Authors: Keeven Cheong & Remus Tan
Editor: Ho Chia Chun Daniel
Hass avocados are becoming increasingly profitable and are fast becoming one of Colombia’s big export earners. This has led to farmers across the country’s coffee-growing lands switching over to them leading to the destruction of an area known as the Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia. This raises the question about the sustainability of growing Hass avocados.
Why the switch from coffee to avocado?
Colombia’s coffee beans are generally seen as some of the best in the world. The crop contributed around USD 2.5 billion, accounting for roughly 12% of the agricultural GDP of Colombia in 2014 (CEIC Data, n.d.). However, the viability of producing coffee in Colombia is slimming. Rising temperatures due to climate change have reduced yields and increased the need for pesticides, inflating the costs of producing coffee. This has also reduced the harvests and overall revenue of farmers.
Currently, farmers are earning a mere $248 for every 125kg of coffee produced, barely covering the production cost of $244 (Acosta, 2019). This has started to eat into the pockets of Colombian farmers, who have been forced to rely on an alternative source of revenue. Furthermore, Colombia’s economy was hit hard by Covid-19 and contracted by roughly seven percentage points in 2020. Poverty rose by a total of 6.8% to 42.5% in 2020, reversing the country’s progress in its fight against poverty by almost ten years (Hernandez & Marczak, 2021). This makes it likely for Colombia to rely on Hass avocados to improve its GDP.
To boost avocado production, Colombia has deployed multiple programs and policies including technical assistance to farmers, cropping research, and production programs (Gaitan & Rios, 2020). This has led to increased avocado exports from USD 3.57 million in 2014, to USD 146.4 million in 2020 (Statista Research Department, 2021) and generated higher profits for farmers. However, this surge in avocado production has brought about several detriments.
Detriments on the environment and local communities
Colombia’s forests are also being chopped down at an alarming rate with Colombia’s Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM) reporting that deforestation spanned 123,841 hectares in 2015, soaring to 219,552 hectares in 2017 (Selibas, 2020). This has led to habitat destruction of endangered species, putting some of the 58,312 known species on the brink of extinction (Selibas, 2020).
Additionally, there was a 5% decrease in forests in Colombia leading to approximately 98% of tree loss cover from 2013 to 2018 (Global Forest Watch, n.d.). The areas where tree loss cover was the greatest, namely Atlántico and Bolivar, coincided with some of the most vulnerable forest habitats where cotton-tops are found. Local initiatives like Proyecto Titi have been created to raise awareness for endangered species as a result of deforestation (Proyecto Tití, n.d.).
UNESCO’s research shows that avocados have a global average water footprint of 1981 m3/ton. In comparison, most crops have a water footprint of 608 m3/ton, indicating that avocados have an extremely strong water impact (Mekonnen & Hoekstra, 2011). Furthermore, farmers are beginning to grow avocados outside their ideal climate conditions, needing more water and chemicals (Janetsky, 2021). This is a major concern for a country that has a third of its urban population living under water stress. Coupled with a decline in water availability owing to climate change, water security in Colombia is now in a dire situation in having “too much, too little, and too dirty” water (World Bank, 2021). Further production of avocados would only intensify the water crisis.
Hass avocados are mainly planted as monocrops for increased efficiency in planting and harvesting and to lower costs for farmers. Monocrop involves the growing of a single crop utilizing the majority or whole of the land leading to the eventual elimination of natural nutrients in the soil. However, microorganisms and bacteria in the land are killed due to the lack of crop diversity. To account for this loss, farmers use additional chemicals to artificially replicate the required nutrients, further contaminating the surrounding soil. These agrochemicals run off into surrounding water bodies and potentially into distant ecosystems.
Additionally, as monoculture crops are harvested, the topsoil loses all elements required to retain moisture, needing vast amounts of water to irrigate the crops (Erazo-Mesa et al., 2021). With all factors taken into consideration - high amounts of water required for avocado production, and the need to irrigate crops, Colombia should be concerned about the impacts of the overcultivation of Hass avocados on the environment.
Figure 1: Avocado Trade Relations
Communities have also been impacted by the boom in avocado production. In Colombia, large investors have profited, leaving behind the small-scale farmers impoverished. With the opening of avocado markets for Colombian producers, the opportunities for small farmers are few with widening inequalities between large-scale and small-scale producers.
Factors like export prospects and additional support provided by the government have contributed to the attractiveness of the production of Hass avocados amongst businessmen (Erazo-Mesa et al., 2021). Businessmen also have the capital to allow them to make investments to produce homogenous fruits all year-round and to hire employees to market their produce. On the other hand, small-scale farmers are left behind, or squeezed out of the market. Small-scale farmers are forced to accept lower prices due to their lower relative power to bargain with sales intermediaries, and their lack of channels to reach out to consumers and retailers (Figure 1). The pivot to avocado production has thus led to small-scale farmers struggling to keep afloat to sustain their livelihoods.
Deforestation has led to protests by environmental activists in Colombia, in turn resulting in violent retaliation by gang cartels and producers. Human rights defenders, environmental defenders, and community leaders have all been victims of assault. This is backed up by the highest number of killings of environmental defenders (Global Witness, 2021) and Colombia being named the deadliest country for environmentalists in 2020 (Serrano & Brooks, 2019). Covid-19 only served to worsen the situation as government protection measures were cut and official lockdowns led the attackers to target the victims in their homes (Global Witness, 2021).
To reduce the impacts of the over-cultivation of avocados in Colombia, we have come up with some solutions.
