Posted in: Culture

Guac Costs Extra

By | September 22, 2017

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Over the past two decades, avocados have exploded into American cuisine and culture, taking millennials, hipsters, and health-conscious consumers by storm. The trend includes everything from avocado smoothies to “avolattes,” an Australian invention for those hoping to unite their love for coffee with their passion for hollowed out avocado shells. While Mexican restaurants have embraced guacamole as a quintessential side dish for years, many other U.S. chains have recently joined this national trend with McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Subway, and Panera Bread all adopting avocado as a key ingredient to appease America’s newest culinary obsession. In total, the demand for avocados grew from 682 million pounds in 2004 to over 2.2 billion pounds in 2016, a 230 percent increase in just 12 years. Initial data show Americans consumed 1.6 times more of the fruit in the first half of 2017 than in all of 2004.

While U.S.-based suppliers have worked tirelessly to keep up with this newfound demand, most avocados consumed in the United States come from the state of Michoacán, Mexico, where gang violence and profit-driven deforestation have tainted the local avocado industry. With almost 90 percent of all imported avocados coming from Mexico, most of the fruit’s consumption within the United States has a direct tie to cartel violence and government sanctioned environmental destruction. The latest fads in “all things avocado” may not be slowing down anytime soon, but along with the increase in avocado consumption come caustic environmental and humanitarian effects internationally.

The Good Kind of Fat

While overall consumption of whole fruit in the United States has not changed dramatically between 1994 and the present, the exponential rise in avocado consumption has overwhelmed media outlets and advertising since 2012. Prior to the 2000s, avocados were rarely consumed outside of a few West Coast cities, and  thought of it as an ugly fruit that did not ripen well. Given the rest of the country’s unfamiliarity with the Hass avocado—the most commonly grown strand—many relegated the fruit to obscurity, derisively labeling them “alligator pears,” which only further hurt their marketability. With its relatively limited publicity outside of California, the avocado only entered the national spotlight as a go-to dip for Super Bowl parties, forcing the industry to employ several aggressive advertising campaigns that tried to convert the crop into a year-round sensation.

“It took quite some time before avocado popularity spread to the East Coast,” said Tom Bellamore, president of the California Avocado Commission, in an interview with the HPR. “It began with some chefs in different restaurants and with guacamole, but it took a while to get avocados in the home.” Perhaps one of the most noticeably aggressive marketing maneuvers came in a seductive 1980s television commercial in which actress Angie Dickinson famously asked, “Would this body lie to you?” Only a few years later, the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton undertook a “years-long crusade” to promote avocados, in which the costumed “Mr. Ripe Guy” scouring the country for “Ms. Ripe,” all while getting some positive publicity from morning talk shows like Good Day New York.

Not long after Mr. Ripe Guy joined the national stage in his avocado-tinted Mazda, demand for the fruit skyrocketed. Jan DeLyser, vice president of marketing for the California Avocado Commission, told the HPR, “When the Hass Avocado Board began in the early 2000s to assess imports, they expanded programming and marketing efforts with accurate nutritional information from third-party resources and dietitians … which helped increase demand for avocados.” While health-conscious consumers flocked to the avocado’s nutrient-packed “good fats” (promoted by numerous National Institute of Health surveys), several other factors likely played a significant role. For example, the diasporic spread of Hispanic Americans across the United States in the 1990s and 2000s corresponds strikingly with the rise in avocado consumption.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the Mexican avocado industry gained full access to the United States in 2007, finally fulfilling NAFTA requirements. Once the fruit was readily supplied to all 50 states, people became more comfortable with “alligator pears,” and by 2017, the avocado became the first product in Super Bowl history with a commercial dedicated solely to a fruit. Given the United States’ current fetishization of a) superfoods like kale and quinoa, b) Mexican chains like Chipotle and Qdoba, and c) Instagram-worthy products like avolattes and avocado toast, DeLyser does not anticipate this “meteoric rise” in avocado consumption going away anytime soon. In fact, she maintained, “I have not seen anything that shows a slowdown in the acceleration of avocado consumption for 2017 or beyond.” With the average American consuming seven pounds of avocado in a given year—more than double the consumption from just one decade earlier—the remaining question is how producers can possibly keep up with its current prestige.

Guap for the Guac

While the avocado industry enjoys a lucrative 10 percent annual growth, such rapid increase in demand for the Mediterranean fruit is reminiscent of the 20th century banana industry, marked by human rights violations and environmental disasters across Central and South America. Compared to other superfoods like kale and quinoa, avocados are far more expensive to grow and maintain in the United States due to California’s high water costs and limited acreage. As DeLyser noted, “The industry in California is really fairly stable on its acreage with about 53,000 acres of farmland. Any new plans can only deal with density for water and nutrient efficiency.” Moreover, avocados lack any close substitute, while spinach can replace kale and rice can replace quinoa if prices rise too drastically. Because of this perfect storm of high production costs, low substitutability, limited acreage for domestic farming, and explosive popularity, avocados enjoy a peerless premium when sold in grocery stores, costing almost $28 for a 22-pound box. A single avocado can easily cost more than $1, with some supermarkets charging an unprecedented $2 per piece of fruit.

Although bananas do not cost nearly as much as avocados, their tropical origin, ubiquitous popularity, and lack of substitutability have caused the deaths of thousands of workers in Central and South America since the 1900s. In the mid-twentieth century, reporters and human rights organizations began to notice concerning trends in Central American nations like Guatemala and Honduras. Multinational firms like La United Fruit Company (presently Chiquita Banana) effectively bribed government officials to overlook environmental and humanitarian crimes at local banana plantations. Despite intense backlash by foreign and domestic activists (including Pablo Neruda and Gabriel García Márquez, both of whom penned works detailing the atrocities), banana plantations from Ecuador to Mexico continue to use child labor and to fire workers who attempt to unionize. Meanwhile, American consumers remained none the wiser about where their fruit came from—an issue now seen in the avocado industry.

