The Middle East’s appetite for avocados is seemingly insatiable, but Instagram’s favorite fruit hides a dark secret of social and ecological problems. Is it time for the trend to end? Originally printed in the September 2017 issue of Vogue Arabia.
It seems almost quaint to think back to a time when the avocado – with its buttery, yellow-green flesh hinting at a delicate nutty taste – was seen as a curiosity. Today, it’s so omnipresent you can barely open Instagram without seeing #avocadotoast. Before long, the basic smashed-avo-and-eggs photo mutated into avocado ice cream, avocado brownies, and even avocado burgers, with the fruit not as topping but as bun. 2016 even saw an Avopopup in London, featuring a five-course avocado brunch served with complementary avocado-based cocktails. “In 2016, we noticed a real buzz around avocados, but felt that people weren’t using them to their full extent, sticking mostly to avocado on toast. They are so versatile and we knew people could be more adventurous with them,” says event organizer Meredith O’Shaughnessy, the brains behind the popup. “It was a huge success and sold out within two days. People even turned up in avocado-themed outfits.” There are plans to bring the popup to Dubai, while over in New York, three Italian restaurateurs opened the world’s first avocado bar, Avocaderia, in April 2017. “It seems that avocados are the new potatoes! It’s the ubiquitous fruit of the season – you’ll even find it in desserts,” says Emma Sawko, cofounder of Wild & The Moon organic food and juice bar in Dubai.
With 40 recipes featuring avocados on the menu, Wild & The Moon goes through almost 30kg of avocados per day. “It’s a great fruit, and everybody seems to appreciate its smoothness in a cruel world,” Sawko observes. Everybody from Los Angeles to Beijing, it seems, with the UK seeing a 30% annual rise in consumption, and the Chinese market being particularly enthusiastic for “butter fruit,” a relative newcomer to its shelves. Exports from the predominantly Latin American countries that harvest the fruit have shot up from 154 tons in 2012 to 25 000 tons last year.
Avocados really are the little fruit that could. Central and South Americans have been eating ahuacate, as they called it, since at least 7000 BC. The love affair really kicked off in the 1960s, when a bandof Californian farmers started promoting it as the easier-to-pronounce “avocado pear.” But it was still seen as an exotic, seasonal fruit, with many people taking the “pear” part a tad too literally and biting into the tough skin. South African farmers – who wanted to muscle in on the international market – launched a PR campaign in the UK to educate people with recipes and pamphlets extolling the health benefits of the fruit. At the start of the formal campaign in the UK in 1995, the avocado market was worth £13 million (AED 61 million). When it wrapped up in 2013, it stood at £50 million (AED 235 million). From a nutrition point of view, avocados are hard to beat, being antiinflammatory and rich in fiber and healthy fats. “The fat content is in a form of monounsaturated fatty acids, which helps in healing the gut,” says nutritionist Rashi Chowdhary. This fat is especially helpful for digestive issues, and since it has an insulin sensitizing effect, Chowdhary says it’s also suitable for people with diabetes, endometriosis, and polycystic ovarian disease. Add protein, potassium, folate, and vitamins C, E, and K to the list, and it’s clear that this fleshy, creamy, versatile fruit has earned its place on our plates. And it’s not just there that it does good – as an emollient, avocado oil products nourish and moisturize skin. No wonder, then, that Kiehl’s Creamy Eye Treatment with Avocado is one of the brand’s bestselling products.
The rise in popularity of avocado can also be attributed to new supply chains, such as Kenya and Colombia, and improvements in ripening techniques. The fruit doesn’t mature on the tree, and while the old paper-bag-and-banana trick still works to soften hard avocados, suppliers and retailers have cottoned on to the fact that people are more likely to buy it if it’s ready to eat. Hard, inedible avocados reach maturity in big heated units, ensuring a steady supply of the superfood. But this steady supply has darker roots than just our insatiable appetite for avo toasties. Avocado farming places enormous pressure on farmland and is creating upheaval in Mexico, the world’s top exporter (between 2015 and 2016, the country exported one million tons of avocados). In the state of Michoacán, Mexico’s biggest avocado grower, some farmers are decimating mature forests to make way for avocado trees, in violation of local laws. The fruit-bearing trees are also incredibly thirsty – to grow about half a kilogram of fruit, you need 272 liters of water, which puts water reserves at risk. It also destroys the farmland, because once the ground is sucked completely dry of nutrients after about 10 years, nothing else can grow without expensive and extensive fertilization. Increasing amounts of evidence also shows that criminal cartels are actually running the show in Michoacán, leading to corruption, extortion, and even murder. And when things go bad, like they did last year when Michoacán’s more than 20 000 avocado growers went on strike to demand higher prices for the crops, the global supply goes haywire.
So, should you care where your dollop of green goodness comes from? Sawko thinks so. “While people seem to prefer the creamy Hass variety from Mexico and the rest of South America, we try to be more varied in our sourcing to promote biodiversity, reduce transport, and stay seasonal. We only buy organic produce to support organic farming globally.” It’s not all doom and gloom, though – the World Bank is working to identify suitable areas where avocados can be produced sustainably, and some suppliers work with independent certifiers to ensure their produce is grown without exploiting people or planet. However you enjoy your avocado – smashed, gaucamole’d, or just plain sliced – as with fast fashion, it pays to know what you’re paying for.