The avocado is the ultimate healthy food, of which it is symbolic. Having rocketed to the rank of nutritional superstar due to its many nutritional qualities, it also gets added to a number of products as if to prove how natural they are. But what about its cultivation and supply chain?
Avocado is rightly considered a superfood. With its good oils, unsaturated fatty acids, vitamins (E, K1, B5, B9, etc.), fibre, potassium, folate and copper, the fruit of the avocado tree (yes, the avocado is a fruit) is also high in antioxidants. This gives it neuroprotective properties, as well as many more health credentials. Not least there’s the positive effect that it has on levels of “bad” cholesterol, thanks to its oleic acid content. Avocado is so good for health that there are avocado-based beauty products to impart its benefits to the skin and hair.
The avocado trend: demand out of all proportion
This powerhouse of a foodstuff and beauty product ingredient is taking centre stage – all over social media. This overexposure contributes to its notoriety and drives up demand. The avocado gets photographed in all its forms, from the poké bowl to artistically-shaped strips that attract record numbers of “likes”. This fruit was the most popular foodstuff on Pinterest in 2015. It even has its own shaved avocado trend, as popularised by Colette Dike (a Netherlands-based food photographer) on her blog, then her Instagram account @fooddeco (115K followers). Her food art is all about plain avocado cut into thin strips arranged into artistic displays. No-one thinks to query the supply chain behind this edible wall art.
The avocado – an ecological disaster
Having long stayed out of the limelight, the avocado is now subject to exponential demand which has turned it into a global-traded commodity with heavy consequences. The boom in its cultivation and freight transport has a detrimental impact on the environment. Avocado cultivation requires heavy use of pesticides in countries where the fruit is grown, like Mexico. Moreover, avocado trees require large amounts of water. It is said to take some 1,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of avocadoes. They are grown in hot countries due to their climates. Avocado plantations have been popping up all over to the point of drying up the water tables, as has happened in South Africa. Limpopo province, not so far from Johannesburg, is being hit by unprecedented water shortages… And nearby ZZ2 farms is one of Europe’s biggest exporters. For this farming operation, a 30-km aqueduct was built to channel water from the mountains and direct it to the plantations. The resulting water shortage reduces the cultivation of maize, which the country now has to import. Cattle are dying of thirst, and running water is still yet to reach some South African households. The scenario is similar in Petorca (Chili), where avocado cultivation has caused the river to run dry, and stops other growers from getting access to water. Lastly, the expansion of plantations is leading to deforestation spanning thousands of hectares. This is the case not least in Latin America and Mexico, where entire forests are being illegally cleared by burning to make way for avocado cultivation.
The avocado – owner of an appalling carbon footprint
To top it all off, the avocado has a catastrophic carbon footprint due to freight transport. It takes almost a month for the avocado to get from the countries where it is produced to those where it is consumed (mainly Europe and the USA). It travels by ship in refrigerated containers, which use a lot of energy and generate significant pollution and CO2 emissions. And that’s not even the whole footprint. Once the avocadoes arrive at their destination, in the Netherlands for example, they must be brought gradually up to room temperature. They spend about a week there to ripen artificially thanks to ethylene. Because the avocado produces this gas naturally, especially when near a heat source. This explains why you can help an avocado to ripen by wrapping it in newspaper or placing it in the sun (or on a radiator). Lastly, the workers who sort avocadoes are expected to reach the staggering throughput of 52 fruits per minute, according to the grim findings of an investigation by German broadsheet Die Zeit. Moreover, any fruits that are not the right shape (since they must all look the same) simply get thrown away.
Should we swear off avocadoes for the sake of ecology?
The avocado has become Mexico’s “green gold”, its answer to the “blood diamond”. There’s a need to query where it comes from and limit intake to some extent. You can gravitate towards organically-grown avocadoes sourced as close to home as possible. For consumers here in France, in all likelihood that will be Corsica. Chef Romain Meder sources avocadoes from France and Corsica, only when in season, rightly so bearing in mind that the avocado is an exotic fruit. They are smaller than normal, harder to come by and more costly, with a slightly less creamy taste. The more principled among us can choose to do without, like Michelin-starred chef Florent Ladeyn who only used local produce, or Marlette. The café chain took the decision to drop avocado from its menu due to ecological concerns.
So you get it by now. Most of the time you will be dealing with avocadoes which are not clean, not by a long shot. That’s the unfortunate fate of many a commodity as soon as there’s a spike in demand. There’s a need to get back to the idea of “everything in moderation”, and view avocadoes as a luxury item that we only eat occasionally.