Climate zone: Tropical – Dry – Temperate – Continental – Polar
Avocado is a huge, brilliant green fruit with leathery, black skin. They are also known as butter fruit or alligator pears. So what are the avocado farming opportunities and threats of the ‘green gold’?
Avocados are edible fruit that is a member of the Lauraceae family, which comprises about 2,850 different species of plants. Botanists consider avocados as fruits and not veggies, even though they do not taste sweet, such as pumpkins and tomatoes (also fruits).
The avocado tree is a tropical evergreen tree with three distinct horticultural races – the Guatemalan, Mexican, and West Indian. The trees do not go dormant; they grow continuously throughout the year, reaching heights of up to 60 feet (18 meters). Temperature determines the time and duration of each crop cycle. Hence crop development dates vary by location and from year to year. There are many different colors, sizes, and forms of avocados. They can have the form of a football, a ball, or a teardrop. The internal flesh can be anything from bright yellow to yellow-green to pale yellow, depending on the variety. All avocados have smooth, creamy flesh and a delicate nutty flavor, although their shapes and colors differ.
Health benefits of avocados
Avocado is not a simple food; because of its high nutritive value, it is one of the world’s world-famous “health foods”. Avocado is a good source of antioxidants, folate, fibers, vitamins (B5, B6, C, E, and K), and minerals (mostly rich in potassium and magnesium).
Avocados are packed with bioactive compounds that can reduce the risk of chronic diseases, especially when included in a balanced nutritious diet. In particular:
- Heart disease: avocados are cholesterol-free and contain monounsaturated fats and phytosterols able to reduce cholesterol levels in the body. Bananas are often considered a primary source of potassium. Still, avocados offer more potassium per serving (half a medium avocado has more potassium than a medium banana: 487 mg versus 422 mg, respectively). Potassium helps to keep blood pressure under control, reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases and strokes. Potassium also plays an important role in keeping heartbeats regular and muscles working right.
- Diabetes: avocados are an important source of fiber and contain more “good” unsaturated fats than carbohydrates. Hence, they are quite popular on lower-carbohydrate diets, such as for diabetes, also because avocados have a low glycemic index. Furthermore, replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats can improve insulin sensitivity and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Eye health: avocados contain high amounts of lutein, a natural antioxidant of carotenoids. Lutein is important as a blue light filter and anti-oxidant in the retina and can also influence the body’s immunological and inflammatory responses elsewhere. For example, it helps to reduce the risk of macular degeneration and cataracts
- Intestine disease: avocados increase the number of intestinal microbes which break down fiber and produce metabolites promoting intestinal health.
Where do avocados mostly grow?
Avocados can only thrive in warm, subhumid environments, particularly in tropical and Mediterranean regions where the temperature is warm all year round. Although mature trees can withstand temperatures as low as 30 degrees Fahrenheit for a brief period, avocado trees, being tropical plants, despise living in less than 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The trees prefer a climate with a humidity percentage of between 60 and 80%. Although they may flourish in drier environments with about 40% humidity, fruit or tree problems could arise. Chile, Mexico, and California are important avocado-producing countries in the world. According to statistics, Mexico is the highest avocado-producing country, with nearly 2.4 million tonnes produced in 2020, followed by Colombia and the Dominican Republic.
The market potential of avocado
The worldwide avocado market was worth USD 13.97 billion in 2021 and is predicted to increase at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.2% between 2022 and 2030.
The main driving forces of its expansion are:
- Increasing awareness towards a healthy lifestyle
- The nutritional profile of avocados perfectly matches consumer demand for healthier foods
- Wide application of avocados in food and cosmetic industries
- Expanding retail food business and growing product launches of avocado-based products (such as dips in fast-food chains)
- High profitability: Avocado farming requires low-cost input, low maintenance, and a readily available market worldwide. Furthermore, a mature avocado tree (5 to 7 years old) can produce 200 to 300 fruits yearly. Avocado trees have a long life-span (can live for 200 to 400 years) and keep on producing fruit for many decades after reaching maturity
Problems and threats related to the avocado production
Alongside several opportunities and advantages, avocado production comes equally with problems and threats notably related to:
- Climate change
Despite its continued success in many parts of the world, avocado trees are vulnerable to climate change. Avocados can be grown on many soils, but they are susceptible to poor drainage and cannot withstand water logging. Rising global temperatures and extreme weather events (such as droughts and floods) are changing the locational patterns of avocado production. By 2050, regions best suited for growing avocados were estimated to decline by 14 to 41 percent worldwide in countries such as the Dominican Republic and Indonesia.
Avocado production also contributes to deforestation and, consequently, to global warming and climate change. Shrubs and old trees are often taken down to provide avocado trees with greater sunlight.
