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Can Avocado Fans Have Their Fruit and Eat It Too?

Reports are circulating that America’s avocado obsession is driving deforestation in Mexico. But are food trends in rich countries really a threat to the developing world?

Is it ethical to eat an avocado?

It’s a fair question to ask, after a report from researchers at Mexico’s National Institute for Forestry, Farming and Fisheries Research raised alarm that rising international demand for avocados may be driving illegal deforestation in Mexico, sending eco-conscious foodies across the United States and elsewhere on a collective guilt trip. In the Guardian, journalist Joanna Blythman admonished hipster avocado lovers who consume the fruit — via toast, smoothies, or, in its most delicious state: guacamole — with no consideration for the communities that grow it. But how much do food trends in developed countries influence producers abroad?

While it’s important to think about where our food comes from if we are to have any hope of reducing our environmental and societal impacts, we’re not great at figuring out what exactly those impacts might be. The current avocado crisis harks back to a kerfuffle just a few years ago over the ethics of consuming quinoa. The once-obscure Andean grain became a staple in the diets of health-conscious consumers in the U.S., tripling the price between 2006 and 2013, and prompting writers like Joanna Blythman to speculate that poor Peruvians and Bolivians couldn’t afford to buy it anymore.

But when Marc Bellemare, an associate professor in the Department of Applied Economics and director of the Center for International Food and Agricultural Policy at the University of Minnesota, looked at the data — a decade of national surveys of roughly 227,000 households across Peru — he and his colleagues found that the bump in quinoa’s popularity was actually a boon to both the grain’s producers and consumers in South America. It makes sense that a price increase would benefit producers who earn a living selling the product, but Bellemare was surprised to find a slight increase in the welfare of consumers as well. “What we surmised happened there is that those positive welfare gains for producers trickled down to consumers,” he says. “The best analogy I can give you is ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’”

At a certain point, however, rising food prices can have detrimental effects on communities in developing countries. Bellemare’s research has linked massive price escalations — like the 51 percent jump in food prices between 2007 and 2008, and the 40 percent increase between 2010 and 2011 — to food riots and social unrest around the globe. So when do price hikes benefit a community, and when do they incite riots? It depends on how much a community relies on a commodity.

To understand avocados, you must first consider the case of quinoa.

Even in Peru, quinoa is a niche market, according to Bellemare; on average the grain accounts for only a negligible percentage of Peruvians’ budgets. By comparison, the grains that Bellemare and his team examined in relation to food riots were all staples — rice, wheat, and maize, for example. These foods can account for as much as half of a household’s budget in some African countries, Bellemare explains. “When the price of a big staple like that goes up, people take a massive hit in terms of welfare, and that’s when they get mad and that’s when they riot,” he says. “But for commodities like quinoa that are really drops in the ocean of international trade, there is no surprise that it’s not causing people to riot.”

“The cautionary tale here is, let’s not freak out without having a good reason for it,” Bellemare adds. “And usually that reason comes in the form of having good data.”

The environmental impacts of consumption can be just as difficult to trace. Fortunately, Frances Seymour, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C., commissioned a study to find out just how much tropical deforestation is linked to consumption patterns in rich countries.

“Deforestation is being caused by commercial scale industrial agriculture; not the little guy with the chainsaw.”

The study zeroed in on four commodities—beef, soybeans, palm oil, and wood products—whose markets have expanded in the past 15 years or so, along with the products’ impacts on their main producers and exporters — Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea. Forty percent of the tropical deforestation across those seven countries between 2000 and 2011 was due to the production of those four commodities, the study found,and in 2011 a full third of that deforestation was linked to products that were exported. When Brazilian beef was excluded from the analysis (because the majority of the beef produced is consumed domestically), the amount of deforestation linked to exports of the three remaining commodities rose to over 50 percent.

“If we’d been having this conversation 30 years ago, the conventional wisdom was that tropical deforestation is caused by poor subsistence farmers, chipping away at the forest frontier to just scratch out a living,” Seymour says. “What I think these analyses definitively show is just how much deforestation is being caused by commercial scale industrial agriculture; not the little guy with the chainsaw.”

In the case of avocados, part of the problem is that farmers in Mexico aren’t just making a living by deforesting their own property, but rather by expanding into state-owned territory — including a monarch butterfly reserve — according to the Associated Press. Avocados are only one part of the problem: Research has shown that the illegal conversion of tropical forests to commercial agriculture plots accounts for nearly half of the tropical deforestation that took place between 2000 and 2012.

But how do we stop importing products that are illegally produced? There are no easy solutions, Seymour says. Stateside legislation, which so far has been used to cut down on illegally sourced wood products (as with the 2008 amendment to the Lacey Act) could also work for food commodities. Cutting off market access for illegally produced goods by targeting big companies can also lead to changes further down the supply chain, with trading companies or manufacturers switching to more sustainable practices, according to Seymour; in the early aughts, for example, Greenpeace went after McDonald’s for feeding chickens (i.e. future nuggets) soybeans grown on recently deforested land in the Amazon. The fast food chain agreed to stop, and soybean traders, in turn, consented to a moratorium on buying soybeans from deforested areas.

Government policies can stem illegal imports, but they can also play as important a role in driving potentially harmful consumption trends as consumer preferences. For instance, the U.S. lags behind regions like China and Europe as an importer of any of the four main forest-threatening commodities (soybeans, palm oil, beef, or wood products), but U.S. imports of palm oil have been increasing, and U.S. consumption does influence other markets indirectly; many of those food crops can also go into fuel supply chains, and the U.S. is a major player in bioenergy. “That’s where the consumer country governments like the United States and the European Union are proactively being part of the problem,” Seymour says, “by driving up demand for the agricultural commodities that are feed stocks for biofuels.”

The main biofuel in the U.S. is corn-based ethanol, for example, and the more corn that is diverted into fuel supply chains, the larger effect it will have on food prices. The E.U. has a policy that requires a certain proportion of transport fuels be sourced from biofuels. To meet those policy demands, members of the E.U. began using domestically produced rape seed oils to produce biodiesel, and importing more palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia to meet consumer demand for vegetable oils, according to Seymour.

“It’s an indirect effect, but a very palpable jump in demand for palm oil which causes deforestation and climate emissions,” she says. “It’s ironic because it’s a policy that is in part justified on being climate friendly.”

When it comes to avocados, consumer trends and government policy converge; the rise in demand for the fruit — the U.S. consumes four times more avocados than in the 1990s, with our demand constituting 75 percent of Mexico’s output — has exposed the need for a more comprehensive legal architecture. And in Mexico, it’s up to the government to enforce its property rights and ensure that farmers are not encroaching on state-owned forests.