This Super Bowl Sunday will be different. Instead of at a party, I’ll be at home alone with my husband. And we’ll be paying more than four times as much for our guacamole.
You can’t watch the Super Bowl, the No. 1 at-home party event of the year, without guacamole. In fact, according to the Hass Avocado Board, almost 220 million pounds (equivalent to about 1,400 space shuttles) of avocados (Persea americana) were shipped here last month from Michoacán, the only Mexican state allowed to export avocados to the United States.
Michoacán is three times larger than New Jersey. To find it on a map, look west of Mexico City and east of the Pacific Ocean. It’s rugged, mountainous terrain that harbors rich biodiversity. With more than 12,000 feet of elevation, the different microclimates allow avocados to be harvested all year.
But there are four major problems with consuming most Michoacán avocados:
Poverty. The people who grow avocados are poor and don’t benefit from our delight in the sweet, complicated, creamy taste of the fruit. According to Mexico’s National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy, 46 percent of people in Michoacán live in poverty. In 2014, the poverty line was defined as living on less than 2,542 pesos ($157.70) a month in urban areas and 1,615 pesos ($100.20) a month in rural areas.
Deforestation. To grow more avocados, native forests are being destroyed and, with them, critical habitat. Americans’ love for avocados is voracious; we eat them year round, not just on Super Bowl Sunday. Total U.S. consumption increased about 620 percent between 1995 (360.1 million pounds) and 2020 (2,592.1 million pounds). Although some avocados come from the United States, Chile, Peru and the Dominican Republic, most come from Michoacán. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 acres, an area about a third to half the size of Washington, D.C., are converted from pine and fir forests to avocado farms each year. With the destruction of the forests, the soil structure is compromised and biodiversity lost. Global Forest Watch, an online platform that uses satellite data to monitor forest change, shows that forest clearing to establish avocado plantations has pushed into the boundaries of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. This World Heritage Site is the winter home to millions of eastern monarch butterflies. Some have traveled more than 3,000 miles from Canada and New England. They are already seriously endangered by the destruction of much of their habitat in the United States.
Water. Avocados are thirsty plants. An estimated 60 to 70 gallons of water go into the production of each avocado fruit. Per acre, an avocado farm requires about twice as much water as a pine and fir forest. Pests, such as the red spider mite, thrips and scab, threaten the plants and require pesticides, which in turn harm farmworkers and contaminate water supplies. Fertilizer used for avocados can further degrade the water.
Drug cartels and corruption. It’s no surprise that where there is money to be made in Mexico, corruption and drug cartels flourish. Avocado exports, Mexico’s “green gold,” were worth $2.8 billion in 2019. Cartels threaten and extort money from farmers, who have to hire armed guards. U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors in Michoacán have been threatened and robbed, and in 2019, the agency said it would suspend the inspection of avocados — blocking their export to the United States — if security conditions didn’t improve.
Given this situation, should we just boycott Mexican avocados? Definitely not.
In Michoacán, 34 percent of the people work in agriculture. Avocado farming provides hundreds of thousands of jobs, and even though almost half the people live in poverty, their plight would be much worse without the growing, packing and processing jobs provided by the avocado industry. In fact, this year, with no tourism income, the people of Michoacán are especially in need of agricultural revenue.
What we can do is support eco-minded cultivation through purchasing sustainability-certified avocados. This can lessen the environmental impact and assure a fairer distribution of money.
Under sustainable certification, growers voluntarily adhere to certain economic, environmental and social practices, usually verified by third parties, that offer a different approach to agriculture and assure that the workers get a fair deal. The most common sustainably labeled products are coffee, cocoa and bananas, which are certified through organizations such as Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance.
Avocados, an evergreen native of Mexico, are a subtropical understory tree and grow best in well-drained soil in warm weather and semi-humid climates. They can’t grow everywhere, and certainly not in the northern United States. In fact, avocados are grown commercially in only three U.S. states. The popular Hass avocado, with its bumpy, leathery, dark green skin, is a cultivar from Southern California. Florida produces the larger, smooth, shiny green-skinned ones, and Hawaii, not to be outdone, grows more than 200 varieties. In Holualoa, on the west coast of the Big Island, one grower produces the largest avocados, regularly weighing six pounds or more.
In Mexico, most of the small farms are family owned and operated collectively. After a collective meets the standards to become certified as Fairtrade, the requirements increase during the first six years, allowing the collective to gradually improve. Growers are guaranteed both a minimum price and a premium. Members have a voice in how the premiums are spent, e.g., education, sanitation, cash. One Michoacán collective used its premium to train and offset the start-up costs for local women to become beekeepers.
Minimizing the impact of farming on the planet requires education and commitment. Fairtrade recognizes that soil and water are precious resources. By the third year of certification, growers must have assessed their soils’ susceptibility to erosion, develop plans to reduce past erosion, and enhance their soil through compost and green fertilizer. This helps to reduce water consumption because healthy, rich soil releases water more slowly — like a sponge.
It is estimated that on Super Bowl Sunday, we eat more food than any other day except Thanksgiving. Do you favor guacamole or turkey? At least for me, the choice is clear: guacamole. However, at $10 per pound for organic, sustainably certified avocados imported by Equal Exchange, I’ll be eating less — but I will enjoy my guacamole more.
Suzanne OConnell is a professor of earth and environmental sciences at Wesleyan University.