The Dark Side of the Trendy Avocado

Increased demand along with a smaller than average crop is causing avocado prices to skyrocket. (Photo: margouillat photo/Shutterstock)

In the United States, only a third of the avocados we eat are grown domestically. Of the two-thirds remaining, nine out of 10 come from Mexico. The other 10 percent come from Chile, Peru and the Dominican Republic, according to The New York Times.

But the math in the United Kingdom is different, which is why avocados are back in the news in a bad way. Major supermarkets in the United Kingdom source avocados from Chile's Petorca region, the country's largest avocado-producing province. To meet demand, Petorcan plantations are installing illegal pipes and diverting water from rivers to irrigate their crops. That diverted water is leaving villages in the region in drought conditions.

According to The Guardian, 17,000 tons of avocados from Petorca were imported to the U.K. in 2016, and it's estimated even more were imported in 2017. That's a lot of avocado toast and guacamole.

A thirsty crop

It took over 400 gallons of water to produce these three avocados. (Photo: Robin Shreeves)

It takes a lot of water to produce avocados. On average, 2,000 liters of water (about 528 gallons) are needed to produce a kilo of avocados (about 2.2 pounds). (In Petorca, the amount needed is even more because it's a very dry region.)

I wanted to see how those average numbers played out concretely, so I weighed the three Mexican avocados that I bought earlier this morning to make guacamole. You can see that the three weigh a little less than 2 pounds, so it took over 130 gallons of water to produce each of those avocados.

Whenever I talk about food waste, I talk about the resources wasted that went into that food, but that can sometimes be abstract — but not in this case. It's smack-me-in-the-face astonishing. If I waste just one of those avocados, I'll be wasting over 130 gallons of water. Put in another context, the average American shower uses 2.1 gallons of water per minute. Throwing away one avocado would be like letting the shower run for more than an hour with no one in it.

I'm looking at each one of these avocados in a completely different light right now.

It's time to make choices

avocado plantation
In Mexico, pine forests are being cleared to make way for avocado plantations. (Photo: Protasov AN/Shuttertock)

The matter at hand here isn't simply the water wasted; it's all of the water used.

The impact of this water being used — water that's been diverted from villagers — are serious and far-reaching.

  • Villagers are using contaminated, trucked-in water, and they're getting sick. Each person is given 50 liters of this contaminated water per day, which isn't enough.
  • The situation is causing irreversible damage to local ecosystems.
  • Small farmers can't grow food or raise animals so they're leaving the region.
  • Water advocates are receiving death threats and other forms of intimidation. Some protestors have lost their jobs.

For those who live in the U.K., they have some choices to make, and that choice may be to not buy the fruit at all. But here in the U.S., we have choices to make, too — choices like knowing where our food comes from and what the growing conditions are like.

This year, the bad news about avocados is coming from those exported to the U.K., but two years ago, The Guardian reported problems with Mexican avocados, too. The country where the majority of avocados sold in U.S. grocery stores come from is facing major deforestation. Farmers can make high profits growing avocados, so they're thinning out pine forests to plant avocado trees.

For those of us who don't live where avocados can be grown, it may be time to make some choices about our ever-increasing avocado consumption.