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How to forestall avocado boycotts

“Call it irreconcilable differences. Starting March 31st, we are no longer offering avocados on the Grand Central Bakery cafe menu,” we read on the website of this popular eatery in Portland, OR.

The explanation: “There are serious problems in the Mexican growing areas where most U.S. avocado supplies originate, from rapid deforestation, to violence and extortion of farmers by the drug cartels that control the region. Last month our government temporarily halted avocado imports when the safety of a U.S. inspector was threatened. As a company guided by sustainability and values, we can’t continue to purchase this product.”

The move echoes a similar boycott issued by a trendy London restaurant late last year. One noted Irish chef called avocados “the blood diamonds of fruit.”

It is the case that Mexican cartels, no longer able to profit from a marijuana trade in a United States that is moving more and more toward legalization, have resorted to high-jacking and extortion in the avocado industry in the state of Michoacán.

But it would no doubt be exaggerating to imagine that the Mexican avocado industry is mutating into a Breaking Bad universe.

As for water, Michoacán gets an average of nearly 32 inches of rain per year.

This is considerably less than the amount of water that avocado trees require: a mature tree needs 40-50 inches a year to remain healthy, and younger trees require more.

The Avocado Institute of Mexico counters, “Approximately 61% of the avocado orchards in Michoacán rely on natural, seasonal irrigation. Another 36% utilize sustainable, high-tech irrigation such as drip irrigation and micro-sprinkling. Together, 97% of avocado orchards in the region depend primarily on sustainable irrigation practices.”

The Grand Central site continues, “California produces avocados in spring and summer, though not nearly enough to supply the U.S. market. We hope to offer a sandwich special featuring sustainable California-grown avocados when they’re in season, but we can’t keep avocados on our sandwich bar year-round.”

Of course, one can wonder if sustainability issues are more — rather than less — acute in drought-plagued California than in Mexico.

The avocado industry has been fortunate: these boycott actions have been rare, sporadic, and very far from the mainstream. It is unlikely that anyone will stint on their Cinco de Mayo guacamole as a result.

But this remains an opportunity for action rather than avoidance. The avocado industry clearly needs to draw more attention to its sustainability efforts than it has.

It will have to go far beyond merely “telling our story” (an old bromide in the ag world for PR tactics that have been proved not to work as well as hoped).

The avocado industry has the chance to forestall much greater public perception problems than it now has. It can do so, but only if its efforts reflect facts and truth rather than waffling and equivocation—vices that have by no means been missing from ag PR efforts in the present and past.

Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.