There is a good reason why avocados have been dubbed ‘green gold’. The fruit now constitutes a multibillion-dollar industry for Mexico, the world’s largest producer, with exports from the state of Michoacán alone reaching USD2.4 billion last year. But the exponential growth of the avocado’s popularity is a mixed blessing for Mexico’s communities and farmers. While most have benefited from record-breaking prices, many have attracted the attention of organised crime groups that are sinking their teeth into the profits.
Mexico produces more avocado than anywhere in the world, but the “green gold”, as it is known, is consumed mainly in North America, Europe and Asia. Each year, 11 billion pounds of avocado are consumed around the world. A few weeks ago, every six minutes, a truck full of avocados was leaving the Mexican state of Michoacán for export to the USA in preparation for the most important date for avocado producers in the year: the Super Bowl, which sees 7% of the annual avocado consumption in only one day.
Michoacán produces eight out of 10 Mexican avocados and five out of 10 avocados produced globally. Avocado farming in the state has a land production size equivalent of 196,000 football fields; its regional economy is strongly dependent on a product with a market value of around $2.5 billion a year.
Until two decades ago, US buyers did not have access to Mexican avocado. The US government maintained a ban on imports for 87 years because it was considered to represent a risk to agriculture. In 1997, Michoacán was declared free of the borer worm, and the massive export of avocado began. Exports were highly benefited by the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); by 2005, Mexican avocado was all over the supermarkets in the United States, currently the most important market in the planet for the fruit. Consumption in the US more than doubled in only 10 years. “Avocados from Mexico” was the first brand in the agricultural sector to pay for a television commercial in the Super Bowl.
• The avocado boom means 11 billion pounds are consumed annually worldwide.
• Intensive production in Michoacán state, Mexico has caused environment damage on multiple fronts.
• The avocado supply chain desperately needs international monitoring and standards.
Maybe you start your day with an avocado toast, then you have an avocado salad for lunch, and you finish your day with some guacamole in your dinner. The delicious and nutritious fruit has gained immense popularity over the last years, linked to a healthy lifestyle. But the underlying truth is tough: Avocado production carries enormous environmental costs that you are probably not aware of.
Despite this massive creation of value and success, extensive avocado production has substantial and irretrievable environmental costs and damages. Disproportionately huge demand for the fruit is creating a climate change effect. Forest lands with diverse wildlife have been destroyed to produce avocado, and many more were intentionally burned to bypass a Mexican law allowing producers to change the land-use permit to commercial agriculture instead of forest land, if it was lost to burning.
Around 9.5 billion litres of water are used daily to produce avocado – equivalent to 3,800 Olympic pools – requiring a massive extraction of water from Michoacán aquifers. Excessive extraction of water from these aquifers is having unexpected consequences, such as causing small earthquakes. From 5 January to 15 February, 3,247 seismic movements were recorded in Uruapan municipality and surroundings, the most important avocado-producing area in the world. According to local authorities, avocado-related water extraction has opened up subsoil caverns that could be causing these movements.
One hectare of avocado with 156 trees consumes 1.6 times more than a forest with 677 trees per hectare. When avocado trees are irrigated, because their roots are rather horizontal, the flow through preferential infiltration is less and makes it difficult for the water to seep into the subsoil; 14 times less compared to the pine tree. A study conducted by Carbon Footprint Ltd affirms a small pack of two avocados has an emissions footprint of 846.36g CO2, almost twice the size of one kilo of bananas (480g CO2) and three times the size of a large cappuccino with regular cow milk (235g CO2).
Intensive avocado production has caused biodiversity loss, extreme weather conditions, extensive soil degradation of the soil and is on the brink of causing an entirely human-made environmental disaster.
As we develop multistakeholder capitalism, we urgently need to start thinking about the origin of our foods and to create more sustainable consumption food chains. Awareness of the environmental impact of what we consume is the first step to reducing the climate impact of our food. The avocado situation makes it plain that not only meat is imposing a heavy environmental toll.
Despite all this, there are some solutions to reducing avocado’s environmental impact. Firstly, we need to demand as consumers an international certification of sustainable farming and fair trade for the avocados sold in supermarkets and stores – to ensure they are not the product of deforestation, organized crime, or indiscriminate exploitation of aquifers.
Secondly, trade agreements need to include the environmental impact in their clauses related to exports. Consumption in one country should not be at the cost of destroying the origin country. Mexico also needs to change its law to prevent and punish the burning of forest land for avocado production.
Cartels fight over an increasingly desirable commodity
Michoacán avocados have become a prime target for drug-trafficking organisations (DTOs), which engage in both extortion and direct cultivation, usually on lands taken over from local farmers or carved out from protected woodlands.
The government has been waging its War on Drugs for 13 years and many criminal groups, including DTOs, have turned to other activities. 2019 has seen the rise of criminal organisations that behave in every way as drug cartels but are not even engaged in drug-trafficking. In Michoacán, the avocado industry is providing the diversified income that criminal groups obtain through fuel theft elsewhere in Mexico. Security and criminality risks are rising in tandem as more than 12 criminal groups, including the notoriously violent Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación, fight for control over the avocado-producing regions and transport routes. The figure below shows the resulting rise in violence, driven by organised-crime related murder and particularly by turf wars.
The logistics side of the business is similarly exposed to criminal activity and associated disruption. Small criminal groups, lacking the resources to extort farmers or grow their own product, have turned to hijacking avocado shipments. Michoacán state authorities report that an average of four truckloads get stolen, every day. Exporters and growers face both the losses of stolen product or equipment and the risk of death or injury to their employees, disrupting the business and increasing potential costs and liabilities.
Prosecution is essentially impossible, as victims are afraid to speak up and the stolen product is impossible to track or identify once it makes its way to the market. Furthermore, social and labour risks are increasing as criminal groups become active in avocado harvesting, which pays up to 12 times the Mexican minimum wage. Mexico already features significant challenges regarding labour risks (see below), which are exacerbated by the involvement of criminal organisations.
Criminal groups often coerce pickers into temporary forced labour. Coercion against avocado pickers – including underage workers— increases the risk of violations of supply chain standards and has a negative impact on Mexico’s performance in our Forced Labour, Modern Slavery, and Child Labour indices.
We live a global and fully integrated planet where what you happily eat with your friends and family while watching sports could be destroying entire ecosystems. This will affect you in the long run – think about this the next time you’re eating your guacamole and tortilla chips.