Photo by Claudio Reyes via Getty Images

Avocado imports into Britain increased by 27 percent in 2017, and there are some consequences 

Mike Pomranz
May 22, 2018

Society’s growing love of avocados might seem like an innocent enough obsession, but a recent report suggests that an increased demand for avocados in the United Kingdom is contributing to serious water shortages for civilians in parts of Chile. It’s enough to make you consider holding the guac.

Global demand for avocados has grown significantly in recent years, especially in places like the UK, where Brits were slow to pick up on the green fruit since they couldn’t simply have them shipped to them across their southern border. (Unlike Mexico, France is an avocado wasteland!) As the Guardian reported last week, the amount of avocados imported into Britain jumped by 27 percent last year alone.

Chile is the largest supplier to Britain, making up two-thirds of the market. The South American country ranked ninth in global avocado production in 2016, at over 137,000 tons. That’s a far cry from Mexico’s nearly 1.9 million tons, but not far behind America’s production levels of over 172,000 tons. Along the way, Chile has greatly increased the amount of land dedicated to avocado trees, from just over 20,000 hectares in 2000 to nearly 30,000 in 2015, according to a USDA report. Meanwhile, the British Isles have been one of the fastest growing destinations for Chile’s avocado exports, with the volume sent to the UK more than doubling from 2014 to 2015.

It all sounds like good news from the Chilean avocado industry (and for avocado toast-loving Brits), but according to locals in Petorca—an area in Valparaiso, by far Chile’s largest avocado-producing region—it’s coming at the price of potable water for their province. Large avocado companies have reportedly been illegally diverting rivers and driving down groundwater levels to irrigate their avocado crops which require extremely large amounts of water: about ten times more than is needed to grow the same amount of tomatoes.

As a result, residents in the already arid region struggle to find usable water, often resorting to drinking potentially contaminated water brought in by trucks. “People get sick because of the drought—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,” Veronica Vilches, director of an activist group called Rural Potable Water, told the Guardian. “For years, avocado plantations have used up all the water that should be used for everything else.... And now the rivers have dried up, just like the aquifers.”

For their part, the supermarket trade group the British Retail Consortium acknowledged the problem and said it “will work with their suppliers to investigate this.” And some stores said that they specifically vet their avocado producers beforehand, working with groups like the Rainforest Alliance, but will look into the matter further.

But Vilches was able to very vividly sum up the problem the people of Petorca currently face. She told the Guardian her group had tests done on the aforementioned truck water to search for coliform, a type of bacteria found in feces. The levels were well above the legal limit. “In order to send good avocados to Europeans, we end up drinking water with shit in it,” she stated sharply. It’s an unappetizing realization to say the least.

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