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Earth First

Avocado: The Cost of Production

During my first year of university, I went to the supermarket to buy an avocado and (it’s with great shame that I confess this) I returned home with a mango. Considering the sheer number of avocados that I eat today - in salads, on toast, as guacamole, you name it - it bewilders me that just a few years ago, I did not know what an avocado looked like from the outside. Realising that my friends and family have also gone from ignoring them to loving them in just a few years, I decided to embark on a mission to find out as much as possible about the social and environmental impact of making avocados a staple in one’s diet. Here’s what I found.

Where are avocados grown?

Mexico is the largest avocado producer on Earth - but competition is rising. In 2017, Mexico was responsible for 33% of global production - within Mexico, the Michoacàn region is the most productive.1 According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation Corporate Statistical Database, Mexico is followed by the Dominican Republic, Peru, Indonesia, Colombia, Brazil, and Kenya. It makes sense that most of the top producers are in South American countries - avocados have been a staple food in South American diets since around 500 B.C.


Although not the largest producer of avocados, even the desert regions of Chile host vast avocado orchards.

Global production has spiked over the past couple of decades, bringing many other countries to scale up or trial production. In 2016, the world produced 2.6 times as many avocados as it did in 1997. In 2016, Mexico alone produced the equivalent of the overall world avocado production of 1997!

How much avocado is consumed each year?

Although Europe still consumes four times less avocado than the US - 500 thousand tonnes per year, which is around one kilo per capita per year - the European import value of avocados almost tripled between 2013 and 2017. The main supplier to the European market is Peru, followed by Chile, South Africa, Israel, Mexico and Kenya.2

Where avocados are grown in Europe

Spain is the main producer of avocados within Europe, and in an attempt to grow local markets, pilot programmes are being run in Portugal, Italy, and Greece - with production in these countries climbing year after year.3  

Learn what causes avocado bruising and food waste. 

Impact of avocado production on the environment & communities

This intensification has come with consequences. Several journalistic and institutional reports have investigated the consequences of increased avocado production, particularly in Mexico. Respectively, in 2014 and 2016, articles published in the Wall Street Journal4  and the Guardian5 claimed that rising avocado prices fuelled both illegal deforestation and farmers’ extortion in Michoacàn by criminal organisations such as Los Caballeros Templarios (The Knights Templar). Avocados were compared to Africa’s “blood diamonds”.


A member of Pueblos Unidos guards an avocado orchard. Pueblos Unidos, comprised of ~5,000 avocado farmers and day labourers, is a community defence group formed to protect local communities from extortion, violence and threats from the cartel in Michoacàn. Photo: Cristopher Rogel Blanquet/Getty


Members of the Purépecha indigenous community of Michoacàn protesting outside of the National Palace of Mexico to denounce the environmental devastation and water scarcity in their communities from avocado and berry farming. Photo: Gerardo Vieyra/Getty

A report by the FAO6 also highlighted the vulnerability of small farmers in Michoacàn, who often lack resources to pack and transport their fruit and lack legal documentation, without which payment is not guaranteed. The result is an economy that rewards middlemen with little skin in the game. The people who make significant profits are not the farmers, but those who take care of transport and packaging.

Water footprint of producing avocados

Use and accessibility of water in avocado production also impacts surrounding habitats and communities. The ‘average’ avocado water footprint is a rather abstract measure, considering that avocados grown in different parts of the world require incredibly different amounts of ‘applied water’ to grow. ‘Applied water’ means irrigation water - not the rainfall or natural moisture in the soil. Since avocados can adapt to a wide variety of soils, from dry to moist, farmers will apply different amounts of water depending on the season (avocados grow all year, although peak season is in the summer). Farmers from warmer or drier climates will apply more water than those from cooler or more humid environments.

“In the Philippines, where it rains a lot, and there is very high humidity, they will have to barely irrigate,” claims Dr Mary Lu Arpaia, Subtropical Horticulturist at the University of California, Riverside, “but in Chile or California, areas of South Africa, Israel, Spain and other areas with a Mediterranean climate, you will end up applying more water.”

Environmental and social issues arise when an extremely dry climate is matched with ruthless production. Petorca belongs to the region in Chile from which we typically import avocados - and it is known to be a very, very dry region. Here, it takes about 1,280 litres of applied fresh water to produce one kilogram of avocados - so it takes about 320 litres of applied water to grow one single avocado (against the average 70 litres!).7,

8


A man walks across the bottom of a dried lake in Petorca, Chile. Photo: Marcelo Hernandez/Getty

To get around this problem and ensure access to fresh water, the owners of some big avocado plantations in Petorca have installed illegal pipes and wells to divert water from rivers to irrigate their crops. In doing so, they caused a regional drought. Small farmers with shallow wells are left with no water, and residents often have to use contaminated water delivered by truck to cook, clean, or wash themselves.9 Cases like this one highlight that the avocado water footprint is much more complex than a simple number and directly affects entire communities.

What you can do

Finding out about water footprint, illegal piping, drug cartels, lack of payments, and deforestation helped me realise that picking avocados is not just about finding the perfectly ripe. It’s about fair trade.

1. Look for Fairtrade Labels

These guarantee that producers were paid at least the Fairtrade minimum standard and earned the Fairtrade Premium to invest in their communities and ecosystems - for example, to start reforestation and prevent water contamination.


A grower collecting avocados for transportation.

2. Find Ethical Producers

Browsing to find ethical producers (spoiler alert: it’s not that easy), I also came across the Global Social Compliance Program (GSCP) launched by the Sustainable Supply Chain Initiative, a robust programme which benchmarks and recognises sustainability standards, providing buyers and suppliers with useful information to identify supply chains that are socially and environmentally responsible.

3. Consume in Moderation

We could apply a broader and perhaps simpler principle: moderation is best. Lowering the demand might help to stabilise the supply - and even though this is not a sure outcome, as consumers we have more power than we sometimes think. We may love this weird and wonderful fruit, but we could cherish it more by eating it in moderation, thanking nature for each avocado on our plate - and always reminding ourselves that not even the best guacamole is worth the suffering of whole communities.

The images and image captions to this article were updated in July 2022, based on recent events related to topics covered in this article.

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