Avocados - farmers' green gold - push southern Spain toward water collapse

Europe’s largest avocado producer is facing ecological costs that are bearing down on the world's trendiest crop

Joaquin Montes walks through his avocado plantation near Almuñecar, where he has been producing the fruit for commercial export for over 30 years. Kira Walker for The National
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Hundreds of small trees dot the terraced hillside, brown and parched under the early summer sun. They may not look like much now, but by next year they’ll bear the fruit of one of Spain’s most profitable export crops: avocados.

Joaquin Montes, who has been producing avocados for over 30 years, is one of many Spanish farmers cashing in on a golden era for the soft green fruit. Encouraged by the crop’s profitability, last year he expanded his cultivation by 12 hectares.

From the point of view of the farmers, this crop is considered essential. It's practically the only profitable fruit.

Fuelled by Instagram and the rising popularity of avo toast and all things vegan, society’s growing appetite for the avocado shows no signs of slowing down.  Lauded for its nutritional benefits, the versatile superfood has become a favourite addition to meals at all times of day and desserts, or enjoyed alone as a snack.

In Europe, the avocado market is booming. Demand for the fruit is expected to keep market growth at, or above, 15 per cent for the next five years, according to the 2019 Avocado Forecast by Washington NGO World Avocado Association.

Consumption in the EU last year surpassed 650,000 metric tonnes, and this year, imports are expected to exceed 750,000 metric tonnes, according to figures from Eurofruit.

Spain is Europe’s largest avocado producer, currently supplying 10 per cent of the EU’s avocados, and is striving to secure a larger share of the market. Production was up 17 per cent this growing season compared to last.

The main destinations for Spanish exports, the bulk of which are the popular Hass variety, are France, the Netherlands, Germany and the UK. Some Spanish avocados make their way to GCC and Middle Eastern countries, but the market is still in its infancy and growing.

Few places in Europe offer the highly specific growing conditions avocados require. In Spain, ninety per cent of avocado cultivation is limited to a small microclimate that rises abruptly from the coast in Malaga and Granada provinces. Avocados were introduced here centuries ago, with commercial export beginning in the 1970s.

“When farmers started planting avocados in the area, they saw it was a fruit with a future,” says Javier Braun, vice president of the Spanish Association for Tropical Fruit Producers.

The 2018-19 avocado season saw a turnover of €124 million (Dh894m), according to producer collective Asaja Málaga.

“From the point of view of the farmers, this crop is considered essential. It’s practically the only profitable fruit,” says Javier Egea of Ecologists in Action, a confederation of Spanish environmental groups.

Driven by high demand and profitability, many farmers have ceased growing traditional rain-fed crops, like olives and almonds, and switched to avocado cultivation, says Mr Egea.

Others who were previously dedicated to oranges are now testing avocados too, Mr Braun adds.

The profitability means many producers want to expand their cultivation, but have been unable to do so because they are limited by water shortages, says Mr Egea.

For years, Spanish ecologists have warned that water-intensive farming of subtropical fruits, like avocados, along the southern coast is pushing the area towards water collapse.

Spain has suffered repeated droughts in recent decades, and is expected to be one of the European countries most seriously impacted by climate change.

“There have already been periods of drought where aquifers were overexploited, and many plantations could not be irrigated and dried up,” says Mr Egea.

Studies vary, but to produce a kilogram of avocados requires somewhere between 1000 and 2000 litres of water, Mr Egea says.

“The avocado needs around 6,000 cubic metres per year, and the amount provided by the authorities is a maximum of 5,300 cubic metres per year. These numbers show we are cultivating beyond our means.”

Mr Egea says that despite water scarcity, the avocado industry does not intend to adapt their production to real conditions. “To the contrary, producers hope to expand with more water brought from outside, paid with public funds.”

Farmer Mr Montes doesn’t seem phased by the prospect of water shortages, and remains optimistic that a project to transfer water by pipe from the Rules Dam in the nearby Sierra Nevada will get government approval.

The project would allow producers to grow to the coveted 400m-elevation mark, allowing for 4,500 hectares expansion of cultivation, says Mr Egea.

Elsa Martínez Ferri, a researcher at IFAPA, the Andalusian Institute of Agricultural and Fisheries Research and Training, agrees that the problem of water availability is real in the region, but the scarcity does not make avocados an unsustainable crop.

The water issue rests on addressing various measures that would make the storage and use of water more efficient, Ms Martínez Ferri says, and in establishing regulations based on the actual and potential availability of natural resources to control expansion.

Meanwhile, to overcome water shortages in Granada and Málaga, some producers have recently turned to new areas in Huelva, Cadiz and Valencia to expand cultivation.

Grown closer to home, European consumers may consider Spanish avocados a more sustainable and fair alternative than those produced in and shipped from Latin America.

While Spanish avocados do have a lower carbon footprint, Mr Egea says there are limits to this line of thinking. “We always defend that products should be local, but not at any cost.”

Given that the current expenditure of water in a deficit area is unsustainable, Ecologists in Action think the crop should be adapted to the availability of water and soil.

With the economic profitability of the avocado market in mind, the regional government of Andalusia seems inclined to find a middle-ground approach where innovation and efficiency can enable growth, within limits.

To that end, the government is supporting several public and private research projects aimed at improving efficiency and reducing water consumption, says Ms Martínez Ferri.

Moreover, within the sector, she says, there is growing awareness to improve water use efficiency.

For Mr Montes, who has installed drip irrigation and taken careful measures to prevent evaporation throughout his plantations, such steps are not just environmentally minded, but almost about cost-efficiency.

Though water consumption in the last season decreased from the previous year, according to Ms Martínez Ferri even greater efficiency can still be achieved.