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.
The photo of the Kansas house is from Shutterstock.
Note: I prefer the spelling of chocabloc to the uglier chockablock.