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The Bad News About Avocados

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Avocado consumption has zoomed upwards in the United States and elsewhere in the past two decades; pity about the downsides.

A Few of the Interesting Things About Avocados

Avocado is the name of a tree native to highland regions of Guatemala and south-central Mexico; the fruit it bears is called the avocado pear or simply the avocado. It grows in tropical and Mediterranean climates. The fruit is actually a berry with a single seed in its centre and it's been called a superfood.

WebMD tells us that it “is a good source of potassium and healthy fats . . . [and] contains a lot of fiber,” in addition to protein and a bunch of vitamins.

Claims are made for the efficacy of avocados in dealing with arthritis, cholesterol, hair loss, obesity, and, of course, increasing sexual desire. But, WebMD says “More evidence is needed to rate the effectiveness of avocado for these uses.”

According to statista.com “Avocados, which have become a meme for the Millennial generation, have exploded in popularity in the United States over the last few decades. In 1985, domestic consumption was a meager 436 million pounds. That number has increased six-fold to over 2.7 billion pounds of the berry being consumed by Americans in 2020.” Similar sales increases have been recorded in other industrialized countries.

According to the Mexican government more than 1,400 trucks loaded with avocados travel from Mexico to the United States every week.

The law of supply and demand has kicked in and the price of avocados has been steadily rising over the years. In March 2022, Bloomberg News reported that “Avocado prices jumped to the highest in more than two decades . . . ” The fruit/berry that used to cost less than a dollar a piece is now $2.50 and up.

As the avocado has become more valuable, some very unsavoury characters have been attracted into the trade.

It's supposed to do wonders for the complexion and, afterwards, you can make guacamole.

It's supposed to do wonders for the complexion and, afterwards, you can make guacamole.

Blood Avocados

Mexican drug cartels are known for their extreme violence and fondness for beheading their victims. Their criminal activities go beyond the drug trade and include prostitution, extortion, robbery, and gambling. In recent years, they have been attracted to the profits that can be squeezed out of avocados, otherwise known as “green gold.”

In June 2019, the Yucatan Times reported that “Every day, avocado producers are victims of robberies and lose an average of four loaded trucks of around 12 tons (26,448 pounds) during the journey from the orchards to the packing zones . . . ”

Armed thugs turn up at growers homes with a simple message: “We are here to collect a fee for protecting your avocado orchard from being chopped down.” Associated Press reports that “Those who don’t pay are threatened with having their families kidnapped, murdered and returned in pieces.” And, in case some farmers think it's all a bluff, some examples have been made.

Turning to police or the national guard for help is often pointless; officers are either terrified of the gangs or in cahoots with them. So, grower associations have begun setting up their own vigilante groups to protect their avocado groves from criminal attacks.

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Avocados and the Environment

To meet the demand, avocado plantations have been expanding and that means chopping down trees to make more land available. Nowhere is this more apparent than the Mexican state of Michoacán, the source of 40 percent of the world's avocados.

Vast areas of pine forest have been grubbed up and replaced with avocado orchards. A lot of the deforestation is illegal and it's happening at a pace of 2.5% of the land area a year.

Chemical run-off from the spraying of pesticides on the trees is negatively affecting groundwater. Another impact on the water supply is caused by the thirst of avocado trees; they require about twice the amount of water that native plants need. Farmers are diverting mountain streams to quench the trees and so use water that is needed farther downstream.

It takes 72 gallons of water to produce one pound of avocados.

Also, existing agricultural land that has enjoyed the benefits of crop rotation to replenish the soil has been turned over to avocado monoculture.

Just as the prairie monoculture of corn demands inputs of artificial fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides so does the single cropping of avocados. This leads to a depletion of nutrients and the chemicals applied can contaminate water supplies.

Avocado Certification

One way of combating the violent gangs and environmental degradation is to have a certification program, which aims to ensure than only avocados that are earth friendly and free of crime involvement are sold in the U.S. and elsewhere.

There's a model for this in the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme. This was set up in 2003 to try to stop the trade in so-called blood diamonds. These are rough, uncut diamonds that are traded to finance conflicts, mostly in Africa.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) notes results have been mixed: “Although the Kimberley Process has made important progress in curtailing the trade in 'conflict diamonds,' the group’s long-term credibility and relevance have been undermined by a narrow focus on the activities of anti-government rebel groups and its unwillingness to incorporate human rights protections into its standards and operations.” HRW adds “There is little independent monitoring of compliance with Kimberley Process rules and few penalties for violations.”

Given that experience, a certification program for avocados would have to have teeth to ensure compliance so that consumers can enjoy their guacamole with a clear conscience.

Bonus Factoids

  • Every year, monarch butterflies from the eastern U.S. and Canada overwinter in the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Preserve in the state of Michoacán. Manager of the preserve, Homero Gómez González, was engaged in a struggle to stop illegal logging in the area to clear the ground for avocado groves. In January 2020, Gómez's drowned body was found, he also had a head injury. Shortly thereafter, another environmental activist turned up dead. It's strongly suspected that organized crime bosses ordered the killing of both men. If the pines and firs of the butterfly sanctuary are destroyed so will be the monarchs.
  • In the United States, National Spicy Guacamole Day is November 14, but the big day for consumption is Super Bowl Sunday when Americans eat an estimated eight million pounds of guacamole during the game.
  • Avocados have gone by a variety of names. To Aztecs they were known ahuacatl, which translates to “testicle tree.” Spanish conquistadors had trouble pronouncing the word so they changed it to aguacate. The fruit/berry was first known in the U.S. as alligator pears.
  • In 2015, actor Tom Selleck was accused of stealing water to irrigate his California avocado farm. After some legal wrangling, a confidential agreement was reached about which the water utility manager said “We’re happy about it.” Selleck hates avocado, he says they make him gag.
Specially baked for you Tom.

Specially baked for you Tom.

Sources

  • “Avocado - Uses, Side Effects, and More.” WebMD.com, undated.
  • “Domestic Avocado Consumption in the United States from 1985 to 2021.” M. Shahbandeh, statista.com, December 10, 2021.
  • “Mexico's Avocado Boom Causing Deforestation and Illnesses in Local Population, Experts Say.” The Independent, November 4, 2016.
  • “Blood Avocados: The Dark Side of the Fruit.” Holy McElroy and Rachael Gough, green-books.org, October 15, 2018.
  • “Avocado Prices Surge to a 24-Year High.” Marvin G. Perez, Bloomberg, March 30, 2022.
  • “Mexico’s Avocados Face Fallout from Violence, Deforestation.” Mark Stevenson, Associated Press, February 16, 2022.
  • “Mexican Avocado in Grave Danger Due to Organized Crime.” Yucatan Times, June 17, 2019.
  • “Inside the Bloody Cartel War for Mexico’s Multibillion-Dollar Avocado Industry.” Kate Linthicums, Los Angeles Times, November 21, 2019.
  • “Human Rights Watch Statement on the Kimberley Process.” Human Rights Watch, June 6, 2016.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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