With avocado prices soaring far beyond those of the banana, this burgeoning market is plagued by its own ecological and humanitarian atrocities, which are more concentrated than in the case of bananas and have the potential to become equally severe. As Bellamore noted, “Several years ago, California had the United States market to itself, but back then the industry was a fraction of what it is today … The majority of the California crop today is sold in the west, so the rest of the country receives imported avocados from Mexico.” While Mexico’s 85 to 90 percent market share in the avocado trade stems naturally from its subtropical conditions, the country’s ubiquitous corruption and lax labor laws have incited many Chiquita-esque concerns both in politics and agriculture.

Perhaps most noticeably, many of the famous monarch butterfly pine forests in Michoacán, Mexico—the state that produces most of the country’s avocados—have increasingly receded from nearby avocado farms, largely due to profit-driven illegal deforestation. While federal authorities try to prevent such environmental destruction, Mexico’s National Institute of Forestry found that deforestation near avocado plantations occurred at a rate of 1,700 acres per year between 2000 and 2010—a trend that has likely increased as the fruit’s popularity continues to skyrocket. As Avi Crane, an industry expert who has worked for many of the top U.S. avocado importers, told the HPR, “If you want to grow more avocados than there are now, you have to go into the pine forests.” In 2016, one case of suspected arson eradicated almost 1,173 acres of a pine forest in Uruapan, the second largest city in Michoacán. As the Institute’s Mario Tapia Vargas told the Associated Press, “Even where they aren’t visibly cutting down forest, there are avocados growing underneath [the pine boughs], and sooner or later they’ll cut down the pines completely.”

The ecological impacts of Michoacán’s favorite cash crop aren’t limited to deforestation, making it all the more necessary to know the origin of the America’s new fruit obsession. Because avocados require far more water, more pesticides, and more fertilizer than the mature pine forest, spreading plantations across the Mexican landscape is costly for those living nearby. According to Crane, 80 percent of the cost of producing avocados in California comes from water, and although water is far cheaper in Mexico, the sheer volume needed to grow the crop has its own consequences. It takes approximately 72 gallons of water just to grow two or three medium sized avocados, whereas traditional forests consumed a fraction of this amount, leaving more water for locals to drink or to use elsewhere. Moreover, the Michoacán Food Sovereignty Defense Front claims that rates of cancer have spiked in the area since avocado farmers began their pesticide use, though no formal study has been conducted to verify this claim.

Avocados and Heroin and Cocaine: Oh My!

While the avocado’s rise to fame remains unprecedented, its explosive popularity and surging costs reveal stark overlaps with another Mexican crisis—the drug trade. At first glance, the avocado bears little resemblance to cocaine or heroin; however, all three items share a privileged place within Michoacán’s most active drug cartel—Los Caballeros Templarios (the Knights Templar). Los Caballeros have encroached more and more on plantation owners and packinghouse operators through violence and coercion. In cities like Tancítaro, where nine out of every ten pesos come either directly or indirectly from the avocado trade, racketeering fees and bribes add up quickly, with hundreds of millions of dollars from the avocado’s “green gold” entering the cartel’s coffers. Crane explained that “65 to 70 percent of all the avocados that cross into the United States are on trucks going to California companies.” Once the cartel receives its share of the profits, almost one billion pounds of “blood avocados” pour into the United States.

Not only does this cartel demand extorted fees from farmers and packers, but it also resorts to extreme violence when individuals refuse to pay for the gang’s “protection.” In some instances, farmers who turned Los Caballeros Templarios away were kidnapped or killed to discourage dissent within Michoacán. While the largest packers pay a hefty fine of $15,000 per month to continue their operations, many farmers lose far more than money. In one instance, a farmer’s daughter was raped and murdered after her father failed to meet Los Caballeros’s demands for $600,000. Considering the cartel makes more than $150 million per year from extortion deals and sells the avocados grown on almost 5,000 acres of its own plantation property, the financial stakes have clearly driven a portion of the avocado industry into murky, blood-filled waters.

Even with such atrocities fueling America’s newest culinary craze, Crane reiterates that “there are still a lot of legitimate companies in Mexico. Just because [issues with drug cartels] are happening doesn’t mean the industry is corrupt … This doesn’t reflect on the avocado industry. It reflects on the prices.” Because the issues are location-specific, avocado industry promoters like the California Avocado Commission and the Hass Avocado Board argue that “it becomes really important to make sure consumers know where their fruit is produced,” according to DeLyser. Because of these concerns, most new advertisements clearly mark their produce’s origin, using “Avocados from Peru” and “California Avocado” stickers to discourage consumers from purchasing Mexican fruit. As countries like South Africa, Chile, and Indonesia expand their own fruit supply to feed U.S. demand, avoiding avocados with ties to gang-violence may become more feasible.

Despite these marketing strategies, most of the avocados consumed within the United States in the coming year will still have an indirect relation to governmental corruption, drug cartel violence, and ecological devastation thanks to the avocado’s ever-growing popularity and unprecedented return on investment. Projections for 2017 reveal no slowdown in the rate of avocado consumption, with some predicting a 200-million-pound increase in demand. America’s fetishization of and obsession with the avocado isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The environmental and humanitarian crises that such greed incites should give every avolatte-loving, avocado-toast-Instagramming consumer pause when deciding which producers to buy from and whether or not the latest fad is worth its weight in inadvertent imprudence.

Image Source: Your Best Digs/Flickr

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