Avocados. The green fruit that tastes decadent but feels virtuous, that you’re willing to pay $15 to have smeared over some toast, and that looks amazing with a Valencia filter on Instagram; a food that inspires such devotion among its followers that some have been moved to pledge their loyalty by having its image permanently inked on their skin. But our unctuous overlord is not as benevolent as one may think. The skyrocketing demand for avocados is placing an enormous burden on the environment.
Fueled by social media-based food trends and insatiable hordes of brunchers, demand for avocados in the U.S. has taken off in the past decade. What was once a relatively rare and unpopular fruit known as the “alligator pear” is now a year-round staple of many people’s diet. According to The Washington Post, sales of Hass avocados, which account for over 95 percent of the avocados consumed in the U.S., doubled between 2000 and 2005, and quadrupled by 2014, when almost 2 billion pounds of the gooey green fruit were sold.
There’s a lot to love about the avocado. They’re low in sugar, high in fiber, and full of vitamins and monounsaturated fat, the “good” kind of fat. But all of these benefits come at a steep price. As Adam Sternbergh wrote in New York Magazine, “It takes 72 gallons of water to grow a pound of avocados, compared to, for instance, nine gallons to grow a pound of tomatoes.” That means it takes basically a bathtub full of water to produce two medium-sized avocados. (Now I’m just picturing eating two avocados in the bath and I can’t decide if that image is delightful or repulsive.)
The effects of the avocado’s seemingly unquenchable thirst are exacerbated by the fact that 80 percent of the fruit grown in the U.S. is grown in California, a state that doesn’t exactly have a lot of water to spare. Drought and poor yields have led to higher prices, (according to one California supplier, a case of avocados now runs $76, up from the typical $25 to $35 range) but Americans’ appetite for avocados doesn’t seem to be letting up.
The fallout from this appetite is spilling over our borders as well. Central Mexico’s pine forests are being mowed down at astonishing rates to make room for lucrative avocado groves. Furthermore, almost 80 percent of avocados in Mexico are grown in the southwestern state of Michoacán, an area heavily influenced by the Knights Templar drug cartel. An estimated two billion pesos a year, or $152 million, are paid to the cartel by local producers and exporters, a fact that has led some to compare avocados to Africa’s “blood diamonds”.
Avocados aren’t the only problematic, trendy food. Almonds are also leeching California dry, and foreign demand for quinoa has grown so quickly that Bolivia, the largest exporter of the seed, is facing serious ecological problems, and many local farmers can no longer to afford to eat the crop growing in their own backyard.
This is tough to hear, I get it. Nobody wants to be responsible for stealing three bathtubs worth of water from drought-stricken California, or inadvertently enabling shady people just because you wanted a tasty and nutritious snack. But if the past couple of years have taught us anything, it's that we can no longer afford to feign ignorance about how our own actions affect the world around us. So the next time you go for brunch, maybe consider ordering a nice Eggs Benedict instead.