Avocados have soared in popularity in the UK in recent years. From 2012-2016, we imported $242.4 million worth of avocados. Avocados had the third biggest product growth rate (28%) across the nine main UK supermarkets from 2015 to 2016. The rise in popularity can largely be attributed to its superfood status. The avocado has been linked to various health benefits such as improving cardiovascular health and prevention of neurogenerative diseases. These healthy associations, along with its culinary versatility, have made avocados a trendy and fashionable food. They have become increasingly popular among health bloggers, Instagrammers, and restaurants.
However, our experience of the avocado is far removed from the avocado industry. Mexico is the world’s biggest avocado producer, accounting for up to 70% of production. From 2012-2016, Mexico exported over $2 billion worth of avocados. The rise in avocado demand from China and Western countries like the UK has made avocado farming more profitable for Mexican farmers than farming other crops. As it has become a more popular crop choice, rapid deforestation has taken place to make way for avocado trees. Between 2000-2010 approximately 1,700 acres of forest was lost due to avocado farming per year. This negative environmental impact is added to by the use of fertilisers and pesticides and high water consumption. In addition, the newfound profitability of avocado farming in Mexico has encouraged drug cartels to involve themselves in the ‘green gold’ industry. Cartels cause problems for farmers through extortion, kidnappings and killings. Farmers who do not cooperate with cartels risk destruction of property and death.
Here we see two sides of the avocado. On the one side, there is the glamorous, trendy and healthy experiences associated with avocados in the UK. On the other side is the environmental degradation, kidnap and murder associated with Mexico’s avocado industry. The more we enjoy the fruits of Mexican labour, the more they suffer. The effects extend beyond the industry. As demand in countries like the UK increases so does the price of avocados causing ordinary Mexicans to be priced out of buying the fruit that was once a staple of their diet.
The dichotomy of the avocado experience coincides with the ethical consumerism’s progression into the mainstream. Ethical consumerism is consumers’ consideration of issues relating to the environment, animal rights, workers’ rights, fair trade, country of origin and so on. Consumer feel some responsibility to make sure their food decisions have the most positive, or least negative, impact on the wider world. It is therefore ironic that the rise of the avocado has coincided with the rise of ethical consumerism. Our love of avocados has directly caused significant environmental and social problems in Mexico. So why is it that many consumers agree with ethical consumerism in theory but fail to put it into practice?
One reason could be the halo effect. The halo effect is when a food associated with a positive attribute, such as being healthy, becomes associated with further positive attributes even though this may be unsubstantiated. For example, a food labelled as organic may wrongly be perceived as being healthy. The avocado’s numerous health benefits have strongly associated it with being healthy. It is possible that this association, alongside other positive attributes associated with fruits and vegetables more generally such as being environmentally friendly, could have led consumers to perceive avocados as more ethical food choice than they are.
Another reason could be the physical distance between producer and consumer. Avocados, like many of our foods, are sourced from across the globe. This means that consumers experiences are far removed from production, making them less aware of the issues associated with it. Although initiatives such as the promotion of fair trade products, encourage consumers to ‘care from a distance’, these initiatives have their limitations. For example, while there are fair trade avocado farms operating in Mexico, such as those involved in the PRAGOR cooperative, these operate on small scale and so do not make up a significant proportion of Mexico’s avocado production. By not making up a significant proportion of the market they cannot have a great contribution towards ‘caring from a distance’. Similarly, though consumers may be all for fair trade in theory, this does not mean they are willing to pay the extra price premium.
Finally, consumers are more likely to place their and their families’ heath and needs over the environmental or social needs of a country on the other side of the world. The superfood health status of the avocado may encourage consumers to continue choosing avocados. Therefore, consumers ethical considerations are overshadowed by their health ones.
Whatever the exact reasons for the unethical consumption of avocados, distance plays a key role. Whether it is the large physical distance between producer and consumer that encourages the prioritisation of the consumers immediate friends and family over distant strangers or whether the distance between consumers’ misplaced perceptions of the avocado and its true ethical value. There is hope that these ethical imbalances can be corrected. Research has shown that ethical motivations are a more powerful motivator for dietary change than health motivations. In addition, research has shown that, in the case of vegans and vegetarians, large numbers of people can be reached through the internet and social media. The already large online profile of the avocado, in blogs and social media, means that people are interested in knowing about avocado-related information. Perhaps carefully carried out online campaigns could be a way to bridge the gap between consumers and producers, and myths and truths of the avocado industry.
Photo: Deforestation in Mexico