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Our avocado obsession is fuelling organised crime

While it’s well-known that global consumption of the fruit is wreaking havoc on the planet, many are blind to how it’s affecting those working tirelessly to meet ever-increasing demand. As with other foods that have become trendy or widely used, intensive production bears a heavy human impact.

These days, it’s pretty rare to come across somebody who isn’t a raging fan of avocados.

Thanks to the popularity of cruelty-free diets – and the caffs worldwide that have eagerly latched onto this to boost sales; offering a slew of toasts, smoothies, salads, dips, and desserts to cater to the conscious consumer – the contemporary boom of this fruit laden with health benefits has been massive.

In the US alone, consumption tripled nationwide between 2001 and 2020, rising to over 3.5 kilos per person annually.


The environmental impact of avocados

Now, as you may be aware, for some time experts have been warning against our affinity for avos, citing the detrimental environmental impacts of intensive production as a reason to cut down.

For starters, a kilo of avocados can require upwards of 2,000 litres of water to grow, depending on their size and region of origin.

Compare that to the 200 litres per kilo that it takes to cultivate tomatoes, cabbage, or spinach and you can see how getting one of these green balls of goodness from farm to table equals a high maintenance and impractical process (even more so when you consider that they’re a very delicate and easy-to-bruise crop).

Then, of course, there’s the issue of deforestation, which is especially prevalent in Mexico, the country that supplies 90 per cent of America’s total avocado consumption.

Over the past decade, some 2,900 to 24,700 acres of forest (an area larger than 15,000 football fields) have been cleared each year – often illegally – in the western state of Michoacán, as estimated by Climate Rights International.

The organisation also reports that this rapid expansion of orchards poses a threat to Mexico’s ecosystems, the repercussions of which are contributing to the ongoing climate crisis and will be felt far into the future.

‘I think avocado at this level is unsustainable,’ says Patrick Holden, CEO of Sustainable Food Trust.

‘But avocado isn’t a problem in itself, it’s that it’s become a staple when it should be a luxury.’

Yet news of our planet’s avo-induced suffering appears to have done little to curb our insatiable appetite for the fruit given it remains a staple across much of the globe and there’s been no visible pivot towards rebranding them a luxury, as advised by Holden.

What’s less frequently addressed, however, and what could potentially wake more of us up to the deeply concerning reality of our obsession with avocados, is how negatively it’s affecting the people who are working tirelessly to meet ever-increasing demand.


Links to the criminal world

‘Recently, competition for control of the avocado, and of the resources needed to produce it, has grown increasingly violent, often at the hands of cartels,’ writes Alexander Sammon for the Guardian.

During a trip to Cherán, a town in Michoacán, he quickly came to learn that clashes over the multibillion-dollar trade are commonplace, after witnessing a standoff between authorities and a corrupt group of avocado farmers claiming to be protecting their livelihood against cartel extortion.

This collusion resulted in the ‘kidnapping of national guardsmen, the torching of a car, and more than 100 arrests’ and, according to Mexican officials, was one of the biggest cartel busts in history. But why the sudden interest in avocados?

Unsurprisingly, because there’s a great deal of money to be made.

‘Today, the avocado value chain is extremely profitable,’ says Romain Le Cour, a senior expert at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC). ‘Put simply, this attracts criminal interest.’

As revealed by GI-TOC, avocado production and exports – both to the US and the European Union – display worrying signs of criminal organisations being involved in the substantially lucrative market.

This includes numerous human rights violations, the use of armed violence to support and expand production, the displacement and murder of people on safeguarded lands, the razing of forests and ‘cleaning’ of large areas to be occupied by orchards, as well as widespread extortion across the entire value chain.

‘Avocado production in Mexico is one of many global examples of thriving economic activities coexisting with criminal predation and the primacy of market forces to the detriment of public safety, human rights, environmental protection, and the fight against organized crime,’ reads GI-TOC’s analysis.

‘Mafia-type connections between public authorities, local elites and organized crime are central to the expansion of the market.’

Yet the US still hasn’t imposed sanctions against Mexico for this inhumane side of the avocado trade, so until such measures are taken, what can we as individuals do to aid in quelling the violence?

Importantly, researchers say we mustn’t swear off all Mexican avocados altogether, as this will only harm communities whose livelihoods depend on them.

Rather, if we have the financial means, we should choose organic, or at least limit our weekly guacamole intake while we wait for the corporations reaping most of the profits to act accordingly – as they should.