Avocados: Not as Earth-Friendly and ‘avo-cuddly’ as You’d Think

(Photo by Colorado State University)

| Colorado State University

Avocados’ popularity has led to massive consumption causing the “water hogs” to be grown in places they should not and leading to irrigation issues, deforestation and loss of wildlife, says the Colorado State University researcher who authored the book on avocados’ history.

Jeffrey Miller, an associate professor in CSU’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, said the fruit is overconsumed worldwide with negative outcomes.

“I have given them up except for those rare occasions when there are California or Florida avocados in the grocery store,” Miller said. “I encourage others to do the same.”

Those celebrating Earth Day and Earth Month or planning to eat guacamole on Cinco de Mayo or during the summer porch season may be dismayed to hear Miller say avocados are “essentially water hogs,” and he does not have “any sunny, cheery stories about avocados.”

Below is a Q&A edited for style and clarity for those hoping to enjoy their avocado toast or top their morning eggs without (much) guilt.

How are avocados water hogs?

Most of the world’s producers, aside from Mexico and the Dominican Republic must irrigate heavily and those producers are places like South Africa, Israel, Australia, North Africa where water is scarce already. The poster child for irresponsible water use in agriculture is often the almond, but I would argue that the avocado is worse.

Where should avocados be grown?

Avocados only thrive in a narrow range of geographies and latitudes. To make them viable elsewhere, you must give them scandalous amounts of water. Almost all these localities are notoriously short of water already. Yet, enormous amounts of water are given to big agriculture to grow avocados, disenfranchising less powerful consumers.

What about avocados from Mexico?

Avocados from Mexico are frequently “taxed” by narcotraficantes (drug dealers) and the oyamel fir forests — critical to survival of the monarch butterfly as a species — are being cut down to plant avocado orchards. Avocado trees use water differently than the firs, and rainfall patterns are changing in Michoacán as a result, and ground water for small holder farming is drying up. If the avocados are Mexican, then they are morally tainted at some level.

What about pre-made guac?

Buying pre-made guacamole is a slightly less sinful choice as it is usually made with avocados that are not visually perfect enough to be sold in the produce department at American grocery stores and might otherwise go to waste. Also, pre-made guacamole is often made with avocados that have ripened on the tree and that may minutely increase their nutritional value.

OK, how about American avocados?

California avocados are at least grown and harvested by people who must follow rules and there are worker protections. The same in Florida. Florida avocados rarely need irrigation due to the rainfall there. California avocados usually need to be irrigated. California production is declining because development is encroaching on prime avocado growth areas and because other crops (strawberries) have a bigger financial payback.

How has the popularity of avocados changed the economics of the industry?

Avocados provide a nice foreign exchange for countries that can export them, so governments are willing to cede control to big business in order try and balance import/export levels. U.S. agribusiness controls a lot of the business in Mexico and narcotraficantes tax much of the trade in the business. Avocados are getting so expensive in Mexico that low-income Mexicans rarely eat them unless they have access to a private tree.

When and why did avocados get popular?

The growth in popularity closely tracks the growth in the acceptance of Mexican, Tex-Mex and Southwestern cuisine in general. These cuisines grew in popularity across North America starting in the 1970s. Then these foods caught on in Europe and Australia. Marketing efforts for the avocado really grew, and people respond to that marketing. The first Super Bowl ad (in 2015) for Mexican avocados really caused a growth spurt.

Are avocados good for people?

Avocados are not really the nutritional superfood people make them out to be. And they are calorically dense. I think avocados should be a special occasion food. American avocados tend to be mostly available in the fall, and I treat them as a fall seasonal food.

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