Cultivation of the popular exotic leads to environmental problems

The avocado: Today's problem crop

For years the avocado has been triumphant in kitchens and buffets. In their countries of origin - Mexico, Israel and South Africa - however, this leads to environmental problems - the avocado plantations need more and more room.

The scent of damp earth, fresh pine resin and oak trees hangs in the air of Michoacán. The nature of this western state of Mexico vibrates in rich green tones. The most lucrative green here is a fruit: the avocado. Michoacán is one of the biggest producers. For the growing areas, the global boom in the avocado brings with it not only money, but environmental problems as well.

Mexico: 200,000 ha
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), between 2006 and 2016 the number of avocado orchards worldwide increased from 381,000 to 564,000 hectares. Most of these are found in Mexico, where the fruit was grown originally. Now there are endless rows of avocado trees, totally uniform, in the fields around the city of Uruapan.

Almost two million tons of avocados were cultivated on about 200,000 hectares last year. And the acreage continues to grow. Mexican biologist Arturo Chacón Torres, founder of the civic association Academia Mexicana de Impacto Ambiental, explained that the areas planted with avocados continue to extend into forests and mountains.

The forest gives way to the avocado
It is estimated that between 600 and 1000 hectares of forest per year are destroyed in this region, to change the use of the land. In addition to this, the avocado needs a lot of attention to grow properly, and a lot of water in particular. There are many small avocado planters in the region, some of them operating illegally. This year, the Mexican authorities shut down some of the small producers who felled pine trees illegally to use the area for growing avocados.

According to a Mexican study commissioned by the government in 2012, the increase in fruit production has led to a loss of biodiversity and to environmental pollution and soil erosion. Furthermore, it damaged the natural water cycle and the state of endemic species (animals only found in that particular area).

Demand will continue to rise
"We are trying to find a balance that will allow us to preserve the benefits and source of revenue and develop more sustainable forms of production," said Ramón Paz Vega, spokesman for the Association of Avocado Producers and Exporters of Mexico (Apeam). Among other things, the association has a reforestation program.

According to estimates by the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture, global demand for avocados will increase by 48.98 percent between 2017 and 2030. This implies an increase in global consumption from 2.84 to 4.24 million tonnes per year. The avocado boom in Mexico did not go unnoticed by the powerful cartels - even organized crime is now reaching for the 'green gold'. Growers were threatened and abducted by gang members. As a result, the avocado growers formed defensive groups and even the federal police of Mexico intervened. The problem has since diminished, but it still persists.

Boom in Israel
But Mexico is not alone with the problems of increased demand for the fruits. Avocados are also booming in Israel, and demand has been surpassing supply for years. Last year, more than 110,000 tonnes of avocado were produced and around 65,000 tonnes exported, according to the Central Statistics Bureau. This shows a steady increase: In 2016, 101,000 tons were produced and 47,000 tons were exported.

The first avocado trees in this region were brought to what was then Palestine about a century ago. The fruits are grown today in Israel, according to the local producers on some 8500 hectares of land. Avocados are an integral part of Israeli cuisine; average consumption is five kilos per capita annually.

600 liters of water for a kilo
In view of the high demand and great profits, more and more farmers in Israel are increasing their avocado production acreage. They have displaced citrus fruit growing areas, says Marcelo Sternberg, professor of plant ecology at the University of Tel Aviv. One possible problem he sees is that "avocado trees need a lot of water." One kilo of avocado will consume around 600 liters of water.

In Israel, some trees are irrigated with treated wastewater, says Sternberg. There is concern that harmful nano-particles could penetrate from the water into the fruits. Apart from that, irrigating with treated wastewater can permanently damage the soil, says Sternberg.

South Africa also in the grip
The avocado boom has also reached South Africa: In particular in the north-eastern provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga, that have a is a warm and subtropical climate, the acreage has been growing steadily since the turn of the millennium. There are some 1000 hectares being added every year.

South Africa produced around 120,000 tonnes of avocados per year in 2017, according to the avocado farmers' association. Ten years earlier, it had been 74,000 tons. Without artificial irrigation, cultivation would not be possible in South Africa either.


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