IS OUR AVOCADO ADDICTION FINALLY TOAST?
Beloved of millennials but with grave environmental consequences, as Alan Titchmarsh announces a breakfast boycott, is it time Britain’s avo-obsession was smashed?
SLICED, smashed or pureed, served on sourdough toast, chucked on a sandwich or even blended into smoothies, avocados are the superfood beloved of millennials that we’ve all come to adore. In 2017 alone, a staggering 10,000 tonnes of the fruit were imported into the UK. But evidence is growing their cultivation is linked to deforestation, aquifer depletion and even the international drugs trade.
Now celebrity gardener and Express columnist Alan Titchmarsh has revealed he refuses to eat avocados for breakfast because of their “enormous carbon footprint”. He is not alone: there is an increasingly vocal movement, ranging from celeb chefs and environmental campaigners to ordinary consumers, towards cancelling or at least curtailing their culinary use for the good of the planet. In an article for Gardeners’ World magazine, Titchmarsh described eating avocado for breakfast as a “non-starter”. “It seems there is a great movement towards smashed avocado on sourdough bread. I can’t think of anything more insipid to force down my neck at the crack of dawn. And then there are the environmental considerations,” he wrote.
“I cannot reconcile myself to eating avocados and contributing to the enormous carbon footprint involved in shipping them across the ocean to my breakfast table, not to mention the wholesale destruction of the rainforest to create such plantations.”
The UK’s obsession with avocados began in 2013 as part of the so-called clean-eating fad, which extols the virtues of high protein and low fat and sugar. Due to their high levels of unsaturated fats, avocados were quickly championed as a superfood.
Avocados soon became so lucrative they earned the sobriquet “green gold” among producers in some of the world’s poorest countries.
But that popularity has seen their production become a monoculture in some areas – with large swathes of agricultural land used solely for their growing avocados.
Monoculture crops risk sucking the nutrients from the soil, causing a breakdown in fertility over time until it may no longer be viable for agriculture.
It also leaves them more susceptible to pests and disease, creating a vicious circle in which farmers become more reliant on artificial fertilisers and pesticides.
Such plantation farming also encourages deforestation, as landowners slash and burn the natural landscape to make way for more lucrative avocado trees.
This has the knock-on effect of releasing carbon by the burning of trees, thus exacerbating climate change and causing soil erosion and flooding as well as species loss. Then there is water. Growing avocados takes water, an awful lot of it, and the majority of the world’s supply is grown in countries facing scarcity and erratic rainfall. Mexico is the world’s largest producer of avocados – it is a multi-billion dollar industry for the country – but South Africa, Chile, Peru, Israel and Spain supply the majority of the UK market. Water consumption associated with the UK’s annual avocado intake alone is said to total some 25 million cubic metres – equal to 10,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
“Our insatiable Western appetite for avocado toast means that more and more Mexican land is being turned into avocado plantations, meaning less land for local communities to grow food, which also leads to deforestation as plantations expand,” says food systems consultant Honor May Eldridge, an expert on avocados who has held senior policy roles with environmental charities.
“Avocados are a very thirsty crop and require huge amounts of water and irrigation. Mexico is already suffering high levels of water stress and experiencing terrible droughts.
“Producing huge quantities of avocados for export is further depleting the country of a critical natural resource.”
In the country, producers have been forced to create armed vigilante armies to protect themselves against drug cartels, seeking to seize control of the lucrative
‘The majority of the world’s supply is grown in countries facing drought and erratic rainfall’
trade and extorting farmers and wholesalers with the threat of violence. Tancítaro, famous as the world capital of avocado production, shipping a million dollars worth of the fruit every day, suffered years of pitched battles between paramilitaries and cartel gunmen before calm was restored.
THE city, in the south-western state of Michoacán, had been torn apart by criminal gangs, supplementing their drug income by extorting, killing and kidnapping landowners and avocado suppliers and seizing control of plantations.
Yet ethical concerns are the tip of the environmental iceberg. The environmental cost of the avocado is also sky-high.
Research conducted by environmental consultant Carbon Footprint in 2017 found an avocado has a carbon footprint of 846g of CO2 in terms of production, packaging and shipping – almost double that of one kilo of bananas at 480g.
Vicki Hird, head of sustainable farming at food alliance organisation Sustain, is concerned. “No food, from avocados to sliced white loaf, is without an impact – on nature, climate or workers but where the food source is distant and supply chains highly complex, the dangers can be hidden,” she says. “We need to figure out far better ways to ensure everyone has access to affordable, healthy food that doesn’t trash the environment and one way is to nurture localised, retail that supports sustainable farming.”
Campaigner Angela Terry, founder of the green consumer website One Home, said: “Most vegan food, including avocados, has a lower carbon footprint than animal products such as sausage or bacon. However, the rapid increase in demand – think all those Instagram posts – has led to new plantations developing. These have meant some native forest is cut down to grow large numbers.
“This deforestation is bad for wildlife but also for climate change as trees lock up carbon, which is then released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide when forests are burnt.There is also growing demand for water for irrigation of these plantations of green gold.
“When it comes to breakfast, porridge is a great winter fuel and one of the best for improving your carbon footprint. In the future, hopefully, fair trade symbols like we see on coffee and chocolate will enable us to buy avocados knowing it is from sustainable production but in the meantime the key advice is to enjoy this yummy snack, just not every day.”
But not everyone believes avocados are among the worst offenders. Dustin Benton, policy director at Green Alliance, an independent think tank and charity, says that avocados are “unfairly maligned”. “The challenges with avocados are principally where they are grown – they are a reasonably water intensive crop but in general they are pretty low carbon,” he says. “Essentially, all vegetable foods, grains, and anything that is made by a plant is very low carbon unless you fly it. Maybe you should lay off air-freighted avocados but shipped ones are likely to be a source of low carbon food.” Louise Fuchs, of eco-friendly e-grocer Oda which provides carbon receipts for every purchase, agrees: “Yes, avocados have a high CO2 and energy footprint compared to other greens as they require lengthy transport and huge amounts of water – around 2,000 litres per kilo. “However, they are significantly less impactful on the environment than other items like red meat which has an even bigger footprint.”
CLARE Oxborrow, food campaigner at Friends of the Earth, suggests eating fewer avocados rather than stopping entirely. “Where climate emissions are concerned, what you eat, rather than where it comes from, has the most impact – transport emissions, water, and impacts on land use and biodiversity are all factors,” she says.
“So, the final scorecard is that while avocados have a higher climate footprint than many fruit and veg, they are still far lower than meat and dairy.
“All things in moderation, including avocado, but especially meat.”
So what are the bigger concerns? “Lamb, beef, cheese – and pigs to a certain extent – are what you should pay attention to if you’re worried about carbon emissions,” Dustin Benton adds.
But the most surprising culprits lurk in mangroves. Shrimp farms require vast stretches of land and take between three to six months to reach full size, with the resulting organic waste and chemicals having a devastating effect on local ecosystems.
“The worst thing you can eat are tropical prawns [or shrimps],” Dustin continues. “They are the highest carbon food because of the natural environment they destroy.”
Perhaps compared to that, avocados aren’t quite so bad... in moderation.