North America's Avocado Obsession Is Draining Chile's Water Supply

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When California production slows in winter, we turn to Chile and Mexico to satisfy our avocado craving -- but that comes with a steep price for drought-ridden growers in Chile.

Avocados have become a supermarket staple in North America. You can get them everywhere, no matter how small the town or how cold the season. They are imported in great volume from California, Mexico, and Chile to satisfy our relatively new obsession with this soft, dense, fatty fruit, and nobody can get enough of them, vegans and Paleo folks alike.

This is both good and bad.

On one hand, it’s a sign that people in the U.S. and Canada are becoming more comfortable with consuming healthy fats – the good ones that require little or no processing. It is far better to get nourishing, nutritious fat (which our bodies need) from fresh avocados than from GMO-filled, over-processed crop oils. Along with the avocado’s generous fat portion (22.5 grams on average per medium-sized fruit) comes a whole host of vitamins and minerals, making it a nutrient-dense choice and giving it the reputation of “super food” that has made it so popular in recent years.

On the other hand, problems arise when any exotic food becomes disproportionately popular in a distant place, far from its origins and native habitat. When California’s growing season ends in the fall, North American buyers turn to Mexico and Chile to satisfy the avocado craving. When you have a market as huge as the U.S. and Canada combined, willing to buy all the avocados they can get, this can have a serious impact on the growing countries.

According to an article in Civil Eats called “Green Gold: Are Your Avocados Draining A Community’s Drinking Water?”, ten percent of avocados consumed in the U.S. come from Chile, where the fruit is known as “green gold” for the money it fetches abroad. As a result, production of Hass avocados has increased drastically, from 9,000 acres planted with avocado trees in 1993 to 71,000 acres in 2014.

The problem with such growth is that much of it occurs on the previously barren hillsides of Chile’s semi-arid central valley, where rainfall is minimal, and yet every acre of avocado trees requires a million gallons of water per year – the same as an acre of lemon or orange trees. Chile doesn’t have enough water to go around, which is why rivers are being drained and groundwater is being over-pumped to feed the thirsty trees, all while drought and decreased glacial melt (because precipitation falls directly into the Pacific, rather than replenishing the glaciers) inhibit the annual renewal of water supplies.

Some people would blame the Chilean government’s lack of effective water management policies – which it certainly is, to a great extent – but there are undeniable moral implications for us, the international consumers, who have made something as exotic as the avocado a staple in our northern diets year-round. Is it really appropriate for us to keep consuming avocados at this rate if it means that a small farmer somewhere in Chile is suffering from lack of drinking water?

Civil Eats suggests that a good solution would be to buy avocados that come from small farmers, but that is very hard to do, since “90 to 95 percent of the Chilean avocados sold in the U.S. come from large producers.”

Regardless of what approach you choose to take, this is yet another indicator of how important it is to eat as locally and seasonally as possible. It’s kinder to people and to the planet.