The Problem With Your Plate
In our globalized world, dinner time now includes foods and ingredients from all regions of the earth. However, the contents of our plates affect more than just our waistbands. As health-food trends such as quinoa and avocado toast surge in popularity, it may be wise to step back and understand where our food comes from and how our choices impact those who work to sustain us.
The avocado has been cultivated for thousands of years in Central and South America. Recently, it has become a staple food for the health-conscious in the United States. In 1914 the US banned Mexican avocados for fear of invasive insects and economic competition, but the ban was lifted after the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Today, Mexico produces about a third of the world’s avocados, and more than 78% of all imported Hass avocados in the US come from Mexico. Since 1994, the American per-capita consumption of avocado has increased seven-fold.
The temperate climate in many parts of Mexico allows for year-round avocado cultivation. As international demand increases, orchards in the area must grow to keep up. There are consequences to our ravenous appetites; in the region of Michoacán, known as the avocado capital of the world, deforestation is increasing at a rate of 2.5% per year. While this damage has certainly drawn the attention of environmentalists, its effects are more widespread. Locals in the area have reported adverse health effects such as liver and kidney problems, which have coincided with the growth of the avocado industry and its expansive pesticide use.
In addition, avocado business profits are often augmented with shady deals; much of the aforementioned deforestation is occurring through gang activity and illegal acquisition of farmland. Los Caballeros Templarios, for example, is a gang known to be involved in avocado production. They have been accused of turning large profits through extortion of local farmers and importation of sub-par produce from other regions of Mexico. The sub-par produce is then passed off as quality Michoacán avocados. In response to these illegal practices, more than 24,000 avocado farmers went on strike this past November. The US subsequently saw an increase in avocado price during this period.
Annual per capita consumption of avocados in Mexico has dropped by about 1.5 kilograms in the past few years, mostly due to their rising price. What was once a staple food for many is now considered a luxury–in local markets, avocados sell for about $4.40 per kilo, which is the equivalent of a day’s minimum wage. In 2017, Mexico’s former Secretary of Economy Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal stated that importation of avocados to Mexico “seems laughable … but we’re not ruling it out”. The next time you crave an avocado, perhaps keep in mind the conditions under which it was picked.