Mexico is the world’s largest producer of avocados, accounting for over 30% of global production. The center of avocado farming in Mexico is Michoacán state, which produces around 80% of Mexico’s avocados. Michoacán is ideal for avocado cultivation due to its climate and soil conditions. Avocado farming is a major driver of Michoacán’s economy, generating billions in annual export revenue.
However, the boom in avocado farming has raised concerns over its sustainability. Intensive avocado cultivation requires significant amounts of water and agricultural chemicals. Water resources in Michoacán are under strain, and illegal deforestation is taking place to clear land for new avocado orchards. The heavy use of pesticides has caused pollution problems in some areas. Various sustainability challenges plague the industry, including water scarcity, deforestation, threats from organized crime, and potential oversupply in the global market.
This article analyzes the environmental, economic, and social sustainability issues associated with Michoacán’s avocado boom. It provides an overview of avocado farming in Mexico, examines the key sustainability problems, and considers potential solutions to promote a more sustainable industry.
The Rise of Avocado Farming in Mexico
While avocados are native to Mexico, large-scale commercial production began in the 1970s. Mexico’s avocado exports took off in the 1990s following the lifting of a temporary U.S. ban due to pest concerns. Exports to the U.S., Mexico’s largest trade partner, grew from $35 million in 1995 to $2.5 billion in 2018.
The heartland of Mexico’s avocado boom is the state of Michoacán in western Mexico. Michoacán accounts for around 80% of total Mexican avocado production. The temperate climate and rich volcanic soil of Michoacán provide ideal conditions for avocado cultivation. The state is mountainous with numerous rivers and streams, offering ample water supply.
Avocado production in Michoacán has surged dramatically in recent decades. Total planted area tripled from around 90,000 hectares in the late 1990s to over 300,000 hectares in 2018. Annual production skyrocketed from less than 500,000 tons in the 1990s to over 2 million tons in 2018. Mexico now produces more avocados than the next three largest producers combined (Dominican Republic, Peru, Colombia).
The avocado boom has transformed Michoacán’s economy. Avocados surpassed limes as Michoacán’s most valuable crop in 2015. Avocado exports were worth $2.4 billion to Michoacán in 2017. Thousands of small-scale farmers have benefited from the avocado boom. However, large agribusinesses own increasing shares of avocado orchards in Michoacán.
Environmental Sustainability Challenges
While avocado farming generates substantial economic benefits, it also poses significant environmental risks that threaten the long-term sustainability of the industry. Key environmental pressures include:
– Water scarcity
– Soil degradation
– Pollution from pesticides
Water is a major input for avocado farming, with each tree requiring about 70 liters per week during the growing season. Surface and underground water sources in Michoacán are under increasing strain due to agricultural water demands.
Many avocado orchards rely on extraction from rivers and aquifers beyond sustainable rates. Aquifer levels have fallen in some areas. Rivers like the Duero are over-exploited, with diversions for irrigation reducing downstream flows. Climate change is likely to exacerbate regional water scarcity.
Water conflicts have emerged between communities. New orchards in upland areas can divert water that downstream users rely on. There are concerns that small-scale farmers without their own wells will lose access to water as large companies drill deep wells for irrigation.
More efficient irrigation methods like drip and micro-sprinklers have expanded but are still not used in all groves. Strengthening water regulations and incentives for water conservation are needed to promote sustainability.
Significant deforestation is occurring in Michoacán to clear land for new avocado orchards. Avocados were historically cultivated under shade canopy, such as in Mexico’s pine-oak woodlands.
However, new high-density orchards involve clear-cutting forests to plant more trees per hectare in full sun. Between 2001-2010, avocado orchards expanded by 22,600 hectares in Michoacán, linked to at least 15,200 hectares of forest loss.
This deforestation damages biodiversity and water cycles. Clearing hill slopes increases risks of erosion and landslides. Protected natural areas have been impacted. Satellite data indicates at least 1,000 hectares of illegal forest clearance within the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve since 2000.
Stronger environmental zoning and enforcement is required to halt illegal logging. Reforestation programs, agroforestry systems, and better orchard planning could reduce pressures on forests. But land scarcity makes these solutions challenging.
Long-term productivity of avocado orchards requires healthy soils. However, unsustainable practices contribute to soil erosion and degradation in Michoacán’s groves.
Steep slopes are vulnerable to soil loss when cleared for orchards. Lack of terracing and ground cover between trees accelerates erosion. Intensive use of heavy machinery compacts soil. Over-application of agrochemicals and lack of crop rotation depletes organic matter.
