Fairtrade and Equal Exchange can improve environmental issues related to avocado cultivation
This Super Bowl Sunday will be different. Instead of being at a party, I’ll be home alone with my husband. And we’ll pay more than four times as much for our guacamole.
You can’t watch the Super Bowl, the # 1 home party event of the year, without guacamole. In fact, according to the Hass Avocado Board, nearly 220 million pounds (equivalent to about 1,400 space shuttles) of avocados (Persea americana) were shipped here last month from Michoacán, the only Mexican state authorized to export avocados to the United States.
Michoacán is three times the size of New Jersey. To find it on a map, look west of Mexico City and east of the Pacific Ocean. It is a rugged and mountainous terrain that is home to a rich biodiversity. With more than 12,000 feet in altitude, the different microclimates allow avocados to be harvested all year round.
But there are four major issues with consuming most Michoacán avocados:
Poverty. People who grow avocados are poor and do not enjoy our pleasure for the sweet, complicated and creamy taste of the fruit. According to the Mexican National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policies, 46 percent of Michoacán’s residents live in poverty. In 2014, the poverty line was defined as living on less than 2,542 pesos ($ 157.70) per month in urban areas and 1,615 pesos ($ 100.20) per month in rural areas.
Deforestation. To grow more avocados, native forests are destroyed and, with them, critical habitat. Americans’ love of avocados is ravenous; we eat them all year round, not just on Super Bowl Sunday. Total US consumption increased by approximately 620% between 1995 (360.1 million pounds) and 2020 (2,592.1 million pounds). Although some avocados are from the United States, Chile, Peru, and the Dominican Republic, most are from Michoacán. It is estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 acres, or about one-third to one-half of Washington, DC’s land area, are converted each year from pine and fir forests to avocado farms. With the destruction of forests, the structure of the soil is compromised and biodiversity lost. Global Forest Watch, an online platform that uses satellite data to monitor forest evolution, shows that clearing forests to establish avocado plantations has grown to the limits of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve . This World Heritage Site is home to millions of Eastern Monarch Butterflies in winter. Some have traveled over 3,000 miles across Canada and New England. They are already seriously threatened by the destruction of much of their habitat in the United States.
The water. Avocados are thirsty plants. It is estimated that 60 to 70 gallons of water goes into the production of each avocado. Per acre, an avocado farm requires about twice as much water as a pine and fir forest. Parasites, such as the red spider mite, thrips and scab, threaten plants and require pesticides, which in turn harm farm workers and contaminate water supplies. The fertilizer used for avocados can further degrade the water.
Drug cartels and corruption. It’s no surprise that where there is money to be made in Mexico, corruption and drug cartels flourish. Exports of avocados, Mexico’s “green gold”, were worth $ 2.8 billion in 2019. Cartels threaten and extort money from farmers, who must hire armed guards. U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors in Michoacán have been threatened and robbed, and in 2019, the agency announced it would suspend inspection of avocados – blocking their export to the United States – if security conditions were not improving.
Faced with this situation, should we simply boycott Mexican lawyers? Definitely not.
In Michoacán, 34 percent of the population works in agriculture. The avocado culture provides hundreds of thousands of jobs, and although nearly half of the people live in poverty, their plight would be much worse without the cultivation, packaging and processing work provided by the avocado industry. In fact, this year, without tourism income, the people of Michoacán are in particular need of agricultural income.
What we can do is support environmentally responsible cultivation by purchasing certified sustainable avocados. This can reduce the environmental impact and ensure a more equitable distribution of the money.
As part of sustainable certification, producers voluntarily adhere to certain economic, environmental and social practices, usually verified by third parties, that offer a different approach to farming and ensure that workers get a fair deal. The most common sustainably labeled products are coffee, cocoa and bananas, which are certified by organizations such as Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance.
Avocados, an evergreen native to Mexico, are a subtropical understory tree and grow best in well-drained soil in warm weather and in semi-humid climates. They can’t grow everywhere, and certainly not in the northern United States. In fact, avocados are grown commercially in only three US states. The popular Hass avocado, with its lumpy, leathery, dark green skin, is a cultivar from Southern California. Florida produces the tallest, sleekest, shinyest green-skinned ones, and Hawaii, not to be outdone, grows over 200 varieties. In Holualoa, on the west coast of the Big Island, a grower produces the largest avocados, regularly weighing six pounds or more.
In Mexico, most of the small farms are family owned and operated collectively. Once a collective meets the standards to become Fairtrade certified, the requirements increase over the first six years, allowing the collective to gradually improve. Producers are guaranteed both a minimum price and a premium. Members have a voice in how bonuses are spent eg education, sanitation, money. A Michoacán collective used their premium to train and offset the start-up costs of local women to become beekeepers.
Minimizing the impact of agriculture on the planet requires education and commitment. Fairtrade recognizes that soil and water are valuable resources. In the third year of certification, growers must have assessed the sensitivity of their soils to erosion, made plans to reduce past erosion, and improve their soil with compost and green manure. This helps reduce water consumption, because healthy, rich soil releases water more slowly, like a sponge.
It is estimated that on Super Bowl Sunday we eat more food than on any other day except Thanksgiving. Do you prefer guacamole or turkey? At least for me, the choice is clear: guacamole. However, at $ 10 a pound for organic and certified sustainable avocados imported by Equal Exchange, I’ll eat less, but enjoy my guacamole more.
Suzanne OConnell is Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Wesleyan University.