Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

23 April 2015

This week a sweeping headline posed a question: “Have you eaten your last avocado”? Another asked, “Are avocados the next caviar?” And a third simply read, “Adios, avocados”. What could be the root of the hysteria? Well, it’s a dire problem that’s now in its fourth year: a serious drought in the agricultural powerhouse of California.

Avocados are just the latest agricultural product to stir alarm: the first item of concern was America’s sexiest nut, the almond. Avocado consumption has seen a steady rise – just like the almond – in recent years. More than four billion avocados were consumed in the US last year; that’s about four times as many sold in 2000. But the overwhelming chatter regarding the fate of the beloved fruit has been less about reduced consumption and more about the increased prices to come.

It takes more than 560 litres of water to produce 1kg of avocados. A single almond requires 4.2 litres, one walnut takes nearly 19 and a kilo of rice soaks up a whopping 3,450 litres per kilo. California is the leading producer of all of these crops in the US (as well as many, many more).

Earlier this month, for the first time in the state’s history, governor Jerry Brown instated mandatory water reductions in cities and towns across California to reduce water usage by 25 per cent. Mr Brown rightfully said at the time, “We are in a new era.” No, it is no longer appropriate for residents to water their front lawns for the sake of aesthetics. But the discussion rarely evaluates if Americans should be evaluating food-consumption habits.

With no sign of relief from the drought there is a scramble to find new means for fresh water. A $1bn desalination plant is being built in Carlsbad, California, to provide for about 7 per cent of the drinking-water needs of the San Diego region. California currently has about 16 other desalination-plant proposals in the works. While these are important innovations they don’t target consumption – and will likely spark a new set of woes. These plants are heavy energy consumers, expensive and can spur other ecological problems by disrupting the oceanic ecosystem.

Americans have notoriously been able to have anything at any time. And while almond milk packs some serious health benefits and avocado toast is surprisingly delightful, Governor Brown’s words don’t just apply to the front yards of our Californian compatriots. This is a new era and we have to remember what it takes to put food on our tables.

Megan Billings is Monocle’s New York-based researcher/writer.

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