Preventing further erosion and soil loss is crucial. Sustainable solutions include use of cover crops, reduced tillage, maintaining natural ground contours, terracing on slopes, and applying organic fertilizers. But adoption rates are currently low due to high costs and lack of technical assistance.
Heavy use of chemical pesticides is common in Michoacán’s avocado orchards due to problems with pests and plant diseases. Michoacán accounts for 20% of Mexico’s total pesticide use.
Pesticide runoff has contaminated waterways in some areas, impacting aquatic life. Leaching into groundwater is another concern. Neurotoxic organophosphate insecticides linked to health risks in farmworkers see heavy use. There are also concerns over pesticide residues on avocado exports.
Adopting integrated pest management, optimizing application methods, choosing lower toxicity products, and improving spraying practices could reduce contamination risks while maintaining productivity. But pesticide overuse continues given weak regulations and enforcement.
Economic Sustainability Issues
While generating substantial economic benefits, Michoacán’s avocado boom also poses risks regarding long-term economic sustainability:
– Overreliance on a single commodity
– Vulnerability to volatile export markets
– Organized crime involvement
– Smallholder marginalization
Overreliance on a Single Commodity
Avocados account for over 90% of Michoacán’s agricultural GDP. Such extreme dependence on one commodity leaves the state vulnerable to crop disease outbreaks or demand shifts. For example, growth has slowed recently due to temporary import bans.
Diversification into other crops could increase resilience. But avocados are so lucrative and well-suited agronomically that most efforts promote greater avocado production. The industry could be protected through market diversification across importing countries.
Vulnerability to Export Markets
Export markets account for around 90% of Michoacán’s avocado sales. Demand is highly concentrated in the U.S., which purchases around 80% of exports. Europe is the second largest export market. This heavy reliance on U.S. imports creates risk.
Import bans related to pests interrupted exports in the 1980s-1990s. While phytosanitary systems have improved, new issues could emerge. For instance, an invasive moth resulted in a temporary U.S. ban on Mexican imports to certain states in 2022. Economic shocks or shifting consumer preferences in the U.S. would also impact producers.
Expanding to markets like China, Japan, and Australia could increase resilience. Global demand is projected to keep rising but oversupply issues could emerge. Marketing avocados within Mexico could provide a buffer to export volatility.
Organized Crime Involvement
Unfortunately, avocado farming in Michoacán has become intertwined with organized crime. Criminal cartels extort protection payments from avocado growers and packers and hijack trucks en route to the U.S.
This organized crime involvement increases costs, creates conflict, discourages investment, and hurts producers. It also causes reputational damage. Certification programs aim to prevent criminal-sourced avocados entering export supply chains but have had mixed results.
Reducing criminal influence will require strengthening law enforcement and providing legal economic opportunities in the region. But organized crime now has deep ties to Michoacán’s avocado industry.
While small-scale farmers pioneered Michoacán’s avocado exports, larger players increasingly dominate the industry. Smallholder contribution to production has fallen from 60% in the 1990s to around 30% today.
Limited financing makes it difficult for smallholders to remain competitive in the capital-intensive avocado business. Most new orchards are established by wealthy landowners, agribusinesses, and transnational companies. Contract growing for export firms is replacing independent smallholder production.
Programs to help small-scale growers access credit, plant new orchards, and meet export standards could prevent their exclusion. Strengthening cooperatives and associations could also empower small producers. But the avocado boom increasingly concentrates wealth rather than being broadly shared.
Social Sustainability Challenges
The avocado boom has also raised some concerns regarding social equity and community impacts:
– Rural displacement
– Labor conditions
– Community tensions
Land values have skyrocketed in Michoacán due to avocado expansion. This makes purchasing land impossible for many villagers. Only wealthier individuals can buy land to establish new orchards.
Rising rents and costs of living also force some rural communities off their lands when avocados take over. Indigenous communities with collective use rights are especially vulnerable to encroachment from orchards. Displaced farmers migrate to urban areas or elsewhere in Mexico.
Stricter zoning around rural villages and protected communal lands is essential. Regularizing land tenure for marginalized communities could protect them from displacement. But powerful economic forces make stopping displacement challenging.
While generating many jobs, concerns exist regarding labor conditions in Michoacán’s avocado industry. Wage theft and coercion of workers is not uncommon on some farms and in packing facilities. Child labor has been found on small family orchards.
