Can consumers buy avocados from Mexico at the grocery store, or in prepared guacamole with impunity?
Last week’s article “In Mexico, high avocado prices fueling deforestation” by Associated Press author Mark Stevenson explained why.
Americans’ love for avocados and rising prices for the highly exportable fruit are fueling the deforestation of central Mexico’s pine forests as farmers rapidly expand their orchards to feed demand.
Avocado trees flourish at about the same altitude and climate as the pine and fir forests in the mountains of Michoacan, the state that produces most of Mexico’s avocados. That has led farmers to wage a cat-and-mouse campaign to avoid authorities, thinning out the forests, planting young avocado trees under the forest canopy, and then gradually cutting back the forest as the trees grow to give them more sunlight.
“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,” said Mario Tapia Vargas, a researcher at Mexico’s National Institute for Forestry, Farming and Fisheries Research.
Why does it matter?
Deforestation plays a key role in the release of greenhouse gases. Carbon stored in trees and other vegetation is released into the atmosphere as forests are converted to avocado plantations.
With the advance of climate change, securing adequate water to produce the fruit has increasingly been an issue in avocado growing regions. A video posted by the World Bank explained the problem and how farmers are coping. It’s pretty simple. In recent years there has been less rainfall in Michoacan, desiccating the soil. Farmers divert rainwater runoff to retention ponds for use during dry months. Avocados require twice the water of pine forests they replace, depriving downstream users of an essential resource.
If that’s not enough, these particular forests are part of the Monarch butterfly wintering grounds. Deforestation impedes the butterfly’s evolved life cycle.
You may have seen one of the web ads featuring celebrity chef Pati Jinich promoting avocado use for the trade association Avocados from Mexico. Here is an example:
(Editor’s Note: Sorry, the video was deleted from the Avocados from Mexico Website)
When encountering these ads, I found Jinich endearing and her tips helpful. That is, if I were a user of avocados, something she and the trade association is trying to change with the promotion. My experience with guacamole has been a tablespoon served on the side of Mexican food with other condiments, so not much.
One doesn’t always know what to do about stories like Stevenson’s. How extensive is the deforestation problem in avocado growing regions? How will downstream users react to deprivation of water from the mountains? How are workers treated on avocado plantations? Can we live without Monarch butterflies, and will another plot of forest gone really make the difference for this pressured species?
I don’t know, but here’s a relevant question raised by Joanna Blythman in The Guardian, “Can hipsters stomach the unpalatable truth about avocado toast?”
“When we pick up a fashionable import like avocado,” Blythman wrote, “we need to be sure that it not only benefits our personal health and well being, but also that of the communities that grow it.”
The issues around deforestation are well known. To the extent avocados add to the problem users should be driven to do something.
That may be as simple as asking the server to hold the guacamole.
~ Written for Blog for Iowa
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