For some of us, the best part of the Super Bowl is the bowl full of guacamole. By one estimate, football fans eat 105 million pounds of avocados during the big game, making it the biggest day of the year for these fatty, nutritious and delicious fruits.
But Americans don’t need the excuse of football to eat avocados. Over the past decade, consumption has doubled as the country demands more guac, more avocado toast, and more avocado smoothies.
Most of these lawyers begin their journey in Mexico. The country is the best in the world fruit producer and exporter, and the United States is by far its biggest customer. For every four avocados exported by Mexico, three go to the United States. Perhaps that’s why marketing organization Avocados From Mexico was the first agricultural brand to pay millions for a Super Bowl commercial, in 2015, according to researcher Manuel Ochoa Ayala.
This almost insatiable appetite has a price. To meet growing demand in the United States, Mexican farmers have cut swaths of forest in the western state of Michoacán, one of the country’s most important ecosystems. According to some estimates, up to 20,000 acres of forest – the area of more than 15,000 American football fields – are felled each year and replaced with avocado plantations. The rapid expansion of orchards will threaten Mexico’s forests for years to come, according to a study published this week.
That doesn’t mean you should stop buying avocados altogether, experts say. Avocado cultivation in Mexico is a lifeline for a low-income part of the country, and simply boycotting the product would likely do more harm than good.
There are ways to limit your impact on ecosystems when you buy these fruits. And the real responsibility for improving the industry, experts say, rests with what might be called the Big Avocado — the handful of big companies that import and sell these beloved superfoods.
The emerging link between Mexican avocados and deforestation
Just a few decades ago, Mexican avocados were not found in the United States. Not in grocery stores. Not even in Mexican restaurants. For most of the 20th century, the United States prohibited companies from importing them from Mexico because government officials feared the avocados would introduce harmful insects to American orchards.
Everything changed in 1997 when the United States, after examining Mexican practices, lifted its ban. Avocados started flowing north. Between 2000 and 2018, avocado exports from Michoacán, one of Mexico’s poorest states and the origin of almost all of its avocados, increased 60-fold.
Much of this growth has come at the expense of forests. Although it is often illegal, farmers sometimes cut down trees to clear space for avocado orchards, either because there is no existing farmland to grow the crops or because it is cheap, experts say. Michoacán’s woodlands contain nutrient-rich soil, so farmers don’t need to spend as much money on fertilizer, according to Antonio González-Rodríguez, a forestry researcher at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The demand for avocados is also making it a lucrative crop, prompting farmers to keep planting.
No organization specifically tracks forest loss due to the avocado industry, but a handful of researchers have made some troubling estimates in recent years. An article published in early 2021, for example, found that farmers in Michoacán had planted around 36,000 acres of avocado farms in areas where trees had been felled between 2001 and 2017. A few years earlier, officials Governments in Mexico estimated that Michoacán was losing between 15,000 and 20,000 acres of forest each year – a third or more of the region’s total deforestation – to avocado cultivation. (It should be noted that while experts consider these numbers to be substantial, other food industries, including beef and soy, pose a much bigger problem for the world’s forests.)
Today, farmers still cut down trees to grow avocados, said Audrey Denvir, a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin. In a study co-authored this week by Denvir, researchers estimated that Michoacán’s avocado orchards would expand by about 250,000 acres through 2050. In the worst-case scenario, this expansion would come at the expense of native forests, she said. Some of these future farms will likely expand into federally protected areas that support a diversity of plant and animal life, the researchers concluded.
Millions of migrating monarch butterflies congregate each winter in the forests of Michoacán, having traveled more than 2,000 miles south to the United States and Canada. Avocado orchards have started cutting in parts of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, “where native vegetation is paramount to the insect’s survival,” wrote researchers from the World Resources Institute (WRI). ) nonprofit in 2020. Pesticides from avocado farms could also endanger iconic insects. .
The replacement of forests with avocado plantations also reduces the precious water supply. Avocados suck up more water than firs and pines, and farmers often drain streams to fill the retention ponds they use to water their crops, Mark Stevenson of The Associated Press recently reported. As a result, the water that reaches communities downstream is often lower in quantity and higher in chemicals such as pesticides, said Diego Pérez-Salicrup, another UNAM researcher.
Researchers now fear that the avocado plantations could expand outside of Michoacán. Late last year, the US government reached an agreement with Mexico that will allow Jalisco, a state just north of Michoacán, to begin exporting to the United States. “Patterns repeat themselves,” said Valeria López-Portillo, researcher at WRI Mexico.
“Let’s not confuse the knife with murder”
The way these fruits get from point A to point B shows just how complex today’s avocado industry has become. A single fruit can pass through the hands of growers, packers, exporters and importers before reaching retailers such as grocery stores. Mexico’s drug cartels are also involved in the avocado trade, experts say, largely because there’s a lot of money to be made.
Large U.S. companies that import avocados from Mexico and sell them to retail chains should be aware that growing these fruits harms ecosystems, López-Portillo said. It’s easy to see the problem if you spend time in Michoacán, she added. Soybean and palm oil growers have pledged to eliminate forest loss from their supply chains, but no such pledge exists among big avocado companies, according to Denvir.
Avocados From Mexico, the marketing group, said in a statement to Vox that farmers comply with all US and Mexican regulations, including those related to pest control and deforestation. “The avocado industry in Mexico is committed to the environment and the sustainable development of the region,” the statement said. He didn’t answer a question about how he makes sure producers don’t clear the land.
The United States, meanwhile, does not ban imports of avocados linked to illegal deforestation, Denvir said. Vox has also contacted several major avocado importers, including Mission Produce, West Pak Avocado and Calavo; those who responded to our request declined to comment.
Avocado farms themselves are not the source of the problem, Pérez-Salicrup said. Only some farmers cut down trees to grow avocados, he said, and most of the profits go to companies that export, import and sell the avocados in the United States and Canada. “Let’s not confuse the knife with the murder,” he said. There are examples of farmers using income generated from an avocado orchard to fund forest conservation, Pérez-Salicrup added.
Some researchers say avocados should be certified for sustainability so consumers can gauge the impact of their purchases. “What I would like to see is an eco-label for avocados,” Denvir said. Industry could model such a label after certification programs for other products, similar to what the Forest Stewardship Council does for pulp and paper, researchers wrote in a 2021 paper led by Denvir. Alternatively, companies could apply existing labels — like Rainforest Alliance, marked with the green frog you can find on chocolate bars and bags of coffee — to avocado cultivation, she added. (Existing durability standards are far from perfect.)
In the meantime, what to do at the grocery store? If you have the financial means, it is better to choose organic, say the experts. In general, “producers who practice organic farming care more about it,” said González Rodríguez. Still, even with organic products, it can be difficult to know exactly where they come from, Denvir said.
More importantly, the researchers told Vox, don’t swear at all Mexican avocados. It will only harm the communities of Michoacán whose livelihoods depend on it. Although businesses reap most of the profits, growing the fruit still brings much-needed income to rural Mexico.
Now could you please pass the chips?