Michoacán: In Search of a Deforestation-Free Avocado

It’s been a rough month for conscientious avocado eaters. The benign-looking fruit has captured worldwide attention in recent weeks after revelations that America’s insatiable taste for guacamole is endangering forests in central Mexico – and funding narcoterrorism in the process.

After initially disputing the reports, Mexican avocado growers have now responded by resolving to make their operations more sustainable. Even if they make good on their promises, it’s doubtful that action on the supply-side alone will fix a problem that begins and ends with foreign demand. So, what concrete steps can consumers, businesses, and governments take to alleviate the pressure on forests in avocado country? Can we save Michoacán’s pine forests through individual acts of self-deprivation at Chipotle, or does the crisis demand a more comprehensive response?

The story of food fads driving environmental and social harm halfway across the world is nothing new, particularly when consumers in developed markets set their sights on a single tropical “superfood.” Earlier this summer, Bolivian chef Kamilla Seidler described to an audience at the Aspen Ideas Fest in Colorado how burgeoning demand for quinoa among affluent Americans had inadvertently priced the grain out of reach for working class Bolivians who have for centuries relied on quinoa as a dependable staple food. Over the past four years in La Paz, the “Quinoa Effect” has driven the price of a kilogram of the fashionable grain from $1 to $11 – surpassing even U.S. prices.

America’s love affair with the avocado dates back well beyond the last four years – and while it began within U.S. borders, it was Mexican imports that allowed that relationship to flourish. Avocado consumption has doubled in the past 10 years and is nearly four times higher than in the mid-1990s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The average American consumed nearly seven pounds of avocados in 2015, compared with less than two per year prior to 2000.

Getting creative in the kitchen

So what can avocado fans do to reduce their deforestation footprint? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as simple as “buy local.” Of the three states that comprise virtually all domestic production in the U.S. – California, Florida, and Hawaii – only the Golden State produces on a scale large enough to meet a significant portion of consumer demand. And California’s avocado industry is environmentally fraught in its own way, as water stress makes expansion of thirsty avocado orchards seem more and more unfeasible. Domestic production appears to have hit a ceiling that falls far short of satisfying Americans’ appetite: Whereas home-grown avocados met over 80 percent of U.S. demand in the 1990s, that figure has dwindled to 20 percent over the last four years.

The good news is that total abstinence isn’t the only option; consumers can also use creative substitutes to minimize their reliance on Mexican avocados. Brazilian chef Paulo Machado, a member of the sustainable food initiative Cumari: From Rainforest to Table who leads four or five “food safaris” each year to introduce people to Latin America’s regional cuisines and cultures, recommends a fruity reinterpretation of guacamole that uses a fraction of the avocado typically found in the dish. The recipe calls for mango, peach, and the savory texture of papaya to fill out the rest of the body. Machado learned this workaround several years ago from a close mentor, Mexican chef and writer Lourdes Hernández Fuentes, during a period of runaway avocado prices in Brazil. As for the finished product? It bears a closer resemblance to conventional guacamole than you might expect – even in terms of color – and is indisputably tasty.

Shopping with a critical eye

And at the grocery store, consumers can also mitigate some of the environmental and social costs of Michoacán’s avocados by purchasing only those that are certified organic. In the Washington, D.C. area, for example, shoppers who see the Equal Exchange seal on an avocado can rest assured that it’s certified Fair Trade, came from one of 20 organic small farms in Michoacán, and was imported by a progressive, worker-owned cooperative.

Admittedly, organic certification has its shortcomings – for example, it doesn’t explicitly address deforestation – but locals point out that organic methods can address certain other negative consequences of avocado farming tied to public health, soil quality, and biodiversity.

“We want to focus on deforestation, but it’s only part of the problem,” says Nacho Simón, a Michoacán-based agricultural advisor with the group GAIA who teaches organic farming methods through workshops and courses across Latin America. Organic farms, which forego industrial herbicides in favor of natural inputs, account for only a small fraction of avocado cultivation in Michoacán – 7,000 to 8,000 of 130,000 total hectares, according to Simón.

