A delicious superfood packed with nutrients and antioxidants; rich in potassium, magnesium, omega 3, folic acid and vitamins A, B, C, D, E and K; the humble Avocado helps to strengthen our immune system and maintains cholesterol levels – consequently, it has gained huge popularity worldwide.
The export market has grown exponentially. In the U.S alone, consumption rises by 15% every year with demand quadrupling in the last 10 years. U.S Department of Agriculture states that in the last 20 years consumption has increased by 450%. When it comes to the Super Bowl, the U.S is reported to devour 7% of its annual Avocado consumption in just one day.
The latest figures from the EU show a similar trend. European consumption increased by 73% in 2019-2020 with 700,000 tonnes of the fruit imported per year. Consumption of this superfood has also increased rapidly in Canada, Australia, China and Japan.
Globally, at least 5.9 million tonnes (mT) of Avocados are grown annually to meet consumer demand*.
How much water does an Avocado need to grow?
Known to need larger quantities of water for a successful crop, a single tomato requires approximately 5 litres of water to grow. Oranges are also a very thirsty – it consumes 22 litres per fruit.
By comparison, on average, an Avocado tree needs 70 litres of water to grow one fruit, or 320 litres per kilogram. This equates to a vast 413,000,000 litres of water that are being used each year to produce the 5.9 mT.
However, the Water Footprint Network suggests that this figure is heavily dependent on where in the world the fruit is grown. Chile is the world’s third biggest exporter – It’s reported that it can take more than three times as much water to grow the fruit in the Petorca region, where the climate is particularly dry.
Avocado trees grow in hot, humid regions, South America being the largest producer. Often grown on hillsides as they require agricultural soil with good drainage and full, uninterrupted sunshine. Water is already scarce but these regions are becoming increasingly prone to drought and increasing variability due to climate change. Whilst they have the perfect soil and the perfect climate, growth is limited substantially by water scarcity. The environmental impact of Avocado farming.
The Michoacán region of Mexico grows 50% of the global supply. This area alone is said to consume 9.5 billion litres of water a day – that’s 3,800 Olympic-size swimming pools. This excessive extraction of water from groundwater and aquifers has resulted in frequent small earthquakes in the area as sub-soil caverns open up.
The demand for this highly profitable fruit has resulted in significant illegal deforestation with more than 1,700 acres of land being cleared each year with the significant loss of habitats for native species. However, this is not only to make way for new orchards. Surrounding vegetation is removed to ensure more sunlight for existing trees. Farmers have also resorted to burning land so they can bypass a Mexican law, which states that land-use can only be changed to agricultural if it has been lost to fire.
In Chile, worsening regional drought was widely reported in 2018 and 2009 as farmers’ illegally diverted water from groundwater pipes and wells, aggravating the regional water shortage. Rivers ran dry and reserves fell sharply. Residents were forced to drink polluted water from cistern trucks containing harmful bacteria and even faecal contamination.
Extensive withdrawal for agricultural irrigation not only harms the environment by sucking it dry, it also increases soil salinity levels, degrading its quality, destroying soil biodiversity and limiting crop growth. Avocado trees are highly sensitive to saline or dry soils and can shrivel and die rapidly; they require an EC level of under 2.2 ds/m to grow successfully.
Due to the immense water footprint the sector creates, there has been mounting concern as to whether the inefficient farming practice is ethical because of the impact on our natural resources, the environment and rural communities. Can Avocado production and consumption be sustainable?
Solutions to advocate change in the Avocado industry.
Environmentally-aware consumers are voicing their concerns; questioning the sustainability of the fruit. Although agricultural production of the Avocado has intensified, it is possible to meet the demands of an increasing urbanised global population in a sustainable manner through national and regional government support of the rural economy.
Strict enforcement of withdrawal regulations is required along with changes to the laws where loopholes have been exploited, as is the case in Mexico. Although the Mexican government no longer approves land for Avocado farming but the industry is still growing due to illegal expansion led by the high profitability promised by the ‘green gold’. Yet restrictions on Avocado farming in Michoacán and other growing regions of the world are not necessary if additional support is provided for farming communities.
Incentivise agricultural best practice.
To promote sustainable agricultural practices and prevent long-term damage to farmland, governments and NGO’s need to achieve engagement through incentives that will help farmers invest in long-term infrastructure, such as precision agriculture irrigation systems.
Micro-sprinklers and drip irrigation can increase Avocado yield by up to 30%.
Conserving water and saving the farmer the cost of fresh water, these systems use up to 50% less water than sprinkler systems. They’re also known to prevent fungus growth, the spread of disease and soil erosion. By using a precise amount of water exactly where it’s needed, there is reduced evaporation, run-off and nutrient leaching.
Regional policymakers can also intervene by investing in storage, wells and rainwater harvesting to assist in groundwater reserves and aquifer recovery. This will also help preserve supplies in times of drought, which are likely to become more frequent.
Desalinisation using sustainable agricultural innovation systems.
Conventional water supplies have become limited through a combination of climate change and over extraction for crop irrigation. Advanced agri-innovation has enabled sustainable water treatment for agriculture. This reduces the salinity of water and means that alternative water sources can now be utilised, improving productivity whilst decreasing vulnerability to water scarcity.
Chemical-free desalinisation is an increasingly viable technological option, particularly in coastal communities. Sustainable water treatment technology such as ALVÁTECH changes the way water molecules behave to reduce the salt levels in water. Farmers can then use saline or brackish water without increasing their salinity, which would be disastrous for an Avocado plantation. In fact, the treated water improves the quality of irrigation water, leeches salt content from the land and reduces the need for fertilizers or pesticides – which can harm soil biodiversity in the long-term.
Previously such water treatments have demanded considerable upfront investment and energy resources, leaving them out of reach to the struggling farms that needed this advanced agri-tech solution most of all.
Those behind these green devices are aware that affordability is one of the crucial factors in helping to reduce soil salinization, making their farm technologies available on a subscription basis. Governments and NGO’s are encouraged to deploy such solar-powered sustainable solutions to help preserve groundwater supplies and ensure the long-term sustainability of their regional agriculture.
Increase usage of treated wastewater.
Although on a smaller scale to that experienced in Chile, in the last year, the Asharci region in Malaga, Spain has experienced similar issues with illegal diversion of groundwater resources and subsequent drought following diversification to Avocado farming. More and more trees were planted; this combined with low rainfall, leaving reservoirs one third of their usual level. The government invested millions in a wastewater treatment plant to address over extraction and the subsequent water scarcity in the agricultural areas.
According to the 2021 UN Worldwide Water Development Report, an estimated 380km3 of nutrient-rich wastewater is generated annually. This totals 15% of all global agricultural water withdrawals and could provide enough water to irrigate 42 million hectares. This treatment for water would also protect our aquatic ecosystems by preventing runoff entering our inland and coastal ecosystems.
With water scarcity an increasing environmental concern due to the impact of climate change, every day the world’s farmers need to make tough decisions to ensure their short-term survival.
Through improving future water efficiency, it is possible for farming communities to successfully capitalise on the growth of profitable markets, sustainably – maximising their profits and ensuring their long-term survival of their farm. And all whilst reducing the effects of climate change.
By uniting to share modern best practice, making use of under-utilised water resources and providing subsidies for sustainable water technology solutions and efficient irrigation, policymakers and agri-tech businesses can solve agricultural water scarcity. *Steps of Earth 2020.
Results from the Avocado field:
Within 7 months, one Israeli Avocado farmer increased his productivity from 18 – 25 tonnes per hectare, using just one ALVA 5 device. This delivered $34,500 in additional revenue from just one harvest. Read more >>