“See you bought some Monarch-killers,” my husband said as I pulled two avocados out of my grocery bag.
“Yes, I did,” I replied.
We had both read the recent article in The New York Times about encroaching avocado orchards threatening the winter grounds of Monarch butterflies. (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/18/world/americas/ambition-of-avocado-imperils-monarch-butterflies-winter-home.html?_r=0)
I bought the avocados to take their photograph, to try to determine if the stickers on them really explained their provenance*, and as a personal test to see if they are the last avocados I buy. Probably not. I’ve gotten over making sanctimonious pronouncements about my choices vis-à-vis environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, and global climate change. I’ve found I am not very good at keeping these kinds of promises. But even if they are my last avocados, what will I do the next time a host offers me some guacamole at a party? Lecture him or her on the threat to Monarch butterflies in the Mexican state of Michoacán because of U.S. consumers’ voracious appetite for avocados? Probably not.
In December, I did make a painfully unsuccessful effort to take a stand on the avocado issue. As the compiler of the Reserva Monte Mojino Audubon Christmas Bird Count, which attracts 30 plus birders from the U.S. and Mexico, I made the executive decision to not include avocados on the menus of the dozen meals we prepared for teams encamped at different locations in the Sierra Madre. To not have avocados as part of a breakfast, lunch, or dinner in Sonora (indeed, anywhere in Mexico) is a radical move. At our last breakfast, I pointed out to the group that we had excluded avocados from the Christmas count menus as an acknowledgement of their threat to Monarch butterfly’s wintering ground. No applause! No high-fives! No right-ons! Basically I just bummed out my friends.
I can see it will take someone more charismatic than me to start a bi-national movement to boycott avocados.
Monarchs may be getting all the media attention, but avocado cultivation is slamming much more than the butterfly. I started getting a sinking feeling about buying and eating avocados after my husband and I went on a birding trip in Colima and Jalisco in 2014. These two states in western Mexico (together, about the size of Maine) are particularly rich in bird life (400 species, including 40 Mexican endemic) in large part because of the Central Volcanic Belt of high mountains that creates a coast-to-coast barrier restricting avian gene flow. These and neighboring states are also the wintering grounds for many North American songbirds, including numerous warbler species that nest in the boreal forests where we live in northern Minnesota. What happens to forests in Mexico impacts the birds I see out my kitchen window.
The Central Volcanic Belt is a rugged, gorgeous landscape dominated by two majestic peaks—Volcán de Nieve and the still dramatically active Volcán de Fuego. We camped and birded on Volcán de Fuego for a couple of days. To reach the forest we drove through orchard after orchard of avocados ominously marching up the slopes with new fields being cleared for more. There is nothing like seeing exactly where your food comes from. The equation is simple: more guacamole = less forest.
According to Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum, American consumers are gobbling up more avocados every year, with per-capita consumption growing from two pounds per person in 2001 to seven pounds per person in 2016. (Source: http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2016/06/usda-avocado-consumption-has-skyrocketed-21st-century). This surge pretty much tracks the shift in U.S. trade policy regarding the importation of Mexican avocados. Here is the timeline:
1914: U.S. prohibits importation of Mexican avocados on grounds that the fruits are infested by agricultural pests.
1997: U.S. allows avocados from Michoacán to be imported to 13 states and gradually lifts barriers in the next decade (much to the chagrin of California avocado producers).
2005: U.S. allows importation of all Mexican avocados to every state except California, Hawaii, and Florida.
2007: U.S. avocado market completely opens up, allowing importation to California, Hawaii, and Florida.
And the forests in western Mexico started falling. Here is a 2010 summary from the web site Geo-Mexico, the Geography and Dynamics of Modern Mexico: “This extraordinarily rapid increase in land area devoted to avocados, known locally as ‘green gold,’ has come at the expense of natural forest. The rate of deforestation has prompted environmentalists to demand that state and federal environmental authorities regulate further land clearance. Environmental agencies have now agreed that is essential to regulate deforestation for avocado production in order to avoid further environmental damage.” (http://geo-mexico.com/?p=2302)
Hmm, the Monarch’s current situation would imply overly optimistic expectations by the writers of Geo-Mexico.
As of January 3, 2017, the day of my posting this piece, I have not purchased an avocado in 38 days. I have nibbled on a few slices at restaurants. But the joy of guacamole is gone, at least for now. The avocado has become my current nemesis, the dark, warty fist punching me in the gut. Not just because of Monarchs and birds. The avocado is a messenger about the bliss of ignorance, the consequences of choice, eco-despair and eco-guilt, and the blunt force of global markets in altering—obliterating—the natural world around us. You can exchange the word avocado for countless other food items and material goods and the personal choices we make in their regard—red meat, fossil fuel, fish from the sea, water from the faucet, electricity flowing from a socket, the size and number of homes one owns, components in computers and other electronic devices, the unbelievable amount of stuff made of plastic.
I am not such a dark and despairing person as this post might imply. On Day 3 of 2017, I am now going to go watch birds bathing in our backyard water trough, because nothing is quite so hilarious and joyous to behold as birds taking baths.
*The stickers only referenced the wholesale supplier, not where the avocados I bought were grown. One sticker says Frutilandia, SON. MX and the other sticker reads Producto de Mexico, Sanchez Aguacates Hass, with a website URL and telephone number. I must say, I do love the term Frutilandia!