Avocados in Perspective

avocados in perspective

A recent event led me to some realizations that put avocados in perspective. 

Like most of you, I have stuck toothpicks in avocado pits and put them over a glass of water.  If your experience has been like mine, there are several outcomes to this scenario.  One, I forget to add water, the avocado pit gets dry, shrivels up, and goes in the trash.  Two, the avocado pit rots and goes in the trash.  Three, the cup gets knocked off the window sill, and the whole experiment goes in the trash.  Notice that in none of these scenarios does an avocado tree result.

Optimism Rules

However, I am an eternal optimist and this spring, I took three avocado pits to the greenhouse, stuck them in potting soil, and set them on the rack where we typically start seeds.   Lo and behold, a few weeks later, a single tiny bud appeared at the top of one of the pits.

avocados in perspective - sprout

Well.  This was something new.  I immediately began to start researching avocados.  I wanted to know about care and feeding, diseases, and pests.  I was going to be feasting on fresh avocados in no time. 

Then reality dealt me another blow.  First, the avocado seedling lasted about four weeks, then the leaves turned brown, curled up, and I was left with a single stalk adorned with dead leaves.  The second blow to my enthusiasm was what I learned as I began to research avocados.

A Little Knowledge

Avocados (Persea Americana) is a tree first documented in South Central Mexico.  It is a member of the flowering plant family Lauraceae and bears the fruit that is familiar to all of us.  Avocados are tropical plants.

The trees grow to an average of about 60ft in height.  Most of the trees cultivated for fruit production are hybrids.  Avocados need a climate without frosts and little wind.  The flowers are easily dehydrated by wind, causing them to fall off and limit fruit production.  Even a mild frost will cause flowers and fruit to drop.  There are newer “cold hardy” cultivars available, but they still need temperatures that remain above freezing except for brief intervals. 

Tropical trees tend to have shallow root systems and need well-aerated soils.  Avocado trees started from seed under optimal conditions usually don’t bear fruit until they are 4 to 6 years old.  Under less than optimal conditions, trees may not bear fruit at all.

Disturbing Truths

This was all pretty cut and dry research.  The scientific stuff was no surprise.  However, a little more research revealed some disturbing information.

Mexico is the largest producer of avocados.  In 2017, Mexico harvest two million tons of avocados from its orchards.  California comes in second, producing about 175,000 tons of avocados a  year (California Avocado Commission, Fact Sheet). Peru and several other South American countries account for the balance of the production. 

So what is the problem?   Avocados are healthy and good for us.  They are natural and are the hot fad right now.

The Problem

The problem is not the avocado, it is the cultivation and production of avocados that accounts for the problems.

The popularity of the fruit in the US has led to massive growth in the number of avocado orchards in Mexico.  Most of these orchards are being planted on land that has been illegally cleared, leading to wide areas of deforestation.  Most of these forests are or were mature first-growth pine forests. 

Avocados in Perspective - avocado grove

It Gets Worse

That is not the worst part.  No one is spraying the standing pine forests with herbicides and pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.  Exchanging a native forest land for a monoculture leads to more problems than can be imagined.   Diseases and insects once controlled naturally now run rampant through the avocado plantations, leading to more and more pesticide and herbicide use.  The soil is degrading rapidly, leading to a loss of nutrients and erosion.  But wait!  It gets worse.

Avocado trees are some of the thirstiest plants to cultivate.  According to UNESCO, one tone of avocados takes about 525,000 gallons of water.  Considering the average production of an avocado tree, that single avocado you had with breakfast took about 100 gallons of water to produce.  The huge demand for water in avocado orchards is causing systematic water problems in Mexico and California, where avocados are using almost as much precious water as almonds. 

avocados in perspective irrigation

Social Implications

There are social implications as well.  In Mexico, the cartels have discovered the lucrative avocado trade and in many states, impose a “tax” on the production of avocados.  Some regions in Mexico have seen the cartels begin to control the entire avocado trade.  Who knew that the bowl of guacamole dip was helping fund the organized crime problem in Mexico.

Now, I am not saying you should stop buying or eating avocados.  I am not inclined to boycott the industry.  I do, however, think there are some other ways we can make at least a small difference.

Making A Difference

We can’t do anything about the environmental problems associated with commercial avocado production.  The trees must be watered.  Commercial production of a monoculture crop is always going to damage the soil and require synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals.  If you are going to eat avocados, you tacitly agree to those kinds of production methods.

If you can get around that, then you should be looking for fruit frown in the US.  When that is out os season, look for fruit that is labeled “Fair Trade.”   This fruit typically comes from an alternative source in South America.  These Fiar Trade farmers are small growers who deal directly with local buyers from the US. 

Or, you can be like me.  I took another set of avocado pits to the greenhouse this week, and they are perched on the shelf in small pots.  Who knows?  In 6 or 8 years, I might actually eat an avocado I grew.

Links and Resources

For more information about organic gardening, lifestyles, and living, visit our website at West Texas Organic Gardening.

If you found the information here helpful, you might also find these articles on our website of interest.

Organic Growing Myths

Toss Your Tiller


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