Like kale before it, the avocado is the new star of the produce aisle. Over the past few years, the buttery fruit's profile has grown from just the main component in guacamole to a potential add-on for almost any other culinary staple: thrown into sandwiches, sliced on top of salads, and smeared onto slices of toast. But as New York Magazine recently noted, just as demand for avocados has reached an all-time high, the resources for growing the fruit have dwindled. Water, which avocados need in abundant quantities to grow, has become an increasingly precious commodity in drought-stricken California, where Governor Jerry Brown instituted mandatory water restrictions for the first time in state history earlier this month.
Avocados aren't as water-dependent as some crops — it requires 1.1 gallons of water to produce a single almond, for example — but they're still thirsty plants. It takes about 74 gallons of water to produce a single pound of avocados, compared to 9.8 gallons per pound of strawberries, for example. Almost all of the avocados grown in the United States come from a five-county region in Southern California, a stretch along the coast from San Diego to San Luis Obispo. The popularity of avocados has come at the same time as a sharp increase in water and fertilizer costs, forcing some farmers out of business. But as Jan DeLyser, Vice President of the California Avocado Commission, points out, the water concerns for farmers aren't new. The restrictions Brown announced are for residential use; water has long been viewed as a costly and precious commodity for agriculture. "Right now, the drought is getting a lot of media coverage," DeLyser said. "But the truth is, it's now going into the fourth year. Farmers have been working on conservation practices all along."
In fact, the drought conditions of recent years didn't affect California’s projected avocado crop. This season, which runs roughly from March to October, the California Avocado Commission predicts a yield of 326 million pounds of avocados, up ten percent from last year. Part of this is thanks to techniques like "Stumping," in which farmers cut back less productive avocado trees so that they’re still alive but require far less watering. And research to find methods to grow more fruit with less water is ongoing. "We've been fortunate so far," DeLyser said. "We haven't seen impact on the crop that we can say is due to drought." Of course, that could change if the water shortage stretches for more years. But in the short term, California avocados aren’t going anywhere.
But the concern about avocado consumption isn't just about California. Chile and Mexico, the two countries that provide the majority of avocados imported to the United States, are also dealing with difficulties tied to increased demand for "green gold." In Chile, where there are no laws that regulate water use, avocado has become a boom crop: In 1993, only 9,000 acres of the country were devoted to avocado farming. Today? 71,000 acres. It's prompted concerns that avocado trees are slurping up communal drinking water. "When you eat an avocado that comes from Chile, think about the fact that the water used to produce it is water that homes in the country's most humble communities now lack," activist Rodrigo Mundaca told Civil Eats last year. "It's water that the country’s men and women now don’t have for their basic needs."
In Mexico, avocados are at the center of a bloody conflict in which criminal gangs strong-arm farmers and operations that pack the fruit for export. According to the USDA, four out of every five avocados sold in the United States originate from the Mexican state of Michoacán, which has been racked with violence over the trade in “green gold,” as locals have dubbed the Hass avocados grown there. "They are blood avocados," security expert Raul Benitez told The Wall Street Journal in 2014. "They are the Mexican equivalent of conflict diamonds that are sold from war-torn parts of Africa."
So what can avocado lovers do to avoid exacerbating global crises with their guacamole? Attempt to buy avocados from small-scale growing operations if they can. (Trader Joe's, for example, tries to source avocados from smaller farms.) And avoid wasting food. When you consider how much effort and how many resources went into that single alligator-skinned fruit, it's easier to remember not to let them rot in your fruit bowl.