The Deforestation Dilemma: Contemplating the Impacts of Avocado Consumption on the Environment
Written By: Jon Zhang ’24
Edited By: Owen Wogmon ‘23
In February 2022, the US Department of Agriculture temporarily banned the import of avocados
from Mexico after a verbal threat was issued towards a safety inspector by suspected drug cartel members. These criminal organizations have sought to expand their revenue by cashing in on the lucrative crop, and the event underscored the evolving risks of working in the avocado industry .
Though ultimately short-lived, the ban’s imposition threatened to acutely decrease US avocado supply and consequently raise prices. The ban also posed an economic risk to the Mexican state of Michoacán, whose avocado exports to the US total nearly $3 billion each year . However, threats to economic stability and the safety of inspectors are not the only dangers posed by the booming avocado industry.
As seen in other industries, such as those of coffee and palm oil, aggressive encroachment into natural ecosystems and the associated conversion of these lands for commercial agricultural purposes has been immensely detrimental to the environment. The avocado industry is following a similar pattern as it serves the growing demand for the product.
Due to the recent explosion of avocado consumption in the West – largely beginning in the mid-2000s – researchers are just starting to recognize the degree to which avocado orchards and plantations have expanded into forests. Using remote sensing and a novel method called TRACAST, researchers from the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan mapped US-Mexico avocado supply chains and identified key actors (US importers and retailers, Mexican exporters, etc.) and hotspots, publishing their findings in January 2021. They found that approximately 858 km2 in total forest area was lost in Michoacán between 2001-2017, with avocado plantations accounting for 17% (~146 km2) of this land use transformation. In other words, out of the numerous causes of deforestation – such as logging, creating pastures for livestock grazing, and infrastructure development – nearly one-fifth of forest loss in Michoacán during the 21st century so far can be attributed to the cultivation of a single crop .
Mexican government officials currently estimate that 30-40% of annual forest loss is due to avocados, or roughly 15,000–20,000 acres per year. This marks a sharp increase from the previous estimates, which approximated annual forest loss at just 1,700 acres per year from 2000 to 2010. Evidently, the surging popularity of the fruit constitutes a significant driver of deforestation, and this process will likely accelerate in the coming years .
A more recent study has sought to project the extent of future deforestation. In February 2022, environmental researchers from the University of Texas at Austin and the National Autonomous University of Mexico released a manuscript detailing their work. The scientists used a spatial probit model to calculate the spatial dependence of deforestation on avocado expansion in order to project the geographic extent of future encroachment. The researchers averaged multiple estimates to arrive at 1,014 km2 of expansion in Michoacán by 2050. To put this into perspective, this represents a 74% increase in area from the 1,356 km2 of orchards measured in the state in 2017. Avocado production shows absolutely no signs of slowing down, as this model of potential expansion demonstrates .
The environmental concerns associated with deforestation are nontrivial. Forests play a vital role in atmospheric gas exchange, pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and releasing oxygen. According to the manuscript authors, pine-oak trees are one of the most at-risk species for deforestation. Pine-oak trees are known to store larger quantities of carbon than most anthropogenic land uses, such as avocado production. Therefore, even though pine-oak trees would be replaced with avocado trees in this scenario, this transformation would still impair carbon sequestration and affect essential gas exchange, resulting in even higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels .
Furthermore, forest trees retain water and maintain the water table. Monocultures – plots that grow just a single crop – have been shown to lower soil water retention due to a lack of root length diversity. Avocado trees are particularly water-intensive, requiring anywhere from 2-7 times the water intake per m2 compared to native pine tree species. This increased water consumption combined with the inadequate root systems of monocultures causes groundwater levels to decline and soil run-off likelihood to increase – a consequence that is especially problematic if the farm in question uses large amounts of fertilizer, which can compromise water quality. In a region where water supplies are running low, these impacts could be life-threatening and damaging to individuals’ livelihoods .
Naturally, agricultural intrusion into forests creates ecological fragmentation, with patches of forest becoming increasingly isolated. Mainly, avocado expansion contributes to the fragmentation of pine-fir and pine-oak trees, which has negative impacts on biodiversity. Avocado expansion also encroaches into “protected areas,” most notably the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacán, where millions of butterflies migrate to weather out the winter and lay eggs. Further destruction of this reserve would interfere with the life processes of monarch butterflies. Avocado production often sidelines the importance of natural habitats, sacrificing sustainability for commercial growth .
Avocado cultivation undeniably comes with substantial environmental costs. Nevertheless, its surge has followed economic incentives and demand. Americans today consume 7 lb. of avocados per capita each year, 7 times the number in 1989. Even more recently, consumption has tripled since the early 2000s . It’s not difficult to understand why. Avocados come with genuine health benefits, and their use has proliferated in recipes ranging from tacos to salads to avocado toast. Moreover, the financial opportunities created by the industry have been significant, lifting everyday Mexican farmers out of poverty . However, as the crop becomes increasingly commercialized, the ecological consequences may become too onerous to ignore.
Ultimately, sweeping policy regulations will be required to address ecological exploitation within the avocado industry. But for now, I urge consumers to consider the legitimate environmental consequences of avocado consumption. This process demands reflection and prioritizing one’s needs and values. Each individual must make their own determination of what to do with their consumption, bearing in mind the ramifications of this decision.
The global supply chain is complicated, with many different actors and competing interests. Only through considering all aspects of it – economic, health, and environmental – can consumers make informed decisions. It is certainly difficult to fully shed behaviors that contribute to environmental crises, but human-created repercussions affecting the Earth cannot continue to go ignored. Through a larger societal reckoning, we should decide what it is we truly value and what sacrifices must be made. Instead of a temporary ban, a more permanent solution must be created.
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[Image] Woman's hands harvesting fresh ripe organic Hass Avocado stock photo [Internet] [cited 2022 March 13]. Available from: https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/womans-hands-harvesting-fresh-ripe-organic-hass-avocado-gm1185339427-334018220