Mexico City / DPA
Whether it’s guacamole, smashed on toast or in a salad, avocados are appearing on menus around the world from Melbourne to Berlin. Trendy food blogs post recipes for apple and avocado smoothies, avocado soup with pancetta, even avocado and white chocolate ice cream.
Hollywood actress Gwyneth Paltrow included three recipes for avocado toast in her new cookbook “It’s All Easy” and on Instagram there are more than 190,000 entries for avocado toast alone – generally garnished with eggs, bacon and cress.
The more artistically inclined sculpt their avocados into roses or fans. The fruits are rich in unsaturated fats, Vitamin E, potassium and folic acid. It’s said they can help control blood sugar levels, make skin softer and help reduce cholesterol.
But the world’s hunger for avocados has led to an explosion in demand and driven prices sky high. In Mexico, the world’s biggest producer of avocados, scientists and environmentalists are already worried that global hunger for the fruit has led to the illegal clearing of forests to build plantations.
The western state of Michoacan, where 40 per cent of the world’s avocados are grown, is particularly endangered. “Every year between 1,500 and 4,000 hectares of forest are cleared to make room for avocado plantations,” says Jaime Navia of the Mexican environmental organization Gira.
And people also suffer from the intensive farming. “The use of pesticides in monocultures pollutes the drinking water,” says Navia. The government is also concerned about illegal logging, though they estimate the land affected at less than the figure given by scientists and environmentalists.
“Avocados grow under conifers,” says Mario Tapia Vargas of the national research institute for forestry, agriculture and fishing. “Sooner or later the farmers cut down the trees so that the avocados get more light.”
Between 2000 and 2010 the amount of land used for avocado farming in Mexico has increased from 95,000 hectares to 134,000 hectares, as increasing prices and demand make it an attractive crop for farmers. In Mexico the fruit is also known as “green gold.”
In 2013, 1.4 million tons of avocados were harvested in Mexico, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, while producers estimate the 2015/16 harvest to hit around 1.6 million tons. In the United States, avocado consumption has grown from two pounds to seven pounds (0.9 kilos to 3.2 kilos) per year over the past 15 years.
But avocados need around twice as much water as the conifer forests that are typical of Mexico, a demand which Greenpeace has also warned could have negative effects for the rest of the population.
The authorities recently launched a crackdown on illegal forest clearing and in August prosecutors in Michigan shut down four illegal avocado fields. In July, police also arrested a dozen people suspected of illegally clearing land to plant avocados.
But on the high plains of Michoacan, the state’s power has its limits. Vigilante groups and criminal organisations are active in the inaccessible region and despite a recent offensive by thousands of soldiers and police, security services still don’t have Mexico’s “Wild West” firmly under control.
Illegal forest clearing and intensive farming isn’t just destroying the ecosystem, according to Navia, it’s also affecting social cohesion. Around 80 per cent of Mexico’s forests belong to local communities, areas known as “ejidos.” The locals manage the land together but decide on their own crops. “If the land is sold to powerful agricultural companies the social fabric will disintegrate,” says Navia.