Avocados | Mexico (10,000 ya)

By Rebecca Novak

As the human population continues to increase, food production and consumption of resources are amplifying adverse consequences for human and non-human species. Such consequences and means of production are rarely broadcasted by the media, distributors, or politicians, meaning many consumers are blind to their contribution and role as agents in the Anthropocene. Specifically, the unique global demand and production of tropical agriculture, such as the avocado, has appropriated cultures, degraded ecosystems, and deepened inequality gaps. Demand as increased because avocados are known as a healthy dietary choice with beneficial monosaturated fat, potassium, B vitamins, vitamin E, vitamin K, and folate, and have been associate with chronic disease prevention; however, many are not aware of the inputs necessary to bring that perfect avocado to their local grocery store regularly. Since domestication, unsustainable practices, and forced labor production of avocado have developed throughout history to meet the demands of a blind market, social and environmental destruction have been amplified.

 

Persea Americana, known as the avocado, is thought to have originated in Puebla, Mexico about 10,000 years ago and were planted in sacred gardens due to the trees’ close association with the gods. Mayan iconography illustrates avocado in different periods, such as the classic period dating 300 AD – 900 AD, as a glyph known as “un”, which represents the fourteenth month of the Mayan calendar and is on a sign of the Classic Maya city Pusilha, or present-day Belize.  Pushilha is known as the ‘Kingdom of Avocado’ due to the glyph and their ancestors were reborn as avocado trees. Mexica Aztec civilizations also illustrated avocado in their iconography and were believed to give strength to whoever consumes it. Records of these icons and mythology suggest the cultural importance of the avocado beyond a fruit merely for consumption. The value associated with the avocado suggests the fruit was naturally cultivated by Mesoamericans for centuries to maintain their culture. Moreover, fossil records indicate avocado was also evident in countries ranging from Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. These separate domestications of avocado were coexisting in pre-Columbian America, along with cultural connections to the fruit, are described in the Florentine Codex, which is a 16th century ethnographic research study in Mesoamerica by a Franciscan missionary, Fray Bernardino de Sahagun. The interconnected relationships of avocado in different ecosystems, known as its botanical network, and their domestication is thought to be responsible for the three main varieties of avocado grown today: Mexican, Guatemalan, and West Indian avocados. Further migration and colonization between the 17th and 19th centuries brought the avocado to the United States in 1833. The first reference to the introduction of the avocado into California appears in the Report of the Visiting Committee of the California State Agriculture Society, which recognizes the origin of their first tree from Nicaragua and Judge R.B Ord of Santa Barba introducing the avocado tree. Transformation of the Earth due to this fruit intensified in the 19th century due to exploitation of monoculture systems, which promotes deforestation, increase climate change, soil degradation, and long-term impacts from herbicides. Today, the United States produces about 146,310 tons of avocado at a value of $392 million, which uses 56,580 acres of land.  Despite their large-scale avocado production, the U.S is a net importer of avocado from Mexico, further amplifying human contribution to the Anthropocene through avocado production.

World production of avocado now exceeds 3.5 million tons. Rapid global development of avocado due to dietary value and general increase in popularity increased world production, but the United States recent expansion has been profound. During the mid-1990’s, the United States surpassed Europe’s consumption with 170,000 tons, which were locally produced by California, Florida, and Hawaii. Upon the new millennium, consumption and importation exponentially increased to about 600,000 tons and 340,000 tons respectively. Expanding demand for the desired fruit increased use of resources to support the intense domestication, such as irrigation, which is a predominant driving force necessary for production. Since avocados are native to the humid sub-tropical and tropical regions of central and northern South America where rainfall is abundant, intense irrigation is regulated in California, which is a Mediterranean climate with low rainfall. Irrigation is also crucial to production yields because the avocado tree has a short root system and does not search for water, therefore water needs to be provided directly to the plant. It’s estimated one avocado requires approximately 70 to 320 liters of water depending on the avocado species, soil type, and climate zone of production. Continuing production in regions with resource limitations prolongs exploitation and manipulation of natural systems. These increasingly unsustainable practices are reflective of the eco-catastrophic narrative of the Anthropocene, which recognizes the non-progressive system moving towards collapse if urgent, radical change is not implemented.