We propose that the government makes fair trade labels in the avocado industry mandatory. Currently, Corpohass, Colombia’s Hass avocado producer and exporter association, has its own ‘Sustainable Hass’ seal where participating companies are judged based on their compliance with economic, environmental, and social aspects (National Agricultural Magazine, 2021). However, this initiative is voluntary meaning companies can continue to exploit the environment with no punitive measures (Maxwell, 2020). The government can step in at this juncture to enforce such a scheme to make the avocado industry more sustainable. Since sustainable practices are likely to be more costly, it can provide subsidies to incentivise companies to be certified by Corpohass. The funds for the subsidies would come from the profits that the avocado exports have been bringing in.
Additionally, the government should also have a legislative framework to entail potential fines on companies if they choose not to be certified. This can include environmental protection fees, tariffs, or taxes to reduce corporate pollution which has proven to be largely successful in driving corporations to more responsible practices (EY Global, 2021).
Both the amounts of subsidies provided to companies and fines on companies would depend on the company’s size subject to decisions made by Corpohass and the Colombian government. While it may be hard to set specific amounts, the amount should always match the size of the companies to ensure equity between both large-scale and small-scale companies.
With these measures, both large-scale and small-scale farmers will hopefully be incentivized to abide by the guidelines set by Corpohass and the Colombian government. The resultant effect would be for the farmers and their employees to be working within safety standards while plantations adhere to strict environmental regulations, leading to a more sustainable avocado industry.
Hass avocados are here to stay in Colombia. The cultivation of avocados has already generated over 135 million dollars in 2021 thus far and is expected to surpass previous years in the coming months.
The Colombian government needs to take an active lead in promoting better practices in the avocado industry. They should work together with Corpohass to steer the avocado industry to more sustainable practices by providing subsidies to incentivise companies and fining companies who do not comply. This ensures that large companies do not monopolise resources in Colombia to disregard the environment and maximise their profits while providing small-scale farmers a fair chance in the avocado industry. Fair prices would be guaranteed and resources in Colombia would not be constantly drained.
1. Acosta, L. J. (2019, July 12). Colombia to create fund to rescue coffee farmers when prices drop. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-colombia-coffee-idUSKCN1U71Q0
2. Amund. (2019, October 1). How avocado production creates drought in Chile. Sustainability Matters. https://sustainabilitymattersdaily.com/how-avocado-production-creates-drought-in-chile/
3. CEIC Data. (n.d.). Colombia Trade Statistics: Annual. CEIC. https://www.ceicdata.com/en/colombia/trade-statistics-annual
4. EY Global. (2021, September 7). How businesses need to navigate environmental incentives and penalties. https://www.ey.com/en_sg/tax/how-businesses-need-to-navigate-environmental-incentives-and-penalties
5. Erazo-Mesa, E., Ramírez-Gil, J. G., & Sánchez, A. E. (2021). Avocado cv. Hass needs water irrigation in tropical precipitation regime: Evidence from Colombia. Water, 13(14), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.3390/w13141942
6. Eldridge, H. M. (2021, August 27). Green gold: The expansion of avocado farming. Sustainable Food Trust. https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/green-gold-the-expansion-of-avocado-farming/
7. Gaitan, S. B., & Ríos, M. D. (2020). Socio-economic and technological typology of avocado CV. Hass Farms from Antioquia (Colombia). Ciência Rural, 50(7), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1590/0103-8478cr20190188
8. Global Forest Watch. (n.d.). Colombia deforestation rates & statistics: GFW. Global Forest Watch. http://www.globalforestwatch.org/dashboards/country/COL/
9. Global Witness. (2021, September 13). The industries causing the climate crisis and attacks against defenders. Global Witness. https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/last-line-defence/
10. Hernandez, C., & Marczak, J. (2021, June 18). Colombia's national strike: Overview of the situation and strategies moving forward. Atlantic Council. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/commentary/spotlight/colombias-national-strike-overview-of-the-situation-and-strategies-moving-forward/
11. Janetsky, M. (2021, October 8). Colombia’s avocado boom shows the hidden cost of ‘green gold’. Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2021/10/8/colombias-avocado-boom-shows-the-hidden-costs-of-green-gold
12. Maxwell, M. (2020, November 9). Colombia to launch avocado sustainability seal. Eurofruit. https://www.eurofresh-distribution.com/tag/seal-of-sustainability/
13. Mekonnen, M. M., & Hoekstra, A. Y. (2011). The green, blue and grey water footprint of crops and derived crop products. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences Discussions, 8(1), 763–809. https://doi.org/10.5194/hessd-8-763-2011
14. National Agricultural Magazine. (2021, February). Corpohass: Two milestones of the Hass avocado in Colombia. https://sac.org.co/corpohass-dos-hitos-del-aguacate-hass-en-colombia/
15. Proyecto Tití. (n.d.). Cotton-Top Tamarins: Protecting and restoring forests. Proyecto Tití: Conserving the Cotton-top Tamarin in Colombia. https://www.proyectotiti.com/en-us/Cotton-top-Tamarins/Protecting-Forests
16. Serrano, A., & Brooks, A. (2019). Who is left behind in Global Food Systems? local farmers failed by Colombia’s avocado boom. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, 2(2), 348–367. https://doi.org/10.1177/2514848619838195
17. Statista Research Department. (2021, July 2). Avocado exports value Colombia 2019. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1069951/colombia-avocado-exports-value/
18. World Bank. (2021, March 18). Turning the tide: Improving water security for recovery and sustainable growth in Colombia. World Bank. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2020/09/02/colombia-water-security