Michoacán’s organic avocado orchards are reducing the volume of chemicals exposed to local groundwater, but even they aren’t all delivering on another important measure for sustainability: biodiversity. As avocado prices continue to climb, Simón says it’s been a challenge to persuade farmers to continue cultivating a variety of crops – to bolster genetic diversity and, in the process, grow food for their families. He marvels at the paradox of having to buy conventional produce from Walmart because your land is devoted entirely to growing organic avocados. This, Simón says, perfectly illustrates la fiebre de aguacate – the avocado fever – that has taken hold of Michoacán’s agrarian sector.

This problem is compounded by Mexican drug cartels, who, through a combination of extortion and violence, compel avocado farmers to maximize production. One Michoacán farmer reported that killings and kidnappings are a daily occurrence – most recently an engineer working with avocado farmers. “Here, people live in a situation of terror.”

Taking a page from the coffee and chocolate industries

Opportunities to make an impact through individual action may be somewhat limited, but consumers can make a big difference by influencing retailers and supply chain middlemen to ensure they’re sourcing their products in a responsible and sustainable way.

This consumer awareness is already reflected in the way companies market products like coffee and chocolate. and the new scrutiny focused on central Mexico could likewise make sustainability an asset for avocado producers. In order for that to happen, those farmers need to be able to catch the attention of importers in the U.S., and one possible way is through certification by third parties like Rainforest Alliance.

Another creative way to connect small farmers with distant markets is through tools like Putting Amazon Indigenous Producers on the Map, an interactive map developed by Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Forest Trends, and other partners. Chris Meyer, Senior Manager of Amazon Forest Policy at EDF, says 150 producers have been mapped so far, with more additions coming every month. Canopy Bridge, the non-profit whose website hosts the Amazonian map, also tries to take the work out of identifying responsible small producers. Earning a spot on ethical sourcing networks like these could open the door for avocado growers looking to stand out from the crowd.

Looking to governments for help

When it comes to deforestation in countries near the equator, conventional wisdom is to first look for poor government policies and lax enforcement. That’s why many 21st century approaches to conservation set out to address these shortcomings first and foremost.

One example is a UN-backed program known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+), which generally looks to encourage policy reform and greater enforcement capacity in countries, before building on that foundation with finance to compensate governments and communities for protecting their forests. International donors have committed nearly $6 billion to 10 key tropical forest countries – including Mexico – to fund activities aimed at boosting the capacity of governments to more effectively manage their forests, with an eye toward achieving long-term sustainability.

With around 70 percent of forest land legally owned by community forest and agrarian collectives known as ejidos, Mexico is in many ways the gold standard for community-based forest management and land tenure, which are recognized as important factors in protecting forests. But on the ground in Michoacán, the organic farming advocate Simón says land tenure is poorly defined in some places, and that the government “has done nothing” to prevent thousands of hectares from being cleared and converted to avocado farms in the past decade. Entire areas around avocado-producing cities like Tacámbaro and Ario de Rosales have lost their forests, he notes.

That leaves the door open for governments in consumer countries like the U.S. to step up to the plate, taking lessons from the international timber trade. “Sure, it’d be great if countries stepped up enforcement efforts and got rid of laws that contradict each other, and if consumers changed their spending habits,” reasons Naomi Basik Treanor, Program Manager for Forest Trends’ Forest Policy, Trade, and Finance initiative. But she says a more proactive solution would be new policies to ensure that only legally and sustainably sourced products reach the consumer market. These kinds of policies already apply to timber imports in the U.S., EU, and Australia, and some conservation groups are lobbying for similar laws to promote responsible agricultural supply chains.

While the slow wheels of policy and business practice turn, it’s up to consumers to make thoughtful and informed decisions – whether at the grocery store or at their favorite Tex-Mex chain. For now, the safest bet is to go easy on the guacamole. Michoacán’s forests will thank you for it.