- Monoculture systems
Avocado trees are part of monoculture plantations, which typically result in less nutrient-dense soil, which has a severe influence on the surrounding biodiversity. The extensive monoculture of avocado has been associated with the loss of 30% of the extent of temperate forests between 1990 and 2006 within the locally known “Avocado Strip” of the state of Michoacán, the global hotspot of avocado production, located in western-central Mexico.
In the same region, in terms of wildlife biodiversity, the conversion of various types of native forests to avocado orchards has been linked to less abundance of wild felines due to the loss of habitat and spatial connectivity, as well as pollinators, a phenomenon associated with the wide use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. In addition, since avocado fruiting depends strongly on pollination, non-native species have been introduced to cover the pollen requirements for this crop, and this can jeopardize the long-term survival of native pollinators as a result of competence for floral resources.
- Market demand
Increasing demand of avocados on account of their health benefits and profitability of their production push countries that can grow avocados to destroy vast quantities of land to create new avocado farms. Nevertheless, in the last three years, global crises made it difficult for producing countries to meet demand. First, avocado production has been affected by the global economic crisis (e.g., closing of restaurants and retail stores) and the negative impact on the logistics and transportation industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to their high perishability, avocados need timely and well-coordinated harvesting and post-harvest processing, as well as continuous cold chains. Secondly, the war in Ukraine stalled the avocado export growth of countries highly dependent on Russian fertilizers widespread in monoculture systems.
- Water footprint
Avocado production is highly water-intensive: roughly 70 liters per fruit, more than 12 times as much as it takes to grow a tomato. In Michoacán’s avocado-producing area (Mexico), around 9.5 billion liters of water are used daily to produce avocado (equivalent to 3,800 Olympic pools), requiring a massive extraction of water from Michoacán aquifers. Excessive water extraction from these aquifers has unexpected consequences, such as causing small earthquakes. One hectare of avocado with 156 trees consumes 1.6 times more than a forest with 677 trees per hectare.
- Socio-economic sustainability
Avocado production could be very lucrative for smallholder farmers. The problem is that this attracted the attention of organized crime groups, especially in Mexico, with a negative impact on local communities. The exponential growth of the avocado’s popularity made Mexican avocados risk becoming the next “conflict commodity”, akin to “blood diamonds” in Angola and Sierra Leone and conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The increasing risk profile of Mexican avocados includes the growing involvement of cartels and associated violence and the use of forced and child labor in farming.
Possible solutions to socio-economic and climate threats
We urgently need to start thinking about the origin of our foods and create more sustainable consumption food chains. Awareness of the environmental impact of what we consume is the first step to reducing the climate impact of our food.
Some solutions, such as international certifications and targeted trade agreements and laws, aimed at reducing the environmental impact of avocados need to be implemented to advocate the avocado industry to produce fruits that are:
- Organized crime-free
- Climate-smart and resilient
- community-first by empowering local farmers
Climate adaptation strategies will be required to reduce the impacts of climate change on the avocado industry. This might include moving plantations to higher, cooler elevations, improving soils using regenerative agriculture and agroforestry practices, using irrigation systems, or breeding drought and heat-tolerant crops. However, doing so is costly, especially for small producers that survive from harvest to harvest. These producers need alternate crops as means of earning extra income.
Avocados are relatively easy plants and can be planted with many other crops to improve productivity and yield. Some of these crops include; Basil, Bee Balm, Blackberries, Blueberries, Chamomile, Chives, Coriander, Dill, Elderberries, Garlic, Kiwi, Lavender, Leeks, Lemon Balm, Lemongrass, Marigolds, Marjoram, Mint, Nasturtiums, Onions, Parsley, Raspberries, Rosemary, Sage, Stevia, Strawberries, Shallots, Summer Savory, Sunflowers, Tarragon, and Thyme.
Regenerative avocado farming systems let:
- Improve soil health and consequently reduce disease incidence and pests
- Farmers get rid of chemicals, pesticides, and fertilizers with important economic and environmental benefits
- Reduce soil erosion
- Increase biodiversity and improve habitats for wildlife
- Increase soil water availability so that avocado’s water footprint can be significantly reduced
reNature’s ‘Sweet Harvest’
reNature has a project in Zambia on avocado called Sweet Harvest. The initiative aims to improve rural communities’ income and food security in Zambia by establishing market links, functioning as a social enterprise in processing and marketing products, and teaching farmers in regenerative agroforestry practices.
Smallholder farmers will be empowered to construct profitable agroforestry systems that benefit their livelihoods and the local environment through the out-grower scheme and a tailored capacity-building program.
The project also has a strong gender equality focus and builds on the Sweet Harvest team’s past efforts to boost female farmer livelihoods and girls’ school enrolment.