J’accuse! In defence of the avocado

Response to the article published in The Guardian on November 1st 2021: “End of the avocado: why chefs are ditching the unsustainable fruit”

J’accuse! In defence of the avocado

On November 1st, The Guardian published an article entitled “End of the avocado: why chefs are ditching the unsustainable fruit”, which suggested that chefs in England and other European nations were seeking alternative products to avocado, due to its high carbon and water footprint. A week later, the article was amended to clarify that avocados only have a large carbon footprint when compared to other fruits, not other foods such as beef or pork (i.e., animal protein products), and that the reference to 320 litres of water being required to grow just one avocado was actually an extreme case, and did not refer to the average production identified in the main avocado-producing countries.

By the time the article was amended, however, severe damage had already been done. The avocado producing sector across Latin America and southern Europe was already reeling from the adverse effects of the initial message as it echoed around the world. It must be understood that an amendment, however well-intentioned, never has the same impact as the original message conveyed in the initial article and magnified through its headline. Human nature tends to question a correction to a fact more than the fact itself, just as fake news triumphs over reiterated corrections or denials.  Amendments to this type of articles also tend to have less visibility than the initial message, being expressed in brief appendices or footnotes at the very end of the article.

Be that as it may, beyond the impression that the text has caused on different groups of readers, the article should be understood in two particular contexts. On the one hand, the United Kingdom is suffering an important crisis in terms of access to commodities as a rebound effect linked to the abrupt and disorganized exit from the European Union. This has generated serious supply problems, and agricultural products are no exception. For instance, a few weeks ago a photograph in which a Tesco supermarket had covered up some empty shelves with a drywall of fresh green asparagus went viral on social networks. On the other hand, the United Kingdom hosted the Conference of the Parties (COP26) on climate action, an event which has generated a vigorous debate in public opinion on topics linked to sustainability. Together with the energy sector and deforestation, food items and diets occupy an important role in the climate debate given the higher carbon emissions linked to certain dietary behaviors, mainly those reliant on beef and pork consumption.

The initial version of the article in The Guardian identified avocado production as high in carbon emissions as compared to other foods. While it is true that carbon footprint studies on avocado to date have reported values between 0.75 and 1.5 kg of CO2eq per kilogram of avocado produced, these numbers are still essentially lower than those of most animal protein products, including seafood. When compared to other fruits and vegetables, avocado appears in the higher range of carbon emissions, but cannot be considered an outlier for its high emissions. However, it must be noted that if these results were to be reported using a nutritional reference (for instance, content of protein or fatty acids) rather than a mass unit, avocado would rank far better than many fruits and vegetables. In fact, many specialists in agricultural carbon footprinting defend that a nutritional perspective to reporting environmental data should be prioritized with respect to a mass approach. Later this month FAO will publish a book on this topic in which scientists highlight the benefits of a nutritional approach to the environmental impact of foodstuffs.

Some of the products mentioned, such as peas or pumpkin seeds, which are considered as potential alternatives to avocado, have a lower carbon footprint, on average, than avocado. However, these results must be taken with care. On the one hand, avocado trees have the capacity to sequester carbon as they grow, something that some of the “avocado substitutes” do in much lower amounts. An example of this, is the expansion of the agricultural frontier in the Peruvian coast, where avocado, pomegranate or grapefruit trees have changed the landscape of areas where previously there was only sand. On the other hand, abrupt shocks in agricultural markets tend to generate land use changes. If avocado were to be substituted at a large international scale by some of the abovementioned products, we would have to analyze where that new production of agricultural is occurring. Other products mentioned, such as pistachios and some nuts, have higher carbon emissions per kilogram.

Either way, the healthy and sustainable diets we should achieve in the future cannot rely only on a small set of extremely low-carbon products, as diets must be varied in order to be healthy. In other words, a heterogeneous group of plant-based food items, with certain variability in their carbon emissions, is needed in healthy and sustainable diets to guarantee similar nutrient intakes as those obtained from animal protein-rich diets. Hence, focusing efforts on prioritizing certain plant-based food items over others may divert public opinion from the main aim humanity has to seek in terms of food consumption: moderate the intake of high-carbon animal food products (e.g., beef, pork or some energy-intensive fish species).

Improved technology in terms of electricity use, machinery and fertilizing production should improve the carbon footprint of avocado and any other food product in the next few years if carbon mitigation targets are met by nations. However, there is definitely room for improvement. Meanwhile, it is important to point out that over 95% of the avocado production arriving in Europe or the United States from South America is marine freighted rather than airfreighted. This mitigates substantially the carbon intensity of the so-called “food miles”, making these products competitive in terms of their carbon profile.

