Sometimes known as an ‘alternate bearing crop’ – meaning one year there’s a large quantity of small avocados and the next year there’s a small quantity of large avocados – a weak harvest was blamed for the avocado shortage that resulted in 2017’s dramatic price hike. The 125% figure was reported by the American Restaurant Association (ARA), with a standard box of 48 avocados going for $83.75 in the week of 11 September 11 versus $37.25 in early January. Not only was the price the highest that the association had on record, with numbers going back to 1999, but ARA president David Maloni said that, “My bet is that it’s the highest ever.”

Prices peaked in July, and in December Bloomberg reported that the price surge was over. Largely due to good weather and improved pest control, the US Department of Agriculture reported at the end of November that Mexican Hass avocado production was expected to receive a boost. That boost should ensure a larger crop that prevents costs reaching similar peaks again, with wholesale prices fairly rapidly dropping after the highs of the summer.  However, by its very nature as an alternate bearing crop, are we not, particularly with the surging demand for avocado, near certain to encounter the same harvest problem in the future?

Disease, drought and export associations: the high cost of avocado production

Last year was not the first that producers and customers had faced a serious problem from avocado demand outstripping supply. At the end of 2015, despite suppliers such as Reynolds having seen demand growth of roughly 30% in the last year, the El Niño weather pattern heavily impacted the Peruvian harvest and while avocados bought in the UK are starting to come from Israel and Spain, high summer temperatures stressed the avocado trees enough to reduce production by 30% according to Reynolds head of procurement Steve Rudge.

Talking to the Guardian at the time, Rudge explained that while he didn’t necessarily expect to see fewer avocados in the shops, they were likely to cost more. “We’ve got a double whammy – there is terrific demand coupled with what looks like a relatively restricted supply over the next four or five months.”

Even beyond the troubles of weather that can generally plague any farming process, the avocado industry has a range of issues that trouble the large harvests necessary to match demand. As the world’s largest single producer of avocados, Mexico occupies an important role in the avocado industry but it is one that is almost entirely controlled, when it comes to foreign exports, by a single association. In 2016, the Avocado Producer and Exporting Packers Association of Mexico (APEAM) lowered the price it set on avocados. In response, the growers went on strike and there have since been groups of growers trying to circumvent APEAM in order to export directly to foreign countries.

All this is to say nothing of the demand that an avocado farm places on the farmers and the land around it. For the farmers, they must struggle with the fact that an avocado sapling can take three years to grow into a fruit-bearing tree, meaning that said farmers are three years without an income crop if purely reliant on avocado. In addition, avocados are particularly susceptible to disease and drought, especially when taking into consideration the massive amounts of water that the fruit requires to grow. Everywhere you look, the avocado is a fruit with a high production cost.

‘Blood avocados’: the industry’s cartel problem

Outside of the agricultural difficulties with maintaining supply equal to demand, the value of the avocado export market has attracted a different kind of trouble. Drawn by the fact that the Mexican avocado industry is worth in excess of £1bn, cartels have begun to extort farmers for protection money. The Michoacán region, which produces more than half the avocados consumed in the world, also played host to the Knights Templar cartel for several years and, in 2014, it was reported that the gang was making $152m a year extorting farmers.

Beyond the human horror of kidnapping, extortion and murder, the attraction of the money to be made in the avocado business has also resulted in environmental destruction. Aside from the orchard burnings enacted by the cartels on those farmers who don’t pay up, illegal plantations sprung up under cartel influence, destroying ancient pine forests and removing the home of the monarch butterfly. Given that a mature avocado orchard requires twice as much water as a dense pine forest, it is already enough of a pressure on water resources to have the many legal farms without introducing unregulated and illegal orchards.

The problem has been somewhat addressed by the rise of citizen vigilante groups. In the Tancítaro area, a city in Michoacán in which nine out of every ten pesos made comes from the avocado industry, the public security body called CUSEPT has helped to free the farmers from cartel influence. Part-funded by the avocado producers, who pay a percentage of their earnings depending on the number of hectares they produce on, and also contributed to by the municipal government, CUSEPT is well armed and equipped and, importantly, are all connected to the local area and the avocado trade. At least in Tancítaro, the farmers are now on the up to keep the avocado trade crime-free.

As CUSEPT head José Hugo Sánchez Mendoza explained to the BBC, “The self-defence groups freed the municipality from organised crime and then, in conjunction with the government, we worked with the avocado producers to recruit police”.

Popularity and production: changing the monoculture

The avocado’s popularity owes no small part to multiple rebranding and marketing efforts over the years, from its initial renaming to avocado (to make it more pronounceable for North American consumers) to more recent efforts to position the fruit as a health food.  This latest addition to the avocado’s public image has perhaps been the most significant factor in its surge of popularity, as the broader health and wellness trend has helped to buoy it in the public consciousness.

Talking to the Guardian, Anne Murcott, a professorial research associate at the food studies centre of Soas, University of London, said, “If the ideas of [something being a] superfood are repeated sufficiently frequently, and it is talked about from posh dinner parties to Weight Watchers, you see how things swirl around.”

However, while there are certainly nutritional benefits to the avocado, those same benefits can be gained from food like kale. In addition, consumers must contend with the knowledge that their purchase may be supporting criminal enterprise or poor worker conditions. So how can the avocado, and its consumers, contend with these factors as it goes forward?

One of the simplest ways to feel better about the avocados you buy are to make sure they’re Fairtrade, ensuring that they are coming from farms with better working conditions and remuneration. Beyond the consumer however, it is necessary for sellers to responsibly source their avocados (as in the case of Danish supermarkets Aldi and Dansk Supermarked who changed their policy to avoid buying from areas affected by water scarcity) and for producers to innovate.

The current near monoculture of the Hass variety of avocado leaves the global supply vulnerable to disease, but there are producers out there seeking to change this. In California, University of California researcher Mary Lu Arpaiais is piloting a project to develop new varieties of avocado that could be grown in California’s Central Valley throughout the year. Meanwhile, in Australia, the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) are looking to challenge the demand problem by developing a technique that will allow farmers to grow new avocado trees faster and more efficiently.

According to QAAFI Centre for Horticultural Science director Professor Neena Mitter: “It’s not just that the plant supply will increase … it also means that because we will be supplying uniform plants we can go to high-density plantings,” she said.

“You could do trellising, you can use mechanised harvesting as is the case with apples — which has never been possible with avocado before because the plants were not uniform.”