Subsistence crops have been pushed on to more marginal land (some of which was previously forested) to expand avocado plantations.
This marginal land tends to be less fertile and therefore less productive, leading to food insecurity in the local region.
Nevertheless, avocado production (specifically the Haas variety) is increasingly seen as a lucrative and attractive industry in Michoacán and this activity has brought increased wealth to the region.
More than 40,000 permanent jobs are associated with avocado production in Michoacán with an additional 60,000 seasonal jobs (Echánove, 2008).
Wages in the avocado plantations of Michoacán are considerably higher than for other low-skilled jobs in the region.
Mexican avocado production is dominated by larger agribusinesses with 60 per cent of Mexican avocado exporting farmers classified as medium and large producers and many of the smaller farms have been bought out by larger enterprises looking to expand (Echánove, 2008).
Achieving more sustainable production methods with lower water use is crucial considering that water supplies, for example, from glacier melt waters will decrease soon in many regions of the world especially in the subtropical and tropical zones, where cultivation of avocados is widespread.
Further, global groundwater resources have been rapidly depleted in semi-humid and arid areas (Wada et al., 2010), while in many regions of the world where avocados are grown, for example the Mediterranean region and California, drier conditions and water stress are on the increase due to climate change (Iglesias and Garrote, 2015; Prein et al., 2016).
Although crop production regulates itself when a resource such as water is limiting, for example, during extended drought periods, the impact on the environment and humans takes place before its use crosses critical boundaries.
This is because overuse of water for irrigation in agriculture restricts the availability of this resource for human consumption and other ecosystem services.
Current avocado production has a significant impact on water access for local communities and is thus generating water stress.
Road map to sustainability
A road map needs to bring together authorities and policymakers, large and small producers, as well as communities from areas with present and future water scarcity to develop a strategic action plan.
They should assess, well in advance, the critical capacity of production of water-intensive agricultural crops in general and of avocado in particular, as depicted by the OECD (2017).
This road map also needs to consider near-future climate change scenarios and the complexities in evaluating agricultural water demand to sustain nutritionally adequate human diets.
The reality of creating such a road map to address water stress from agricultural production is particularly challenging in countries with currently difficult political situations.
However, this is where governments in the richer avocado importing countries can act to facilitate and support such a strategic action plan.
For example, the EU–Mexico trade agreement is a good initiative and potential framework that also includes objectives on sustainable development, environmental standards and working conditions.
We also emphasise that large companies with higher capacity to respond to water stress conditions should not endanger small farmers.
Large agribusinesses need to have greater responsibility for the downstream impact of their water extraction.
In addition, the EU and other large importers need to consider the environmental footprint of avocados when deciding from where to import.
We think the need for a road map is crucial not only because the global economic market for avocados continues to expand, but also because the area dedicated to its cultivation has increased from 66.7 kha in 1980 to 231.5 kha in 2018.
The environmental and socio-economic issues related to avocado production should be carefully monitored.
This would include new areas of production such as in Africa where Kenya nearly reached the levels of Brazil in 2018 and in China where production increased seven-fold between 1992 and 2018.
Areas of avocado production with current and future severe water risk include Mexico, Chile, Peru, United States, Israel and Spain (OECD, 2017).
This type of agriculture is associated with high water usage due to a heavy reliance on irrigation systems and management practices that degrade soil quality and thus, its water-holding capacity.
Furthermore, monoculture production causes other environmental impacts due to the excess use of inorganic fertilisers and pesticides.
Therefore, producing organic avocados in Spain, Peru and California, for example, needs to be considered, since water quality deterioration is considerably lower than in conventional agriculture.
These problems call for urgent counter measures by governments in both avocado producing and importing countries.
We would argue also that it would be beneficial for consumers to get involved through buying sustainably produced avocados.
Source: Wiley Online Library