Concerns around the impact of avocados are growing. Is it time to ditch them from the menu?
Smashed. On toast. Whizzed into guacamole and drizzled over nachos. Avocados are delicious, versatile and a staple ingredient in many vegan cupboards, their creamy consistency often the ideal substitute for dairy in dips and desserts. Not to mention the fact that they look fabulous on an Instagram feed. There are an astounding 9.6m #avocado posts on the platform right now, from intricate avocado roses fanned on bagels to yummy dips for sweet potato fries and vivid green breakfast smoothies.
In fact, so synonymous have avocados become with the diets of millennials and Generation Z that some have jokingly argued it’s all that spending on avo on toast for brunch that has left younger people without the cash to get on the housing ladder.
And ridiculous as that might be, there’s no doubt that our appetite for the fleshy green fruit has grown exponentially over the past decade, with the US alone consuming 400% more avocados than they did 10 years ago. Undeniably the switch to plant-based diets is one of the big drivers behind that.
So, what’s the problem?
Well, all this avocado adulation comes at a cost to the environment and the communities in which the fruit grows. In Mexico, for instance, demand for avocados has led to huge swathes of the country’s forests being illegally destroyed by farmers to clear land and make way for crops. “For many farmers in this region, avocados in particular are seen as an appealing product as they have high profitability, particularly when compared with traditional corn cultivation,” says Karen Bird, a business manager at Catering24. “Traditionally, many of these areas where avocado plantations are concentrated today were once used as community pine forests, so the deforestation holds detrimental social implications for the local regions as well.”
So toxic has competition to gain a share of the market become, that drug gangs have even reportedly extorted money from growers. There are horrific tales of kidnappings and murder linked to the trade, with those that refuse to pay protection money watching their orchards burn to the ground.
In Chile, locals have blamed demand for avocados for droughts too. Rivers and groundwater have dried up, they say, leading to water shortages in regions like Petorca, where many avocados are grown, as avocado farmers install illegal pipes and wells to divert water to crops.
According to the Water Footprint Network, two thousand litres of water are needed to produce just one kilo of avocados. That’s four times the amount needed for the same volume of oranges, and 10 times more than for tomatoes.
“Additionally, these fruit can only be grown in warmer climates which proves to be a sustainability issue when we consider the air miles and subsequent carbon footprint that the mass movement and trade of the product requires across the globe,” says Bird.
In other words, the reality of what’s involved in growing your smashed avocado is a whole lot less pretty than the picture you just uploaded to your Instagram feed. And it’s also led to some ethical or eco-friendly businesses removing the item from their menus.
In December The Wild Strawberry Cafe, on Peterley Manor Farm in Buckinghamshire, shared a post on Instagram explaining why it had decided to drop avocado.
“As of today, we will no longer be serving avocado in the yurt. This. Is. Not. A. Joke,” the caption read. “Controversial? Absolutely … we’re as acquainted as the next person to our weekly intake of smashed avocado toast but this is something we have thought long and hard about.” It then went on to explain that the decision was prompted by a combination of concerns around avocado’s food miles and the impact of the “unprecedented demand” upon farmers.
They weren’t the only ones, with restaurants and cafés from London to Bristol all making the decision to ditch the ingredient from menus.
Should you do the same?
After all, the fruit might be 100% animal-free (all that buzz around migratory beekeeping quickly dismissed by PETA and other experts), but many vegans take up the lifestyle not only to improve animal welfare, but also to live in a more sustainable and environmentally conscious way.
The connection between livestock farming and its huge impact on greenhouse emissions and water use has been one of the driving forces behind some adopting a plant-based diet, with everyone from Bill Gates to Arnold Schwarzenegger expounding the huge difference that reducing meat and dairy consumption can make to the planet.
Which means that, for some, removing avocados from their diet along with meat and dairy might be part of the same commitment to adopting a more sustainable lifestyle. It isn’t like there aren’t plenty of alternatives available, after all. Wonky fruit & vegetable company Oddbox recommends swapping in toast toppings sourced from closer to home, for example, by experimenting with ingredients like garlic, mushrooms, beetroot hummus or red kale pesto.
For others, it might simply mean being more mindful of the impact of their avocado obsession and ensuring they’re doing their bit to improve the sustainability of the crop. Considering who they buy the fruit from is one way. Oddbox, for example, rescues avocados that have already been grown and imported into the UK but rejected by supermarkets because they might be too small or the wrong shape. “A lack of supermarket orders also means that in some cases, farmers will not have demand for their whole crop and it therefore gets left to rot in the field, which results in CO2 emissions,” say the company.
You can also do your bit at home to prevent waste, says the World Avocado Organisation. “Avocados can be used at all stages of their lifecycle, whether you decide to freeze them to use in a smoothie, dine on the much-loved avo-toast, or use an over-ripe fruit to make home-made guacamole,” says CEO Xavier Equihua.
Whatever you do though, perhaps pause before uploading your avo brunch to ‘the gram’ next time.
Megan is a passionate foodie, both at home and at work. A journalist specialising in food and drink – with a particular focus on how we can eat more sustainably – she loves discovering new food concepts, companies and products.