Europe's largest avocado producer faces declining ecological costs in the world's most modern crop.
Hundreds of small trees dot the slope of the terrace, brown and dry in the early summer sun. They may not seem like much now, but next year they will bear the fruit of one of Spain's most profitable export crops: avocados.
Joaquín Montes, who has been producing avocados for over 30 years, is one of many Spanish farmers who are taking advantage of the golden age of soft green fruit. Encouraged by the profitability of the crop, last year he expanded his cultivation by 12 hectares.
From the farmers' point of view, this crop is considered essential. It is practically the only profitable fruit.Javier Egea, Ecologists in Action.
Fueled by Instagram and the growing popularity of avo toast and all things vegan, society's growing appetite for avocado shows no signs of slowing down. Praised for its nutritional benefits, the versatile superfood has become a favorite addition to meals at all times of the day and in desserts, or enjoyed alone as a snack.
In Europe, the avocado market is booming. Demand for the fruit is expected to maintain market growth at or above 15 percent over the next five years, according to the 2019 Avocado Forecast from the World Avocado Association of Washington.
Consumption in the EU last year exceeded 650,000 metric tons, and this year, imports are expected to exceed 750,000 metric tons, according to Eurofruit figures.
Spain is the largest avocado producer in Europe, currently supplying 10 percent of avocados in the EU and striving to secure greater market share. Production increased 17 percent this growing season compared to the previous one.
The main destinations for Spanish exports, most of which are the popular Hass variety, are France, the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom. Some Spanish avocados are making their way to the 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 that avocados require. In Spain, ninety percent of avocado cultivation is confined to a small microclimate that rises steeply from the coast in the provinces of Malaga and Granada. Avocados were introduced here centuries ago, with commercial export beginning in the 1970s.
"When farmers started planting avocados in the area, they saw that it was a fruit with a future"Says Javier Braun, vice president of the Spanish Association of Tropical Fruit Producers.
The 2018-19 avocado season registered a turnover of € 124 million (Dh894m), according to the collective producer Asaja Málaga.
“From the farmers' point of view, this crop is considered essential. It is practically the only profitable fruit, "says Javier Egea, from Ecologistas en Acción, a confederation of Spanish environmental groups.
Driven by high demand and profitability, many farmers have stopped growing traditional rain crops, such as olives and almonds, and have switched to avocado cultivation, says Mr. Egea.
Others who were once dedicated to oranges are now also trying avocados, Braun adds.
But there is a problem, avocados need a lot of water
Profitability means that many growers want to expand their cultivation, but have not been able to do so because they are limited by water scarcity, says Mr. Egea.
For years, Spanish ecologists have warned that the water-intensive cultivation of subtropical fruits, such as avocados, along the southern coast is pushing the area toward water collapse.
Spain has suffered repeated droughts in recent decades, and is expected to be one of the European countries most severely affected by climate change.
“There have already been periods of drought in which the aquifers were overexploited, and many plantations could not be irrigated and dried out,” says Mr. Egea.
Studies vary, but producing a kilogram of avocados requires between 1,000 and 2,000 liters of water, says Egea.
“Avocado needs around 6,000 cubic meters per year, and the quantity provided by the authorities is a maximum of 5,300 cubic meters per year. These numbers show that we are cultivating beyond our means. "
Mr. Egea says that despite the scarcity of water, the avocado industry does not intend to adapt its production to real conditions. "On the contrary, producers hope to expand with more water brought in from abroad, paid for with public funds."
The farmer, Mr. Montes, does not appear to be affected by the prospect of water shortages, and remains optimistic that a project to transfer piped water from the Rules dam in nearby Sierra Nevada will receive government approval.
The project would allow growers to grow to the coveted 400m elevation mark, allowing for a 4,500 hectare crop expansion, says Mr. Egea.
Elsa Martínez Ferri, a researcher at IFAPA, the Andalusian Institute for 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 is based on addressing various measures that would make the storage and use of water more efficient, says Martínez Ferri, and on establishing regulations based on the actual and potential availability of natural resources to control expansion.
Meanwhile, to overcome water shortages in Granada and Malaga, some growers have recently turned to new areas in Huelva, Cádiz and Valencia to expand cultivation.
Grown close to home, European consumers may consider Spanish avocados a more sustainable and fair alternative to those produced and shipped from Latin America.
While Spanish avocados have a lower carbon footprint, Mr. Egea says this line of thinking has limits. "We always defend that the products must be local, but not at any cost."
Given that the current use of water in a deficit area is unsustainable, Ecologistas en Acción think that the crop should adapt to the availability of water and soil.
With the economic profitability of the avocado market in mind, the regional government of Andalusia seems to be inclined to find an intermediate approach where innovation and efficiency can allow growth, within limits.
To that end, the government is supporting various public and private research projects aimed at improving efficiency and reducing water consumption, says Martínez Ferri.
In addition, within the sector, he says, there is a growing awareness to improve efficiency in the use of water.
For Mr. Montes, who installed drip irrigation and took careful measures to prevent evaporation in his plantations, these steps not only take the environment into account, but also have to do with cost efficiency.
Although water consumption in the last season decreased compared to the previous year, according to Martínez Ferri, it is still possible to achieve greater efficiency.