Avocados The Price of Globalized Fruit

Avocado | Photo (detail): mauritius images / Westend61 / Roman Märzinger

Known for its vast avocado plantations, the Petorca region in Chile is suffering from the severe drought that has plagued the country for over a decade. According to experts and environmentalists, climate change is not the only reason for the lack of water in the region.

Avocado toast, smoothies, guacamole, butters and even fried: the avocado steals the show on social media with the most varied recipes. The virtual popularity of this “superfood” reflects the current consumer boom: by 2030, it will be the second most commercialized tropical fruit in the world, surpassing mangoes and pineapples and second only to the banana, according to a projection by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The reality of its production, however, is much less glamorous. While for some the sight of the fruit is mouthwatering, for others, that is exactly what is lacking: water.

In Chile, avocados – or palta, as the fruit is called in the country – are synonymous with a serious environmental problem: water scarcity. The province of Petorca, a region in Valparaíso, which accounts for more than half the national production of avocados, has become the epicenter of the crisis. For over a decade, the community has been confronting extreme drought. Where there was once a river, now there are only rocks and dust. The population is suffering from a lack of potable water, as are small farmers.

One Thousand Liters of Water for One Kilo of Avocados

Meanwhile, verdant avocados of the coveted Hass variety are being grown at full steam ahead to meet international demand, making local environmentalists angry. Afterall, producing one kilo of avocados requires an average of 1,000 liters of water, a volume six times greater than what is needed for tomatoes and four times greater than that of potatoes, according to the organization.  A person, in turn, needs something between 50 and 100 liters per day to meet basic consumption and hygiene needs, according to the UN.

“The territory has been revamped to serve export agriculture. Now, the population does not have access to potable water, and the State needs to provide water from tank trucks, which is of very low quality, and quantities are limited per person per day,” explains Aldo Madariaga, a Professor in the School of Political Science at Diego Portales University in Chile. For the academic, Petorca symbolizes the victory of economic growth over economic concerns and human rights in the Andean country: “All the water goes to the big producers. Small farmers can no longer grow their crops, animals are dying, the means for survival are diminishing, and there are fewer jobs.”

According to Greenpeace, Chile is suffering the largest water crisis in the Western hemisphere, and the root of the problem is not only drought, but water distribution. While Chilean agribusiness defends the economic importance of avocados, movements that are fighting for access to water in Valparaíso, such as Modatima, are denouncing what they consider to be “theft” of water by large producers in collusion with politicians. The conflict in the region intensified to the extent that in 2018, Amnesty International launched a campaign to request protection of activist Rodrigo Mundaca, who had been receiving death threats. Last year, he was elected governor of Valparaíso.

The Market Is Regulating Water Distribution

In contrast to what happens in the rest of the world, in Chile water obeys the laws of the market. Under the Water Code of 1981, drawn up during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, individuals and companies can acquire “lifetime rights over water” for free from the government. The owners of those rights can extract a determined volume of water from the rivers and commercially exploit it. “The idea that the market was better than the State in allocating resources produced the worst possible results. Now, there is a lack of water not only because the producers are storing it, but also because of global warming. That is not a good solution for the 21st century,” Madariaga says. “The system does not take into account the fact that water resources are limited.”

In practice, Maria Christina Fragkou, Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Chile, explains, the Chilean water system grants free exploitation of the resource to large mining and agricultural companies, like the avocado producers in Petorca: “The Chilean State has always prioritized guaranteeing water for production. And the solutions offered for human consumption have always been precarious and costly. What should be emergency measures, such as the water trucks, have been taken for decades. For me, Petorca provides a glimpse into the future. It is what everyone in Chile is going to experience over the next 20 years,” she predicts.

Radical changes in the management of water resources figured among the proposals of the new Chilean Constitution, drawn up in response to the 2019 demonstrations when thousands of people took to the streets across the country demanding social justice. “In the New Constitution, the State could revoke, cancel, or pause water concessions. So, if there were to be a mega-drought, the State could pause mining companies’ water rights with the justification of preserving water for human consumption or ecological purposes,” Fragkou explains. The Charter, however, was rejected by the majority of the population in a plebiscite in September 2022. “There was a lot of lobbying from mining companies and agricultural producers because they did not want to lose the privileges they currently have,” she concludes.

A Global Diet?

Seven out of every ten avocados produced in Chile are exported. In 2020, the main importing countries were Holland and the United Kingdom. The fruit, native to the Americas, is now part of the menu on five continents and has become popular among vegetarians, vegans and flexitarians throughout the world. According to Brazilian Ailin Aleixo, a food critic, the avocado trend began to emerge in the 2000s as the popularity of the Atkins diet, which prioritizes the intake of fats and proteins over carbohydrates, grew. Rich in monosaturated fat, fiber and vitamins, avocados are highly recommended for those who want to lose weight.

“We glamorize foods that are sold as medicine, but there are no miracles whether it be goji berries, açaí or avocados. That is a fallacy,” Aleixo says. According to her, the very physical characteristics of the Hass variety contributed to its international success: it is small, easy to transport, and it serves one person. Food, however, should be increasingly local and biodiverse, in contrast to what is happening on the planet.

“Food has become a commodity, and its nutritional and cultural side has been forgotten. The whole world cannot eat Andean quinoa. Monoculture goes against the grain of sustainable food,” the expert says. “We want an avocado already apportioned to the right dose so that whomever in a hipster café in Tokyo or San Francisco can cut it up and make their avocado toast. It’s a standardization mentality,” she adds ironically.

And the demand for avocados, Aleixo points out, was artificially created. “In the case of tropical foods, which only some parts of the planet manage to produce, there is a great deal of pressure on those regions. That is happening in Chile, and we have seen it in Mexico too, where avocados have become so valuable that plantations are now dominated by trafficking. Globalizing a single ingredient for eight billion people that does not grow all over the world is unviable,” she concludes.