At least in Central Europe, avocados don’t just grow on local trees. We import them from (sub)tropical countries like Spain, Mexico, or Peru. The fact that avocado consumption has increased so much in recent years obviously has its consequences for the environment.
How does the creamy berry grow in its countries of origin? What are the differences between organic and conventional cultivation?
And how can I buy truly sustainable avocados?
This article will tell you!
Part II of the new series: Avocado – everything you always wanted to know about the trendy fruit
In this paragraph, I will concentrate on explaining avocado cultivation in general terms. Later you will read more in-depth-information on the environmental impact. If you grew up in a northern country just like me, you usually have no idea how the green, pear-shaped fruit actually grows into the delicacy we know it as.
Avocados are grown on large plantations for export. The trees can easily live to be 100 years old, but since the avocado boom is still very young, most trees make no exception.
Young avocados are usually grafted onto a rootstock to grow a vigorous tree that is planted in a prepared area. For this purpose, forests or cultivated areas for other foodstuffs, e.g. maize, often had to give way. Avocados like to grow on sandy or sandy-loamy soils. Sufficient water supply is important, and the trees are also sensitive to the salt content of the soil . A wind-protected location is recommended to prevent the sensitive fruits from falling off the tree and getting damaged.
Most avocados are commercially grown in monocultures, which are expanding more and more as demand increases. Since avocado trees have specific needs as mentioned, cultivation is concentrated in a few provinces, especially in subtropical countries like Spain and Mexico. This creates regional problems fostered by global demand.
The most prominent environmental problem is probably the avocado trees‘ thirst. One kilogram of avocados contains about 600 to 1000 liters of virtual water . In tropical regions with natural rainfalls all year round, high water demand is not a big problem. But subtropical countries suffer more and more water supply problems due to avocado monocultures, even if they used to have enough water for their population in the past. Of course, climate change that is responsible for more extreme weather phenomena also aggravates the problem.
In Chile, for example, large avocado farmers buy water use rights and sometimes pump water from water reservoirs in more than 100 meters depth to water their thirsty little trees. Of course, small farmers do not have enough money for this. Even if large producers use systems such as drip irrigation to save water, it is questionable whether there will be enough water left for avocado farmers, people, animals, and the environment as the area under cultivation increases.Embed from Getty Images
Thirsty avocado trees in Michoacan, Mexico.
The province of Petorca, the center of avocado cultivation in Chile, is particularly affected by problems with the water supply. In summer, the government regularly declares a state of emergency due to acute water shortages. Whole rivers have already dried up: Intensive avocado cultivation even interrupts the water cycle. As less water evaporates, fewer clouds form, and thus there is even less rain.
Although Chile officially recognizes people’s right to water, avocado farmers here always have enough water, but the local population does not. People save water at all times: This includes washing clothes once a month, showering as a luxury, and watering sparingly the small lime trees that still grow in the dry soil .
This problem is also known from Spain: In recent decades, the country has suffered more and more from drought or irregular rainfall caused by man-made climate change. Thirsty avocados, therefore, aggravate the water shortage.
In both countries, the government is trying to solve the problem with innovation and efficiency so that the farmers can grow more avocados. Most commercial avocado farmers adopt innovative water supply technologies like drip irrigation, but mainly think about reducing their costs and avoiding negative publicity, but hardly about the environment or the people who suffer water shortages.
Nevertheless, the cliché of the thirsty avocado (1000l/kg) is overemphasized: Cheese (5000l) and rice (3500l) contain far more water, and these foods are consumed in much larger quantities than avocado. Luxury foods such as cocoa (27000) and coffee (21000), as well as beef (15 500), also prove to be extremely thirsty. Luckily, we cannot plant cocoa trees in dry, subtropical countries!
=> In general, let us keep in mind to always look at the local context, rainfall, and the quantity as well as quality of artificial irrigation when considering virtual water in a product. If a plant or animal that contains high amounts of virtual water is grown/bred in a dry region, the adverse environmental impacts are likely to be higher.
