Blade to Plate – Contrary to what you think, Avocados may not save the planet

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Even though an eco-friendly world binges on the fruit, our culinary columnist frets and fumes because the avocado could herald Armageddon

Words Yohann J Setna

Avocados have become one of the trendiest foods in the world. They have become the poster child for millennials’ ‘healthy-lifestyle’ food choices. They seem to have become the ultimate “Super-Food”, and have become a mainstay on the menus of restaurants as well as being consumed in copious amounts in the home. Every restaurant seems to have an iteration of Avocado Toast on their menu, and people are ordering it like there’s no tomorrow.

But just hang on a minute – thanks to some of these absurd excesses, which have become the mainstay in the Instagram driven world we live in, there may actually be no tomorrow! I’m sure that you have noticed that the prices of avocados have gone through the roof in recent years. In fact, the price of avocados in the USA has risen by almost 100% in just the last one year, with the national average price for 1 lb. of avocados crossing US$ 2.10 in 2019, compared to US$ 1.17 in 2018.

The history of avocados

Archaeologists in Peru have found avocado seeds buried alongside Incan mummies dating back to 750 BCE. In 500 BCE, the Aztecs named it āhuacatl, which translates to testicles. When the Spanish Conquistadors swept through Mexico and Central America in the 16th century, they named it ‘aguacate’. The commercialisation of avocados began in the early 20th century, but it was marketed as a delicacy for the wealthy. The Alligator Pear was considered the aristocrat of salad fruit.

By the 1950s, avocados were being cultivated in California on a fairly wide scale. The influx of immigrants from Central and South America into the USA created more and more demand for avocados. This meant that farmers had to ramp up their production, and this is where the realisation started. Avocados require a huge amount of resources to flourish. A single kilogramme of avocados requires over 500 litres of water, apart from fertiliser, pest control and other resources. The fruit need protection from the sun as well, as they can develop sunburn, and that can ruin the fruit.

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Avocados and the numbers game

The ‘80s were the decade of low-fat eating, and avocados took a back seat in peoples diets, as they are considered to be high in fat content. What people didn’t understand then was that avocados contain mono-unsaturated fat, which is considered a ‘healthy-fat’. The turning point in the consumption of avocados was actually a political decision in 2005 from the US Department of Agriculture, when they lifted a 90-year ban on the import of Mexican avocados to all the 50 states of the USA. Mexico is the world’s largest producer of avocados.

Suddenly avocados were available to US consumers, restaurants and food-service providers 365 days of the year. They could put it on their menus as they were assured of a steady supply. This caused the demand for avocados to start growing. People were also learning about the differences between ‘good’fat’ and ‘bad-fat’, and now avocados were the thing to have. The madness for avocados has been further advanced by the popularity of Mexican food, in particular guacamole, in the US Superbowl Sunday in late January is the single largest avocado consuming day in the US, with an estimated 100 million kilogrammes of avocados being consumed on that single day in 2019.

When you consider the planetary resources required to grow this exorbitant amount of produce, you can clearly see that this is not a route to a sustainable future. Just Superbowl Sundays’ avocado consumption requires 54 billion litres of water to grow. With California only just being declared drought free after over 7 years of extremely poor rainfall, one can understand how this is affecting the supply, and hence the prices of avocados. Add to that, the fact that #avocado has over 10 million posts on Instagram, and #avocadotoast has over 1.3 million posts, and you can understand why this is becoming a cause for huge concern worldwide.

Avocados: Think before you order

I’m not denying how great avocados are for you, because they are extremely nutrient dense, but the same vitamins and minerals can be acquired from other green and leafy vegetables like spinach and broccoli, so why not eat those? The fact that avocados have literally become a cash crop has also led to a crime wave associated with the fruit. Up to 4 avocado trucks are hijacked in Mexico every day. In New Zealand, an avocado farmer had 70% of his avocados stolen overnight, and has had to institute armed night patrols with dogs, and electric fences around his orchards. In Mexico, the drug cartels have become involved and a blood-avocado trade has started. They are extorting money from the farmers based on the size of their land and their crop yield.

We should all weigh up the ethics of our eating habits. If it’s not ok to eat shark-fin soup, then why is it ok to eat avocados? Experts are suggesting that water shortages could affect upto 5 billion people by 2050. So the next time you’re sitting in your favourite bistro, and you see avocado toast on the menu, please think before you order.