Profiting from health benefits associated with avocado consumption comes at a cost because intense systems do not function without intense labor. Now that avocados are popular everywhere – grocery stores, coffee shops, and menu items – it leads consumers to believe they are a year-round commodity. Unfortunately, the merely seasonal fruit is unsustainably meeting the increasing demand. Farmers in Mexico are influenced to increase the size of their farms, and thus the amount of maintenance needed to maintain the farm and their livelihoods. Those farmers report being extremely unhappy with their wages and working hours, which is diminishing their social, physical, and mental well-being. Personally, I witnessed and learned from Costa Rican Farmers how brutal and captivating this lifestyle can be. They work during all hours of daylight to receive little compensation for their exhaustive positions, such as analyzing and picking loads of coffee berries for about twenty dollars per day if you are efficient. They are motivated by the health care compensation and occasionally provided house, which motivates migrants from Honduras to seek refuge at Costa Rican farms for the benefits. This labor system abuses their dependence on the farms, which induces a type of forced labor associated with ideologies associate with the Plantationocene. This name for the Anthropocene highlights that productive players become limited, species are rearranged to fit the system, and generation synchronization is disrupted. Such ideology is recognized in avocado agriculture systems design, which inevitably fosters a system grounded by forced labor humans and non-humans.

Understanding the culture, domestication, and modern production of avocado is indicative of the origin of the Anthropocene, agents participating in its propagation, and informing all stakeholders of solution-based actions necessary to prevent further adverse transformation.  The historical expansion of the avocado’s botanical network highlights the cultural appropriation of the benefits of the avocado that have occurred through a type of manifest destiny of colonizers and the US market, which is the mentality assuming rights over land, resources, and people. Captivating knowledge of those benefits, domestication, and production of the fruit heightened its novel demand exponentially in the United States, which correlates with a specific type of economic relationship known as capitalism. Scholars have indicated naming the new epoch the Capitalocene rather than the Anthropocene due to the species inequality and racial formations derived from the commodification of food, nature, money, land, work, care, energy and lives. Jason Moore states these are the seven things made cheap by capitalism and are at extreme risk in the system. As capitalism dominates the global market, social injustice persists through to meet the growing demand. The health and well-being of farmers is being exploited and their practices manipulated towards prolonging climate change and species disruption. In addition to the Capitalocene and Anthropocene, Chthulucene is another name for the epoch which recognizes the dynamic forces and power of human and non-human species among Earth. It is important to consider these ideologies when analyzing the avocado market because multispecies assemblages have made production and exploitation possible thus far. Moreover, the long story of domestication, unsustainable practices, systems thinking, and exhausting nature and laborers suggests an Eco-Catastrophic narrative, which highlights the need for humans to change their way of life and accept that adaptation is not possible, is necessary to consider when informing the public of the consequences of the avocado market, recommending consumer-based solutions, or implementing techno-fixes at the production level to accommodate our demand. An Eco-Marxist narrative, which highlights a non-progressive system such as capitalism is main influencer of the new epoch, should be introduced to producers and consumers to reveals how our current standards or living are hazardous for the health of all species. It is now the responsibility of consumers to question norms, educate themselves on vegetable and fruit season production, and consider all lives at stake when browsing their local produce section. Independent and local contributions to reduce environmental degradation and bridge the gap between racial and ethical inequalities is a moral duty of humanity. The Anthropocene may begin with blindness but can end with enlightenment.

Work Cited 

Primary sources

Digital Commons of CSU. “California State Agriculture Society”. 1877. https://digitalcommons.csumb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1022&context=hornbeck_usa_3_d

New York Public Library Digital Collections. “A Dish of Fruit from Liberia – Pineapples, Papaw, Avocado Pear, Mangoes, Orange, Coconuts, and Bananas.” 1906. doi:10.21236/ada237219.

World Digital Library. “Florentine Codex.” 1499-1590. https://www.wdl.org/en/search/?q=+Florentine+Codex#10622

Secondary Sources

Agriculture Marketing Resource Center. “Avocados.” October 2018. https://www.agmrc.org/commodities-products/fruits/avocados.

CABI International 2013.Schaffer, Bruce, et al. 2013. “The Avocado: Botany, Production and Uses.”

California Avocado Commission “Irrigating Avocados”.pg 1-2. https://www.californiaavocadogrowers.com/sites/default/files/documents/Irrigating-Avocados-Fact-Sheet.pdf.

Danwatch. “How much water does it take to grow an avocado?” https://old.danwatch.dk/en/undersogelseskapitel/how-much-water-does-it-take-to-grow-an-avocado/. Danwatch Media and Research Center.

Darnton, Julia. 2017. “Avocado Consumption: Environmental and Social Considerations.” Michigan State University Extension.

Digital Commons of University of Nebraska Lincoln. Landon, Amanda J.. 2009. “Domestication and Significance of Persea Americana, The Avocado in Mesoamerica.”