Healthy fat is finally earning a place on the plates of millions of Americans, but for avocado farmers, the story isn’t so wonderful.
In the last five years, avocado consumption has risen by 10 to 30 percent annually, putting huge strains on Mexican avocado producers who grow most of the world’s avocados.
“Avocados are a strange anomaly that shouldn’t exist, and might have gone extinct thousands of years ago,” reports Dan Stone for National Geographic’s The Plate. “Fruits evolved based on their ability to be spread, and avocado seeds are relics of a past era when giant elephant-like creatures would eat the seeds and poop them out. For the next two million years, avocados survived on the backs of rodents, just long enough for the Aztecs to come along and invent guacamole.”
Now, without the help of giant elephant-like creatures to spread their seeds, avocados appear to be experiencing a greater market demand than production can meet.
“Like quinoa, the once unknown and now must-have grain of urban diets,” reports Stone, “the avocado has its prime growing environment in south and central America, where cool climates and abundant rain allows the avocado tree to flourish.”
But U.S. demand is making both quinoa and avocado export production untenable and expensive, not to mention elusive to the Indigenous communities who once thrived on these local foods: “Prices rose so fast farmers couldn’t afford to eat their own crop, making them, in different ways, both richer and poorer,” reports Stone. “And, in the purest form of capitalism, [the farmers are] willing to exhaust their land to maximize earnings.”
And avocados have another issue working against their survival: water. It takes 100 gallons of water to produce a pound of avocados (about 2-3 of them), which is not only an issue for Mexico’s avocado farmers, but those in drought-stricken California as well. Again, National Geographic:
Aquifers in Mexico and Chile are being drained faster than replenished, setting up a classic uphill battle, where mountain farmers are planting avocado groves at higher and higher altitudes to co-opt mountain runoff meant for urban growth and economic development in the cities below.
The challenges don’t just stop at the agricultural limitations: Nearly 75 percent of Mexican avocados hail from the state of Michoacán, “where avocados have replaced hard drugs like cocaine and heroin as the currency of the dominant Caballeros Templarios cartel,” reports NatGeo. “To its members, avocados have become known as oro verde, or green gold, which they extort from farmers in exchange for security.”
While U.S. avocado farmers in California and Florida are ramping up production, they could still only meet about one-third of U.S. demand. Florida is facing a fungus wiping out crops; and the California drought, now in its fourth year, has farmers looking to crops less water-intensive than the avocado.
Science is working on producing an avocado that requires less water and an ability to endure growing in colder climates. Of course, that’s no consolation for the die-hard guacamole fans of today. Those avocado fans may have to start getting creative with healthy fat-rich olive oil instead.
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Avocados image via Shutterstock