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Mr & Mrs Apteryx australis (via Flickr)

Avocado consumption in Europe: from ‘green gold’ to SDG turmoil

Natalie Cebulla | 08 August 2018

For me and most Europeans, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially those relating to food and water, often seem like some distant issue concerning only people in developing countries. Consequently, we are tempted to ignore that our behaviour as consumers actually contributes to constraints on resources – a condition that makes the SDGs necessary in the first place. Many examples can be used to support this notion, even something as basic as food.

This expert opinion was elected winner in the CSDS - The Broker Student Blog Competition on SDGs

There are several fruits and vegetables that are difficult, if not impossible, to produce in Europe due to unsuitable climate conditions. Nevertheless, they are readily available in most supermarkets. Common examples are soya products, limes and bananas. While much can be said about the adverse impacts of these products in the country of origin, avocados – the ‘green gold’ – are a prime example of how the food consumption of Europeans conflicts with at least three of the SDGs: clean water and sanitation (goal 6), zero hunger (goal 2) and climate action (goal 13).

Due to their culinary versatility, nutritional value, and suitability for vegetarians and vegans, avocados have acquired superfood status. However, growing avocados requires vast amounts of water: approximately 1,000 litres of water are needed to produce just one kilogram of avocados. That is eight times more water than needed to produce the same quantity of potatoes.

Chile is one of the largest producers of avocados. Due to an ever-growing demand from Europe, which a small group of Chilean producers are eager to satisfy, people in the Province of Petorca are left with dwindling ground water reserves as nearly every drop flows into avocado production. Consequently, the water that locals need for basic domestic use (drinking, cooking and sanitation) or the production of essential food (maintaining livestock, growing fruit and vegetables) is exported to Europe in the form of avocados. This vast amount of water consumption does not even take into account the additional water required to make the avocados look presentable to potential buyers, as well for storage and transport. It can, thus, be said that the mass consumption of avocados in Europe clashes with SDG 6 – the “availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all” – as it contributes to water shortages and changes water from being a basic resource available for all to a luxury good.

While SDG 6 is probably the most obvious one at risk in this context, two others are also threatened indirectly by European avocado consumption: SDG 2 aims to “[end] hunger, [achieve] food security and improved nutrition, and [promote] sustain-able agriculture”. However, without water, there will be no evaporation and, thus, no rainfall, and the whole ecosystem will at risk, which diminishes the prospects of sustainable agriculture in Petorca. Furthermore, SDG 12 requires us to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impact by regulating emissions and promoting developments in renewable energy”. This goal is threatened by the fact that the transporting of avocados from the other side of the globe to Europe contributes to an increase in CO2 emissions. 

But, to be fair, one cannot make the avocado and its European devotees the scapegoat for all issues underlying the SDGs. Rather, one has to consider the broader picture: it is not only avocado consumption by Europeans, but also millions of Westerners consuming a great variety of imported fruits and vegetables, that contributes to undermining the SDGs. If we took our contribution to the SDGs seriously and considered what is essential for them to be fulfilled in the long run, we would probably never again eat anything that was not grown locally.

However, critically judging by my own consumption behaviour and preferences, I have a hard time imagining that my fellow Europeans are willing to give up eating imported fruit and vegetables for the rest of their lives. There are some things that are just too good to not be eaten. And, let us be honest, we are also quite spoilt. What could be done, however, is to promote a lifestyle that treats avocados and similar foods as exceptions that should be appreciated. A first step would be to not discriminate against slightly-damaged avocados in the supermarket and the water needed to grow it simply ending up in the trash.

Photo credit main picture: Mr & Mrs Apteryx australis (via Flickr)