From avocado toast to tortilla chips and guacamole, Americans love avocados – and that love affair is destroying Mexico’s forests, draining water supplies from traditional crops and creating a new revenue stream for the drug cartels, reports say.
The situation has been building since 1997, when the U.S. dropped its ban on avocado imports from Mexico.
A 2016 Associated Press report said as many as 20,000 acres of forest was being swallowed up by avocado production annually in the western state of Michoacan. By 2023, the acreage was up to 25,000, The New York Times recently reported. That acreage is expected to increase by 80% by 2050.
Mexico had exported 1.19 billion tons of avocados to the U.S. in 2023 by September, compared to 1.03 million tons for all of 2022.
90% of avocados shipped to the U.S. come from Mexico, the majority coming from deforested land owned by the likes of Calavo Growers, Fresh Del Monte Produce, and Mission Produce
That’s despite a U.S.-export certification program, Climate Rights International said. The avocados are largely sold by such U.S. grocery chains as Albertsons, Costco, Kroger, Trader Joe’s, Walmart and Whole Foods.
The situation is made worse by government subsidies that encourage avocado growing, subsidies that dwarf those paid to forested landowners for conserving ecosystem services.
“You’re putting in deciduous forests of a very water hungry tree and tearing out conifer forests of not so very water hungry trees,” Jeff Miller, the author of a global history of the avocado, told the Times. “It’s just wrecking the environment.”
Illegal wells follow the planting of avocado orchards, draining water from traditional crops, and sparking turf wars among drug cartels. Government figures show about 6% of the Michoacan population is employed by the avocado industry.
Activists told the Times they were kidnapped and beaten. Landowners told of their acreages being stolen and fears for their lives. In that article, one kidnap victim said:
“The avocados you’re eating in the United States are bathed in blood.”
Avocado trees grow best in the same climate as pine and fir trees. The devastated forests are home to Monarch butterflies migrating from Canada.
The U.S. appetite for avocados has tripled in the past two decades, but a program to certify avocados that have been grown sustainably still is lagging, Global Forest Watch reported.
Climate Rights International released a report recently outlining the consequences local residents face.
“Any avocado you eat from Mexico may have been grown on illegally deforested land, using stolen water, in a region where environmental defenders are targets of violence and intimidation,” said Brad Adams, the organization’s executive director.
“It doesn’t have to be this way. If exporters, importers, and supermarkets would make the effort to sell only deforestation-free avocados, it would dramatically reduce the economic incentive to clear the forests or attack the people defending them.”
The current U.S. certification program largely is concentrated on pest control. Mexican officials proposed in 2021 that an anti-deforestation requirement be added to the process, but no action was taken.