Super Bowl Gluttony

Photograph Source: Stewart Black CC BY 2.0

In a now established Superbowl ritual, media consumers on both sides of the border are getting another big bite of the avocado. For the sixth year in a row, the Mexican Association of Avocado Producers and Exporters (APEAM) rolled out a pricey Superbowl ad, reportedly costing $5 million for 30 seconds of airtime.

To get the message across, APEAM’s creative producers showcased avocado accessiories for hip connoissuers, including an anti-bear (and anti-avocado poaching human) yurt, an avocado “baby carrier” and a one-and-only tortilla chip pool float that ensures a dip in the backyard pool is not time away from the old guacamole.

The avocado, of course, is the central ingredient of the guacamole that’s devoured in ever massive quantities by U.S. football fans on Superbowl Sunday.

A boom crop in Mexico that’s sometimes called “green gold,” the avocado has achieved something of a celebrity status in the NAFTA Plus economy that’s turned Mexican agriculture into an export machine for the U.S. market.

In 2016, Ecoamericas reported that the U.S. bought 700,000 tons of Mexican avocados the preceding year. In 2020, that number is expected to hover around 1.2 million tons valued at more than $2.5 billion, according to the Mexican daily La Jornada. In 1993, immediately prior to the implementation of NAFTA, Mexican avocado exports earned a mere $19.135 million.

A January 29 story by the BBC reported nine out of ten avocados sold in the U.S. come from Mexico, specifically the southwestern state of Michoacan.

There, production skyrocketed from a respectable 32,000 acres in 1974 (Ecoamericas) to an astonishing 415,000 acres by 2018, figures from the Mexican federal agricultural agency report.  According to Mexican media reports, the Michoacan avocado industry involves 26,234 producers and 60 packers, providing 310,000 direct and 78,000 indirect jobs to the local economy.

Avocado orchards have transformed Michoacan’s landscape, turning an estimated 121,000 acres of former carbon dioxide absorbing forests into export producing orchards.

A drive through Michoacan these days is a journey through avocado wonder land, with fruit bearing trees stretching for miles upon miles and even clinging precariously to unlikely hillsides. Imagine a large chunk of land more than twice the size of New York City glistening in the rain with avocado trees.

While commercial interests boost more and more avocado production for the ravenous U.S. market, some residents of Michoacan are saying enough is enough.

In late January, the Supreme Indigenous Council of Michoacan approved a resolution at a gathering attended by 500 delegates to support the prohibition of land use changes for avocado production because of the observed effects of mono cropping.

“There is an awareness of the damage caused by avocado cultivation,” Pavel Gomez, the council’s spokesman, told La Jornada. “The communal authorities know perfectly well that we are winding up without water and with thousands of eroded hectares.”

Gomez’s group represents 52 indigenous Purepecha communities.  Though coming on the eve of the Superbowl, the Supreme Indigenous Council’s avocado resolution barely got a blip in Mexican media, much less in the U.S press.

In recent years, as Michoacan’s avocado orchards ate up great tracts of pasture, cropland and forests in the poor state, some community members and environmentalists became increasingly concerned about the ecological effects of the expanding industry. Among the biggest concerns are excessive water usage, pressure on groundwater reserves and the lingering presence of agrochemicals in the soil.

A 2018 university study reported by Mexico’s Quadtrain news agency found that a hectare (approximately 2.5 acres) with 156 avocado trees consumes 1.6 times more water than a hectare of forest with 677 trees.

“Avocados occupy terrain that was previously corn fields and when those ran out pressure began on the forest acreage,” Dr. Alberto Gomez-Tagle of the San Nicolas de Hidalgo Michoacan University, the principal investigator of the study, was quoted by Quadtrain. “Avocados always consume more water than pines.”

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, the border region and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Americas Program.