Avocados – Global Boom to Boomerang

Departments - International Perspectives

December 12, 2018

Floortje | iStock

At the beginning of the century, the global production of avocados was just under three million tons. By 2016, production had increased to more than six million. In Europe, particularly, avocado sales have increased in an unprecedented way:

  • Germany: sales of avocados rose between 2016 and 2017 by 22% to 126 million pounds; double that of 2013. (Federal Office of Statistics)
  • Great Britain: during the same timeframe, the consumption of avocados rose by 29%.
  • Netherlands: over a span of eight years, the import value of avocados has increased more than fourfold reaching a total value of 433 million euros (nearly $500 million) in 2016.
  • China: 3.3 million pounds of avocados were imported in 2013, while only four years later, in 2017, it was almost 66 million pounds.
  • India: is opening up as yet another new avocado market.
  • U.S. has remained the top importer of avocados for years.

How has the avocado, that large, egg-shaped berry from Mexico, formerly called “butter pear,” managed to become a world star? Why is there almost no café or restaurant in New York, London, or Paris that cannot do without an avocado toast, salad, or smoothie? What has enabled the opening of two avocado restaurants in Berlin? Did it all really start with a bit of guacamole on a wrap or avocado wedge in sushi?

It is actually the result of a successful marketing strategy portraying the avocado as a new super-food, symbolizing a healthy lifestyle which is trendy and ecological at the same time and can “bring about miracles”: Whether used in a starter, main meal, or dessert, it is so healthy it can be consumed in good conscience.

The avocado’s benefits include monounsaturated fats, Omega 3 fatty acids, antioxidants, high potassium, fiber, vitamins A and E, minerals, and no carbs; it lowers cholesterol and nourishes skin, hair, and nails. Hence, avocados can be found as an ingredient in peelings, massage butters, hydrating creams, hair conditioner, etc. The list seems endless; the avocado has seemingly come to embody the “good” and stand for an allegedly intelligent generation, one that is aware of its health and the environment.…

But is that reality? Or is the avocado boom nothing but an illusion which will eventually boomerang to confront a hard truth?

THE HARD TRUTH. As much as the avocado is beneficial to humans, the rise of avocado production has started to turn into an environmental disaster for nature and small farmers in producing countries such as Mexico, Peru, and Chile.

In regions of water scarcity, the production of avocados uses that resource in huge quantities: One pound of avocados needs about 120 gallons of water; in comparison, a pound of tomatoes needs about 22 gallons. Even worse, in Mexico, the main producer of avocados, about 10,000 acres of pine trees get uprooted each year to build avocado plantations. Sadly, or ironically, an avocado tree, which can grow to six and a half feet tall, uses as much water as about 40 pine trees.

Therefore, the greatest challenge in growing avocado trees represents the meticulous control of water supply — and that is the main contradiction of the avocado boom. In fact, Peru´s capital, Lima, is the second largest exporter of the fruit, particularly to Germany, however, hardly anyone seems to realize that almost a quarter of all avocados come from the desert. Lima is the second largest desert city in the world (after Cairo) with a population of 10 million; and it is gradually running out of drinking water. So one can hold that the ever-thirsty avocado grows artificially in a desert to satisfy the needs of the rich world.

Additionally, the avocado only blossoms with tap water as the water it drinks cannot contain any salts or chlorine. The avocado is also demanding in other ways: The fruit neither likes the cold nor the heat and despises direct sunlight as well as wind. And it suffocates when the ground is too hard or there is too much oxygen in the air.

Coming back to Mexico, where the micro-climate has already changed, the avocado is still regarded as “green gold”: It has opened a huge business, attracting drug cartels as the ease of hiding hemp families in avocado plantations was discovered. Another drawback is that small farmers in countries such as Mexico and Peru do not profit from the boom, as the profits flow into the pockets of the plantation owners. Additionally, pesticides get used on the shell to prevent the fruit from growing fungi; and the transport of avocados from South America to Europe and Asia burdens the climate further due to the long distance.

Despite all this, the triumphal march of the avocado continues. The core problem is not the fruit itself but the food-industry system focused on maximizing profits while dismissing its environmental effect — even when the contradictions are as blatant as they are in the case of the avocado. The boomerang has already set in and will hit even harder when climate changes become more threatening. So, it may be wiser for consumers to renounce the avocado until producers can correct the issues their growth imparts.