Avocados have been part of the natural environment and cuisine in parts of Central America for thousands of years, but the craze only swept the world in the past century. However, with such an emphasis on the health and taste implications of the fad food, the environmental impacts of growing avocados are often overlooked.
Alligator pear. Palta. Aguacate. Midshipman’s butter. Green gold. Persea americana. Avocado. Whatever you call it, this green, creamy, fleshy fruit has become increasingly trendy over the past century.
Avocados have been part of the natural environment and cuisine in parts of Central America for thousands of years, but the craze only swept the world in the past century. In the 1920s, Rudolph Hass, a postal worker in LA, planted three avocado tree seeds and one of them grew into a new variety of tree that would become known as the Hass avocado. This new variety had a darker rind and flesh, and was more flavorful than the other varieties of avocado. Due to lack of organized growing and marketing, fancy hotels in Florida and California would sell Hass avocados for the equivalent of $24 a piece, making the avocado tree the most valuable tree in the world at the beginning of the 20th century.
Due to its numerous health benefits and yummy taste, avocados are no longer a luxury food; they have traversed the world, and become a staple on toast and instagram, in brownies and diets. Each year, the European Union imports over 440,000 tons of avocados. According to the USDA, avocado consumption in the United States has increased over 440% since 1995, making the US the largest consumer in the world.
However, with such an emphasis on the health and taste implications of the fad food, the environmental impacts of growing avocados are often overlooked.
Mexico is the world’s largest producer of avocados, with the majority of its production located in the mountain state of Michoacan. Avocado trees naturally grow in the same climate and at the same elevation as pine trees. In order to keep up with the market, farmers have ignored conservation efforts and the authorities to plant more avocado trees. Between 15,000 and 20,000 acres of forest in this region are lost to avocado growing each year, posing a tremendous threat to the local ecosystem. The Michoacan forest serves as the wintering grounds of the Monarch Butterfly; cutting down this forest destroys their habitat and the habitats of all species that call that land home, changing the dynamic of the entire ecosystem.
Another great effect of deforestation is greenhouse gas emission. Trees are known as carbon sequesters, meaning that they store carbon. An individual tree can absorb 48 lbs of carbon per year, which is equivalent to the amount of carbon produced by driving a car 26,000 mi. An acre of trees can accumulate 100 metric tons of carbon per year. While new trees are being grown in the place of the old growth forest, it takes seven years for avocado trees to mature, and they take in significantly less carbon than is released by chopping down pine trees. This extreme level of carbon emission is known to contribute to the worldwide environmental phenomenon of Climate Change.
Avocados are extremely thirsty. In California, they are on par with almonds as the most water intensive crop. One estimate says that it takes 272 litres of water to grow half a kilogram of avocados. Another estimate shows that 72 gallons of water are needed to grow a pound. Think about this in relation to the average adult male who is supposed to drink 3.7L or 1G of water a day; the amount of water needed to grow 1lb of avocados could sustain the average adult male for 72 days. Not only do these green fruits need lots of water, but they are predominantly grown in water scarce areas of the world such as California, Mexico, and Australia, placing extra strain on already limited water supplies.
Finally, in places like Michoacan, Mexico, the problems extend past environmental issues to encompass humanitarian concerns as well. There the avocado business has become lucrative for gangs and organized crime, such as the Los Caballeros Templarios cartel. There are reports of avocado packing plants being set on fire because the farmers refuse to give a cut of their profits to gangs. Additionally, farmers seeking to earn a living are being detained by authorities for violating conservation laws, destroying indigenous forest to plant avocado saplings.
The avocado craze has taken over the world in a way that Rudolph Hass never expected. With no foreseeable solution to the environmental and social issues surrounding this powerful fruit, the question begs at the feet of the toast, butterflies and farmers: what is the true cost of eating avocados? How green is gold?
GC Content Writer: Marissa Lazaroff