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Telling our story, avocado style

Avocados From Mexico Crate

More than once in this column, I have made fun of agriculture’s approach of “telling our story” as a way of dealing with public concerns. This approach seems as futile to me now as it did when I first started covering agriculture 40 years ago.

Headshot of Richard Smoley

If you think this is unfair, I suggest you do two things:

1. Read this article from The New York Times of November 28. It is entitled “Americans Love Avocados. It’s Killing Mexico’s Forests.” (Yes, there’s a paywall. I’m sorry—nothing I can do about that.)

2. Watch this video presented by John McGuigan, director of industry affairs, for the Hass Avocado Board. It is about the creation of the Avocado Sustainability Center (ASC) and its new website.

“Why do outsiders—people who have never set foot inside an avocado grove—want to tell people that our product is not sustainable?” said McGuigan. “Where do these stories come from? Why don’t we tell ‘our sustainability story?’”

“Hass avocados provide a unique, versatile, nutritious, and flavorful eating experience that contributes to human health, the environment, societal benefits, and economic prosperity.”

McGuigan continued, “Don’t compare us to other commodities. Let us tell our story.”

On the other hand: the Times article writes, “Mexican environmental officials have called on the United States to stop avocados grown on deforested lands from entering the American market, yet U.S. officials have taken no action.”

Alejandro Ménez, secretary of the environment for the state of Michoacán, has been quoted as saying, “In Michoacán right now I think the most serious, sensitive environmental issues is the indiscriminate change of land use for avocado crops, . . . [which] puts at increasing risk our biodiversity, the provision of water, and the forests in the state.”

McGuigan makes negative stories like these sound like unsubstantiated rumors put out by unknown enemies of the avocado industry.

Are these allegations of comprehensive environmental damage (and other abuses) accurate? I personally can’t say, because I am one of those ignoramuses “who have never set foot inside an avocado grove.”

But I can say this much.

If these allegations are false—either totally or on the scale described—the avocado industry, despite its “accentuate the positive” strategy, has some responsibility to refute them—openly and aggressively.

If these allegations are true, does the industry have some responsibility to set things right? Or will it prefer to just go on “telling our story,” like a doddering grandpa at Thanksgiving? What will an Avocado Sustainability Center do to correct the situation?

McGuigan is no doubt right in saying, “Avocado purchasers have little awareness and concern about negative avocado stories,” which have had “a very small impact, if any at all. Our value proposition is shielding us from most of the negatives so far.”

You can almost always count on consumer apathy.

But if these abuses are real, attempts to “tell our story” will just look like a thick coat of avocado greenwash.


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.