Is it time to give up guacamole?
No fruit has captured our hearts and stomachs quite like the avocado. Whether smashed into guac, chopped into a Buddha bowl or splayed upon that elusive slice of Instagram-worthy avocado toast, Americans can’t seem to get enough of this fatty green fruit. The USDA reports that avocado consumption has skyrocketed since the beginning of this century. A record 4.25 billion Hass avocados were consumed in 2015—more than double the amount consumed in 2005 and four times the total consumed in 2000. And if you need more immediate proof of the avocado obsession, just look to Brooklyn’s Industry City, home to the world’s first avocado bar that ran out of the treasured green fruit in less than three hours on opening day.
We’re paying a price for ODing on these decadent green slices—and not just from our wallets. While you’ve probably noticed that the cost of avocados has nearly doubled over the past year (a surge in demand coupled with a poor harvest is causing the low supply and accompanying price bump), what’s shielded from your hungry eyes and taste buds is the environmental impact caused by the avocado gold rush in one of its native homes.
Mexico is the world’s top avocado grower and 80 percent of American avocados come from the Mexican state of Michoacán. This southeastern region boasts an incredible natural beauty from great lakes to the majestic Sierra Madre Mountains and verdant forests. But according to a study from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, 110,000 acres of Michoacán forest were converted into avocado orchards from 1974 to 2011.
The land where oak and pine trees grow is particularly coveted by avocado farmers since oak and pine proliferate at the same elevation as avocado trees—about 5,000 to 7,000 feet above sea level. If owners of forested land aren’t felling trees to sell the clearing at a premium, eager farmers are going underground to capitalize on the avocado obsession. State officials estimate that there are at least 35,000 illegal avocado orchards in Michoacán. They also estimate that 40 percent of forest fires occurring in the state were deliberately caused to clear land for growing avocados. Over 16,000 hectares of forests have been lost to man-made fires.
This incredible deforestation creates an unprecedentedly negative trickle-down effect. While the deep roots of pine and oak trees help filter mountainous water springs, avocado trees have shallow roots. And to make matters worse, avocados end up consuming much of that clean spring water for its growth. According to New York Magazine’s Grub Street, it takes 72 gallons of water to grow a pound of avocados, compared to just nine gallons for a pound of tomatoes. The effects are being felt in 100 miles away in Mexico City as the hills northeast of Michoacán supply a massive water system that feeds into the country’s capital.
What water is left may be contaminated with fertilizers and pesticides used in avocado farming. Environmental experts report increased rates of liver and kidney conditions among residents living downstream of avocado orchards—medical problems that didn’t exist before the avocado gold rush.
And long before the avocado orchards took hold, and arguably, before human civilization, the delicate monarch butterfly settled in the lush green valleys of Mexico during the winter, resting in its native oyamel fir trees. In fact, there’s a 135,000-acre butterfly reserve along the state’s eastern border and pine and oak forests create an important buffer for this habitat. But environmental officials say that damage caused by the recent deforestation is irreversible.
If you can’t quite give up your morning avocado toast, there are still ways to enjoy the creamy green stuff with less guilt. When shopping, look for the Equal Exchange sticker which identifies avocados grown by a group of 22 progressive farmers in Michoacán.
But to truly put a halt to the madness, we’ll have to wean our taste buds off of avocados for good. Can we entice you with some delicious green pea guac or roasted sweet potato toast instead?