In terms of water footprint, it must be noted that water scarcity impacts vary on a regional or even local scale, making an average worldwide assessment for a given product very challenging, and probably meaningless. Having said this, it is true that avocado is in the upper range of fruits, nuts and vegetables in terms of water consumption per kilogram. Once again, though, some of the products mentioned in the article in The Guardian (e.g., pistachios), present higher consumption of water per unit of mass.

In Peru, for instance, avocado is produced in two main areas. On the one hand, avocados harvested from January to March are mainly destined to the Peruvian market and, more recently, to Asia. These avocados are smaller in size and have been grown in the intermediate altitudes of the Andes with barely any irrigation, relying almost solely on rainfall. On the other hand, starting in April the larger agro-export season for avocados produced along the Peruvian coast commences, with most of the production being sent to the EU, Britain and the US.

It is no secret that agricultural production along the Peruvian coast relies on a unique balance between absence of rainfall, succulent aquifers and intermittent river flows coming from the Andes. While the risk of aquifers depleting still remains in some areas, the agricultural sector has invested millions of Peruvian soles in implementing sophisticated irrigation systems that reduce the amount of water that is used per hectare. Many companies have also improved their transparency in terms of reporting to the National Water Association (ANA) their water footprint, in a clear attempt to become more attractive in international markets. In contrast, it is fair to say that probably some of the smaller companies, with less access to credit, are struggling to implement these technological advances.

Deciding on what food to offer clients in restaurants is always a challenging task, especially now that environmental concerns are taken more seriously when it comes to selecting a particular dish. The heterogeneity of food origin, production techniques, deforestation episodes, transport modes and other issues that can influence the environmental profile of a food product add to the complexity of offering healthy and sustainable choices. However, it is quite safe to affirm that the variability in carbon and water footprint of most plant-based products, including avocado, is within safe planetary limits for humans to continue consuming them in their diets.

Social issues, of course, remain, with labor and welfare conditions in some of the exporting nations still below the standards that are expected in the developed world. Nevertheless, agricultural nations like Peru have managed to expand their middle class and improve the livelihood of many communities thanks to the export of certain food commodities, such as avocados, green asparagus, mangoes, quinoa or, more recently, blueberries. Hence, it seems neither fair or wise for developed nations to divest from commodities such as avocado on the basis of dubious or incomplete accusations of unsustainable practices. Instead, transparency linked to reporting environmental impacts of these products should be promoted through accountability and certification schemes, eradicating bad agricultural practices from the main worldwide agro-export flows.

Ian Vázquez-Rowe is a Full Professor at the Department of Engineering at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, in Lima, Peru.


Complementary literature that may be consulted:

Bartl, K., Verones, F., & Hellweg, S. (2012). Life cycle assessment based evaluation of regional impacts from agricultural production at the Peruvian coast. Environmental Science & Technology, 46(18), 9872-9880.

Boulay, A. M., Lenoir, L., & Manzardo, A. (2019). Bridging the data gap in the water scarcity footprint by using crop-specific AWARE factors. Water, 11(12), 2634.

Clune, S., Crossin, E., & Verghese, K. (2017). Systematic review of greenhouse gas emissions for different fresh food categories. Journal of Cleaner Production, 140, 766-783.

Esteve-Llorens, X., Ita, D., Parodi, E., Moreira, M.T., Feijoo, G., González-García, S., Vázquez-Rowe, I., 2021. Environmental footprint of critical agro-export products in the Peruvian hyper-arid coast: a case study for green asparagus and avocado. Science of The Total Environment, accepted for publication.

Ritchie, H. (2020). You want to reduce the carbon footprint of your food? Focus on what you eat, not whether your food is local. Our World in Data, 24.

Rose, D., Willits-Smith, A., & Heller, M. (2019). Diet and planetary health: single-item substitutions significantly reduce the carbon footprint of self-selected diets reported in NHANES (OR20-08-19). Current developments in nutrition, 3(Supplement_1), nzz047-OR20.

Vázquez-Rowe, I., Kahhat, R., Quispe, I., & Bentín, M. (2016). Environmental profile of green asparagus production in a hyper-arid zone in coastal Peru. Journal of Cleaner Production, 112, 2505-2517.

Vázquez-Rowe, I., Kahhat, R., Larrea-Gallegos, G., & Ziegler-Rodriguez, K. (2019). Peru’s road to climate action: Are we on the right path? The role of life cycle methods to improve Peruvian national contributions. Science of the Total Environment, 659, 249-266.

Vázquez-Rowe, I., Kahhat, R., Santillán-Saldívar, J., Quispe, I., & Bentín, M. (2017). Carbon footprint of pomegranate (Punica granatum) cultivation in a hyper-arid region in coastal Peru. The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 22(4), 601-617.

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