The avocado backlash is here, amid fears its popularity is linked with cartels, deforestation and pressure on water. But is this fair?

Every boom has a backlash. Last week, Buckinghamshire eatery The Wild Strawberry Café - once a prolific purveyor of avo on toast - whipped up a media storm by announcing it would no longer serve the fruit.

The western’s world’s “obsession with avocado” was placing “unprecedented demand” on farmers, it said, pushing up prices to the point there were “reports of Mexican drug cartels controlling exports”, as well driving deforestation and putting pressure on water supplies.

So just how worried should the UK be about its ravenous appetite for avocados?

Cartels and deforestation

Concerns over the involvement of drug cartels in Mexico’s avocado trade first emerged in 2013, when it was reported the notorious Knights Templar gang was making $152m a year extorting farmers in the Michoacán state. Avocados have since been branded the “blood diamond of Mexico”, with ongoing violence in the region suggesting the issues have not yet been resolved, despite farmers in some towns forming vigilante groups to defend themselves.

Avocado production has also been fingered as a key driver of illegal deforestation in Michoacán, with Mexican authorities warning in 2016 it accounted for 30%-40% of the 20,000 hectares of forest converted to agricultural land in the region every year.

But the “vast majority” of Mexican avocados exported to the UK come from the state of Jalisco, not Michoacán, insists World Avocado Organisation CEO Xavier Equihua. “Jalisco has no deforestation and no cartels have been reported as being involved,” he adds. “It’s sensationalist to say all avocados from Mexico are benefiting cartels. It’s just not true.”

What’s more, while Mexico is the world’s biggest avocado producer, it isn’t a major supplier to the UK. Over the past five years, less than 3% of our total avocado imports have come from Mexico, analysis of HMRC data shows. Instead, the UK gets most of its avocados from Peru, Chile, Spain, South Africa and Israel, which between them accounted for over 85% of imports over the past five years.

Neither is deforestation for avocados an issue in these countries, claims Equihua. In South Africa, they are mostly grown on land converted from citrus plantations, while in Chile avocados are grown alongside other fruits in the provinces. “In Peru there is no deforestation, avocados are grown in coastal deserts. The forest is on the other side of the Andes, in the jungle. The avocado industry took useless land and created agricultural land,” Equihua says.

A 2010 report by WWF and the Climate Change Research Network suggests the land use-change emissions associated with the UK’s avocado habit are minimal when compared with bananas, or even cauliflower and broccoli. Avocados have greenhouse gas emissions of just 0.88 kg CO2e/kg, compared to 1.33 kg CO2e/kg for bananas, and 2.39 kg CO2e/kg for cauliflowers and broccoli imported from outside the EU, it reveals.

Where does the UK source avocados?

26.0% Peru

17.7% Chile

14.9% Spain

14.5% South Africa

14.4% Israel

3.3% Colombia

2.4% Mexico

2.4% US

1.2% Kenya

0.8% Dominican Republic

*% of UK’s total direct avocado imports over past five years. Source: HMRC

Water consumption

While links to drug cartels and deforestation are “less relevant” for the UK market, the issue of water is “ubiquitous” warns Tim Hess, professor of water and food systems at Cranfield University.

The water consumption associated with the UK’s avocado intake from Peru, Chile, Spain, South Africa and Israel is estimated to stand at over 25 million cubic metres annually - which is equivalent to 10,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, his research suggests.

This is a worry, given many of these countries are facing droughts and water scarcity. According to the World Resources Institute, Chile and Spain are among the 33 countries facing “extremely high water stress” by 2040.

Growing a hectare of avocados doesn’t actually use more water than growing a hectare of citrus fruits, says Hess, but you get much smaller yields. “So the water required per tonne of avocado is much higher than a tonne of citrus.”

In Chile, the situation has been compounded by the fact avocado plantations are expanding into land that was not previously farmed. “So there has been a net increase in water consumption,” says Hess.

Earlier this year, campaign group Modatima brought international attention to the plight of villagers in Petorca, Chile, where avocado plantations were allegedly installing illegal pipes and wells to divert water from rivers, causing droughts.

Equihua claims these issues are only affecting “one valley” in Chile. Generally, he says, the global avocado industry takes a responsible approach to water use. “Water is expensive and it’s in the best interest of farmers to take care of that water.”

In any case, the 1,000 litres of water it takes to produce a kilo of avocados pales in significance when compared with the 15,000 litres of water it takes to produce a kilo of beef, Equihua argues.

When it comes to the beef we eat in the UK, though, most of that water is rainfall supplying the grass, Hess points out, rather than irrigation depleting already strained resources. “In terms of water impacts, it might be better to eat Irish beef than eat Chilean avocados,” he says.

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But that isn’t to say the UK should stop sourcing avocados from Chile, he stresses. “A lot of people’s livelihoods depend on export agriculture. We need to avoid kneejerk reactions.”

Instead, UK retailers should engage with the avocado sector to identify water hotspots and work to mitigate the impacts, Hess argues. “A lot of our retailers are already starting to engage through international initiatives, working with the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative platform and the WWF,” he adds.

The fact most of the problems with avocados are driven by a sudden surge in demand raises a broader concern, says Dan Crossley, executive of the Food Ethics Council. The industry should be “wary of the perils of pushing individual foods that are good for humans but not necessarily good for the planet or for the people growing them” he says.

“Rather than fixating on single, so-called superfoods, let’s aim for super diets instead - diets that are healthy for people, animals and the planet.”