Avocado Mania Continues to Suck Chile Dry

CC BY 2.0. Scot Nelson -- Delicious but drought-inducing...

Residents of the main avocado-producing area say they're forced to drink contaminated water delivered by truck because rivers and aquifers are being drained by avocado agribusiness.

It's been 3.5 years since I last reported on how avocado production in Chile is draining the country's water supply, and sadly the situation has worsened since then. The Guardian reports that residents of Petorca province, three hours north of Santiago, are having to rely on water delivered in cistern trucks because the original sources from rivers and aquifers have dried up.

Big commercial avocado farms are to blame. The fruit, which has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, requires enormous amounts of water to grow. The Water Footprint Network says one kilogram of avocados needs 2,000 litres of water, which is four times more than what's needed for a kilo of oranges and 10 times that required for tomatoes. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the avocado farms have set up in a region that's naturally arid and has been suffering a lasting drought.

"In 2011, Chile’s water authority, the Dirección General de Aguas, published an investigation conducted by satellite that showed at least 65 illegal underground channels bringing water from the rivers to the private plantations. Some of the big agribusinesses have been convicted for unauthorised water use and water misappropriation."

Residents are angry, and some have become ill from drinking contaminated water. One local environmental activist, Rodrigo Mundaca (who is the subject of an Amnesty International petition), says the trucked-in water is terrible: "The water is often yellow or has dirt in it, other times it smells strongly of chlorine. They say it’s potable, but people get sick when they drink it, so we are forced to boil it or buy bottled water." A 2014 study of this same water found it to have higher levels of faecal bacteria than is considered safe. Another activist, Veronica Vilches, did not mince her words:

"In order to send good avocados to Europeans, we end up drinking water with sh*t in it... We find ourselves having to choose between cooking and washing, going to the bathroom in holes in the ground or in plastic bags, while big agri-businesses earn more and more."

Sixty percent of Chile's avocados go to Europe. The U.S. receives a smaller amount because California is able to meet much of the demand, but in the off-season Chilean avocados are imported. Demand for avocados has doubled in the UK between 2013 and 2017, and has gone up by 27 percent in the last year alone. People can't get enough of this "green gold," which is what Chileans call avocados for the amount of money they fetch abroad.

Meanwhile, many Europeans, Americans, and Canadians feel quite pleased by their avocado-rich diets, thinking they're eating clean and healthy; but it's important that we realize the cost at which this avocado mania comes. While awareness of the conditions behind coffee and chocolate production is common knowledge by now, we have yet to grasp the implications of avocados on our toast, burritos, and salads.

There are a few companies prioritizing ethical production. For example, Del Rey Avocado Company sells fairtrade-certified avocados grown in California. Equal Exchange has partnered with a group of small-scale avocado growers in Michoacán, Mexico, to sell fairly traded fruit in the U.S. Some types of avocados are certified by Rainforest Alliance, which promises environmental protection, social responsibility, and economic viability. Prometo Produce just launched a fair-trade avocado line last month. But these are not widely available; in fact, I wouldn't know where to begin finding them.

What's needed most of all is a shift in perspective as to what constitutes a good diet. There is more to healthy food than nutritional value. Healthy food must also respect the Earth, the climate in which it's grown, and the hands that tend it. If that means viewing the avocado as more of a tropical luxury treat than a pantry staple, then that's what we need to do.