Of all of Mexico’s contributions to the world that will be feted on Cinco de Mayo Tuesday, one is a fluke that owes its existence to elephants and rats.
Avocados are a strange anomaly that shouldn’t exist, and might have gone extinct thousands of years ago. Fruits evolved based on their ability to be spread, and avocados seeds are relics of a past era when giant elephant-like creatures would eat the seeds and poop them out. For the next two million years, avocados survived on the backs of rodents, just long enough for the Aztecs to come along and invent guacamole.
Most of the world’s avocados are grown in Mexico, where elephant ancestors known as gomphotheres once lived. For most of modern Mexico’s 200-year history, avocados were one crop of many among corn, soybeans, and sugar.
That was until they earned superfood status, the title of agricultural dreams. Then they exploded. Since 2010, avocado consumption in the U.S., home to the most abundant avocado eaters on Earth, has risen between 10 and 30 percent each year, according to the Hass Avocado Board. Mexican producers can’t keep up with American marketers, who tout the fruit’s—and it’s a berry, by the way—healthy monounsaturated fats and oils.
A few months ago, I wrote that the avocado was heading for its own “quinoa moment”–when production becomes insufficient to meet demand. Like quinoa, the once unknown and now must-have grain of urban diets, the avocado has its prime growing environment in south and central America, where cool climates and abundant rain allows the avocado tree to flourish.
But also like quinoa, the rise of the avocado’s popularity is unsustainable. You might ask the farmers in Mexico and Chile, whose families have grown modest avocado crops for modest profits for centuries. When avocados entered their “East Coast foodie” moment, as a recent report in New York Magazine called it, prices rose so fast farmers couldn’t afford to eat their own crop, making them, in different ways, both richer and poorer. And, in the purest form of capitalism, willing to exhaust their land to maximize earnings.
Avocados aren’t hard to grow—their unsweet, strange colored pulp surrounding an enormous seed doesn’t pique as much interest from sweet-toothed birds as, say, strawberries or peaches. But avocados have specific demands, particularly for water.
Almonds have been the scapegoat for California’s water crisis, but avocados aren’t far behind. It takes 100 gallons to produce a pound of avocados (which usually amounts to about two of them). That translates to filling your bathtub with water for each avocado you eat. Serve a bowl of guac at your next party, and that’s more than people in water-inaccessible parts of Africa and Asia use in a week. Aquifers in Mexico and Chile are being drained faster than replenished, setting up a classic uphill battle, where mountain farmers are planting avocado groves at higher and higher altitudes to co-opt mountain runoff meant for urban growth and economic development in the cities below.
Meanwhile, in the countries that have historically grown the world’s avocados, the fruit is becoming a vehicle for crime. Mexico is by far the biggest producer, eclipsing second and third place Indonesia and the United States five-fold. Almost three quarters of Mexico’s crop comes from the state of Michoacán, where avocados have replaced hard drugs like cocaine and heroin as the currency of the dominant Caballeros Templarios cartel. To its members, avocados have become known as oro verde, or green gold, which they extort from farmers in exchange for security.
And it’s not just avocados, but limes, too. As a result of cartel activity, a temporary lime shortage and price crisis left a sour taste on last year’s Cinco de Mayo celebrations.
Without Mexican avocados, ones produced in the U.S., which are chiefly grown in just California and Florida, would fill only a third of America’s insatiable appetite for the fruit. But even that supply is far from stable. In California, dry taps are pushing farmers away from water-heavy crops like almonds, chickpeas, and avocados, in favor of low intensity (but still sufficiently lucrative) ones like grapes and tomatoes.
In Florida, the culprit isn’t water but fungus. A tiny invasive beetle from Asia is spreading a deadly fungus called laurel wilt. In response, researchers have deployed dogs and drones to understand, and eventually kill, the fungus that’s killing avocados. (Florida’s crop of large, smooth-skinned avocados are a genetically different from the culinarily-dominant Californian and Mexican Hass variety, but still in demand.)
So where does that leave you and your obsessive avocado habit? If we’ve indeed reached “Peak Avocado,” then the trend lines are heading in an unpalatable direction. Climate change, fungus, drought, and crime, don’t spell a bountiful future for the green fruit. Any agronomist can tell you that decreased production—or at least stunted growth—will mean fewer avocados available on the global market, leading to higher prices.
But if that’s the Malthusian scenario, here’s the other one: agricultural adaptation. The California Avocado Commission works with agricultural scientists to improve the crop, which in the most urgent case means to grow them with less water. The Hass avocado people ate 30 years ago isn’t the same one you can buy today, and that will be true three decades from now, too. The future may involve growing avocados in colder climates, with less water, and perhaps smaller in size.
Research, of course, costs money, and for now the bill will be passed to consumers. For lovers of avocados, you might think of it as a civic culinary duty. If one dollar extra is tolerable for green slices on a sandwich, then perhaps two won’t be such a stretch.