If you want to harvest more avocados, you need more plantations. Particularly in Mexico, the area under cultivation and thus also deforestation have increased dramatically in recent years. In the state of Michoacán alone, 600-1000 hectares of forest are lost per year, in Mexico as a whole it is 1500 – 4000 hectares. Large avocado plantations spread out further and further into the natural habitat of other native animals and plants. This has detrimental effects on biodiversity and the water cycle: More and more avocado trees require more and more water, thus aggravating the previously mentioned water scarcity in further regions. Soil erosion is an upcoming issue in this context as well .
A lack of water is not the only problem for people in Mexico’s avocado regions. The large monocultures accompanying commercial avocado cultivations there create social tensions too. When land that communities used to cultivate together goes to large agricultural producers, this weakens the social cohesion of the citizens.
Another problem are gangs that have discovered the „green gold“ as a lucrative source of income in Mexico, right next to marijuana and cocaine. In Uruapan, the second-largest city in Michoacán, the number of crimes is steadily increasing; in 2018, there were 297 murders in a population of around 300 000 people. Drug cartels make dirty money by siphoning off bribes as well as fresh harvests from avocado producers, selling them at a higher price. 20 tonnes of avocados, the load of a lorry, are worth 30,000 euros in Mexico – and can be sold quite legally (as of 2020). The police either does not care or cooperates with organized criminals; in general, the fight against corruption seems hopeless.
The avocado industry does not create a remarkable number of jobs, at least not in agriculture. Mexican workers sometimes complain about wages that are too low, which repeatedly leads to strikes. One reason for this is that avocado farmers have to withhold part of their income as bribe money for the gangs.
Health problems are on the rise as well: Although the avocado is not known for high pesticide use, more and more people in avocado-growing areas in Mexico suffer typical pesticide-related, unspecified problems, including respiratory, liver, kidney, and stomach ache. Could organically grown avocados change this?
Differences between organic and conventional
Avocados belong to the so-called „Clean 15“, i.e. foods that contain relatively few pesticides even when grown conventionally. The Clean 15 or the Dirty Dozen are determined annually by the Environmental Working Group, a US NGO lobbying for organic agriculture. In 2020, the avocado is even number 1 in the ranking.
Even though this ranking is made based on US samples, it has a certain validity for consumers from other countries too thanks to the global importance of the avocado. This is also the reason why there is very little information on the organic cultivation of avocados. Despite the health effects felt by people in avocado plantation regions, ordinary consumers have little incentive to buy organic for their own health.
But this exactly is one of the strongest motives for shopping organic: In 2000, for 51% of all organic buyers worldwide, their health was the main reason for buying organic instead of conventional. In 2020, the picture still looks similar, at least for Anglo-America. Only about 10% of people buy organic products because they are concerned about the environment, and just 4% are concerned about the working conditions of farmers and field workers. In my home country Austria, the motivation to buy organic in 2020 is rooted in the belief that animals are farmed in a more species-appropriate way with organic and that this way one supports small/regional suppliers (64 and 62% respectively). After all, around 54% say that organic is better for the environment than conventional farming .Embed from Getty Images
Whether it’s limes or avocados: The difference between organically grown and conventional products is mostly indistinguishable from the outside. Nevertheless, holistic organic farming has positive effects on the natural environment and also creates social added value.
Still, there are motives to buy avocados (as well as any other kind of food) from organic cultivation – even if they belong to the Clean 15. In general, organic cultivation protects the soil and groundwater by avoiding the use of synthetic chemical pesticides. Instead of breaking down the humus layer and consuming nutrients, thoughtful organic farming protects the soil. Valuable water resources are not polluted by pesticides in organic farming. Organic soil also stores more CO2, which contributes to the effective prevention of climate change. You can learn more about the general benefits of organic farming for you and the planet here (LINK).
Even though some large organic farms rely on monocultures too, many committed organic farmers rely on techniques such as crop rotation or intercropping, integrating different types of fruit and vegetables harmoniously with each other. That way, they can reap the benefits of synergies and create habitats instead of green deserts. When integrating avocado trees in a landscape together with other plants, we will not see water shortages as severe as on large monocultural plantations!
