to the soil. (I’m assuming it was established before you moved into the house?) Secondly, it didn’t have a lot of competition from being grown in a monoculture, and thirdly, it hadn’t been planted on land that had too rapidly been deforested, both of which factors would stress the plants. Finally, I’m afraid people aren’t always sensible when planting crops and it may well be that the cultivars chosen by new farmers are the least suitable for the land. You just have to think of the Great Transformation of Nature dreamt up by Joseph Stalin which drained the Aral Sea to grow cotton, a misbegotten idea if ever there was one. A vast inland sea that was once 26,300 sq m in size is now four much smaller lakes, and the eastern basin is now called the Aralkum Desert…
I had no idea avocados were so damaging. I must confess I had a completely different experience back in the 1970s when I was handed an avocado and was told it was a pear. I took a large mouthful expecting a delightful taste of King William juiciness to find…..BLEURGH! Having been traumatised by my fruit lying to me in such an egregious way I have never really forgiven the poor avocado.
If only that had happened to everyone!
Oh dear, as a chaotic eater I find avocados are a good healthy simple choice for me. Nothing to do with fashion. I just like them for their nutritional values and ease of preparation. But I have read your article with great interest and respect. I am trying to become a vegetarian mainly because I don’t like the idea of eating animals greatly. Not battling for any high ground here, just trying to feel comfortable in my choices. Will seek out Spanish avocados henceforth. Thanks for enlightening me.
Great reply. If we all make small incremental changes, surely we’ll make a difference? I think getting used to change is the key.
How to make 250 million fake banknotes and get away with it …https://www.vice.com/fr_ca/article/7bmwve/comment-fabriquer-250-millions-en-faux-billets-et-sen-tirer-a-bon-compte-ou-presque
Thanks a lot for the information on many uses of avocado fruits and also the importance to our body. I will try to use more than before. Nigeria produce it too.
Thanks Juliana. Happy New Year.
Thanks a lot for the information on avocado and it’s many uses, particularly on health benefits. Nigeria produce it too.
LikeLiked by 1 person