Health risks arise from agrochemical exposure and use of heavy machinery. Workplace accidents occur. Seasonal labor fluctuations mean much work is temporary. Rights abuses are especially common among migrant laborers from other Mexican states.
Labor laws and workplace protections need improved monitoring and enforcement in the avocado sector. Certification initiatives that require audits on issues like forced labor help somewhat. But human rights challenges persist in under-regulated supply chains.
The avocado boom has impacted community cohesion in production zones. Inequality has risen between rich orchard owners and landless peasants. Water scarcity pits upriver and downriver users against each other.
Indigenous communities protest displacement by expanding orchards. Crime and violence associated with the avocado trade harms communities. Rapid economic and social changes from the boom have damaged communal ties and values.
Strengthening community institutions and advancing marginalized groups’ rights can help ease these tensions. Transparent water sharing and land planning processes are also important. Ultimately, more equitable distribution of avocado wealth is needed to avoid dividing communities.
Potential Solutions for More Sustainable Avocado Production
Addressing the environmental, economic, and social sustainability issues associated with Michoacán’s avocado boom is critical for the industry’s long-term future. Potential ways to promote greater sustainability include:
– Improving irrigation efficiency through technology adoption
– Strengthening regulations on water use for agriculture
– Watershed management initiatives to replenish aquifers
– Building new water storage and distribution infrastructure
– Water reuse and treatment to expand supply
Reducing Deforestation Pressures
– Strict enforcement on clearing within protected areas
– Payments for ecosystem services to incentivize forest conservation
– Agroforestry production systems
– Land use zoning to concentrate avocados in suitable areas
Supporting Small Producers
– Expanding credit access and technical assistance
– Investing in new orchard development for smallholders
– Strengthening producer cooperatives and associations
– Improving linkages to export markets
– Protected designations of origin to support local branding
Sustainable Production Practices
– Soil conservation through terracing, ground cover, reduced tillage
– Integrated pest management to reduce agrochemical use
– Organic certified production where feasible
– Crop rotation and improved fallow periods to protect soil fertility
Diversification and Added Value
– Programs to support production of other crops
– Promoting avocado oil production and other processing
– Marketing to Mexico’s domestic market
– Investing in transportation and storage infrastructure
– Engaging marginalized groups in land use planning
– Improving labor conditions and workplace safety monitoring
– Participatory water management institutions
– Rural development programs in avocado communities
– Transparent taxation and redistribution of avocado earnings
Reducing Crime and Violence
– Expanding police presence in production areas
– Tracking avocados through the supply chain to certify as crime-free
– Providing youth opportunities to deter involvement with cartels
– Legal reform to prosecute criminal activity in the industry
Outlook for the Future
Avocado farming has brought substantial economic benefits to Michoacán but also poses serious sustainability challenges. Addressing issues around water scarcity, deforestation, soil health, pollution, market concentration, inequality, and crime is crucial for the industry’s long-term future.
With strong policy reforms, adoption of sustainable practices, and committed collaboration between producers, government and civil society, a more environmentally sound, inclusive and crime-free avocado production model is possible. But it will take effort on many fronts to make Michoacán’s avocado boom sustainable.
Ongoing consumer demand, productivity growth, and expansion in emerging markets show avocados will remain a lucrative crop. However, Michoacán’s competitive advantage could be jeopardized without urgent progress on sustainability. A holistic approach is required to promote equitable and sustainable development of Mexico’s avocado belt.
SAGARPA (Secretaría de Agricultura, Ganadería, Desarrollo Rural, Pesca y Alimentación). 2018. Planeación Agrícola Nacional 2017-2030: Agenda Técnica Aguacate. Mexico City: SAGARPA.
Machado, E., Vaughan, S., and Villanueva, G. 2018. “Avocado production in Michoacán: A case study on the social, environmental, and economic implications of the global demand for avocados.” Revista Mexicana de Ciencias Agrícolas.
High Level Panel of Experts of the Committee on World Food Security. 2019. Multi-stakeholder partnerships to finance and improve food security and nutrition in the framework of the 2030 Agenda. Rome: FAO.
Carlson, A. and Troncoso, J. 2021. “Contested booms: The politics of tequila and avocados in 21st century Mexico.” Political Geography.
Volke-Haller, V. 1990. Los aguacates de México. Chapingo: Universidad Autónoma Chapingo.
WWF (World Wildlife Fund). 2017. Rethinking the avocado boom: long-term solutions for the Michoacán avocado sector and rural communities. Mexico City: WWF.