Transport to the consumer countries
Whether organic or conventional, avocados have to be produced, packed and transported. Avocados are harvested when they are still unripe. The butter fruits can hang on the tree for a long time – and remain hard as a rock. They only get the consistency that we appreciate so much after their harvest. And only if the fruit contains a certain amount of oil (8% according to Californian regulations), we should consider it to be ready for it. The harvest is done by hand. The fact that the fruit is still unripe at least makes it a little easier to transport.Embed from Getty Images
Avocados need to be refrigerated and handled carefully to survive the long transport without damage.
The storage time varies depending on the temperature. At 2°, a temperature that is still a few degrees below a standard refrigerator, avocados keep fresh for several weeks . Usually, they are transported in special containers at a temperature between 2 and 6° Celsius. A journey from South America to Europa on a container ship takes around 20-30 days. This shows that transportation is extremely energy-intense!
Once they arrive in the country of sale, avocados have to ripen under special temperature and humidity conditions before they reach the supermarkets. Throughout the process, they are strictly checked for quality – which of course causes further food waste.
What should I look out for to buy the most sustainable avocados possible?
The socially negative consequences of avocado cultivation can be prevented by avoiding avocados from unknown large-scale plantations in Mexico and Chile. For consumers in Europe, Spanish avocados are a good choice. US consumers can choose domestic avocados to ensure better payment of farmworkers and to avoid supporting illegal structures in Mexico.
The whole storage and transport process uses up enormous amounts of electrical energy as we have seen. This is one reason why it helps to buy avocados grown as regionally as possible. For Central Europeans, for example, fruits from Spain with an EU organic label are a good choice; for US customers, I recommend domestic avocados. As always, I recommend buying demeter-certified fruit whenever possible. However, I have hardly ever seen any in organic shops myself.
A viable way to buy organic, fair produce is to contact producers directly. You can easily buy avocados today (if they are in season!) e.g. on crowdfarming (Europe) or at a local organic avocado farm. If you live in an avocado region, contact producers directly – or just try and plant your own tree in your garden!
This way you know where your avocados come from, supporting both organic farming and a socially sustainable avocado value chain. Sometimes delivered avocados are still unripe, so you have to ripen them yourself at home. This saves energy, as there is no need for a large cold store with special air conditions for post-ripening (see above).
As this article shows, the ecological impacts of avocado cultivation are not negligible. Due to the world’s hunger for avocados, we lose valuable forest and water resources. Moreover, illegal structures related to avocados contribute to social instability, violence & the financing of criminal structures in Central and South America. However, this is not the poor avocado’s fault!
The cultivation in large monocultures, the expansion of cultivation areas in areas that already suffer from water shortages, and an insufficient combination with other crops cause ecological problems.
Thus we do not need to ask ourselves „Can I still eat avocados?“ but rather „How can I promote the sustainable cultivation of the delicious butter fruit?“. Buying organic products that have been grown as close as possible to one’s own country and thus have shorter transport routes is a suitable alternative as mentioned. Handle avocados with care, enjoy them responsible and do not create food waste!
How? The next part will tell you. Among others, I address the following questions: How can I avoid food waste with avocados? What is the best way to prepare avocados? And what do I do with the pit & peel?
I will also add information on the health benefits: What is really true about the super fruit avocado? Which clichés about ingredients are true, and which are not?
I look forward to your comments and feedback. See you then!
Taleb, H.B., Brhadda, N., Rabea, Z., Farré, J.M., Gmira, N. (2018). Journal of Biology, Agriculture and Healthcare http://www.iiste.orgISSN 2224-3208 (Paper) ISSN 2225-093X (Online) Vol.8, No.24, 2018 60 Comparison of the technical management of avocado trees between Morocco and Spain. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/234662747.pdf
 I don’t shop any avocados actually, I just pick them up from the supermarket waste (= dumpster diving). Find out more about it in part III!