For two years we all ate kale like it was going out of fashion – and then it did. There have been a few contenders for its crown. This time last year it was cauliflower; then cabbage had a go, and recently kohlrabi had a small groundswell of support.
But they just aren’t as versatile as the avocado nor, crucially, as grammable. In a world where, if you didn’t snap it, hashtag it and share it, it didn’t happen, that’s key. There are currently more than three million photos of avocado on Instagram, well above kale’s 1.7m.
Tracking Google searches by volume for kale vs avocado over 2015 illustrates their swap in fortune:
Being photogenic wasn’t the only contributing factor in the avocado becoming cool. Clean eating was everywhere, we all got the message about good fats, they’re super-easy to prepare, don’t need cooking, and go with a gazillion things.
Then there’s the avocado toast. For a moment last year, it was London’s coolest (and possibly most middle-class) breakfast. There are 80,000 shots on Instagram just of avocado toast, most of them posted from Islington and Notting Hill (probably).
Somehow we became willing to pay cafés anywhere from £4 to a whopping £7 for it. Crazy! Maybe it was a welcome backlash to sugary breakfasts, or maybe we’re all just suckers.
For it isn’t just Instagram and toast that made this green fruit cool. Avocados are big business, a global trade worth $3,010 million a year. Sales in the UK in 2015 were up by around 25 per cent and demand has escalated not just here but across the EU, Australia and the US.
This didn’t happen overnight, or by fluke: global production of avocados has been increased by 50 per cent over four years. Peru, for example, increased export of them to the UK by 58 per cent last year, after investing heavily in increasing its supply, and spent a lot of money and effort on marketing them to the UK and EU. Peru expects to double production by 2020, according to global market forecasts.
The end of the honeymoon
Of course, as soon as clean-eating hipsters spread the word and it got on to every breakfast menu in London, there came the #overcado backlash. By the autumn, people were taking to social media to vent their frustration with endless pictures of the green fruit, and the national press declared the trend over.
For the Guardian, it was “too everywhere to be aspirational”: cue the LOLs, with typical British mockery ranging from “The Guardian has really out-Guardianed itself with this one” to “Can someone please tell me what the fuck is going on”.
So, while it may no longer be the preserve of smug bloggers and health-conscious foodies, it has, like kale, become one more nutritious food on the radar of the nation, most of whom don’t care about a micro-trend but are happy to find a vegetable they actually like. That has to be a good thing. Or does it?
While your health may be thanking you for adding avocados to your plate, the planet is not, and nor are some of the communities in the countries that produce them.
Growing them uses a huge amount water: 318 litres to produce a pound of avocados. California, for example, produces a billion pounds of avocados a year in a region officially in drought. The need for excessive amounts of water means farmers are forced to pay more for their supply. It’s also diverted away from public use, in an area that desperately needs it.
In Chile’s semi-arid Central Valley, where rainfall is low, it takes a million gallons of water a year to produce an acre of avocado trees. An exponential rise in the amount of land given over to avocado farming, to around 90,000 acres, means rivers, groundwater and wells are being drained dry by the large growers. Small farmers and local communities are left without water.
Do you really want to smush up that fruit and spread it on toast knowing this?
The increased demand for avocados is outstripping supply, even now that smaller, newer players in the market such as Israel are increasing their production and export. At the same time, adverse weather conditions in 2015 have reduced harvests (El Nino in Peru; high temperatures last summer in Spain and Israel), possibly by up to 30 per cent.
Add to this a new demand from China, where consumption is rising rapidly, and it all combines to increase prices.
In California, in light of the current conditions, farmers are looking for new, more efficient ways to grow avocados, and trying to develop drought-resistant strains. Mexico is trying to genetically engineer one that needs less water.
All this may not only push their price up further, but could mean they become too expensive even to grow.
Many processes contribute to the carbon footprint of our food, such as agriculture, processing and storage, as well as transport. However, most of the avocados we eat in the UK come from the other side of the world: South Africa, Kenya, Peru and Chile (with Spain and Israel being smaller suppliers).
That’s a lot of food miles, and that means emissions of carbon dioxide, and that means you’re contributing to climate change.
A food may have a good nutritional profile and you may think you’re being virtuous and ‘healthy’, but food transported halfway around the planet is an environmentally damaging choice.
Buying local produce is the best option to reduce your food’s carbon footprint. However, it has to also be seasonal, without the use of greenhouse heating using fossil fuels. (For example, it can be more energy efficient to import tomatoes by truck from Europe than to grow them out of season here in heated greenhouses.)
These factors all add up to the message to eat local, seasonal produce as much as you can. Maybe you should ditch the avocados for that cauliflower, after all.
Indeed, Google shows that searches for cauliflower surged during January. Just when you thought the cauliflower hype was over (remember cauliflower rice?) it is making a takeover bid. Watch this space!