The avocado industry has received a torrent of criticism in the press for its toll on the environment — most of all, for its impact on water resources. In Chile, large farms have caused rivers to run dry and inhabitants lost access to local drinking water.(1) In Mexico, avocado production emptied underground aquifers, which is suspected to be the cause of thousands of small earthquakes.(2)
Yet in the face of these severe outcomes — and many more like them — the industry still lacks a broadly accepted playbook on how to decrease its water footprint. For that matter, there is not even solid data on what would count as optimal water usage in key growing regions.
We at Fairtrasa take this issue very seriously. Last year, we started studying our growers’ practices in depth in order to generate insights that may help the entire sector transition toward more conscious and sustainable production.
We have focused on orchards in and around the Mexican state of Michoacán, the heart of the world’s avocado production. The first farm that we have chosen to study was Frutícola Santa María, the Fairtrasa-exclusive organic orchard of Feliz and Juan-Pablo Jimenez. Over the years, we have seen how the family has worked to make their production sustainable environmentally as well as socially in ways that went above and beyond standard organic requirements. This was important for us, because while we expected the research to identify ways to improve, we also hoped that it would outline important good practices that other farmers can learn from here and now.
In the spring of last year, we partnered with Dr. Javier García de Alba from the Sustainability and Applied Ecology Laboratory of the University of Guadalajara. Dr. García de Alba is an expert in measuring the footprint of local agricultural production and developing strategies for reduction. He is also the director of EkoGlobal, an organization that advises farmers on environmental and social practices, and certifies exemplary performance. He has agreed to conduct a year-long study at several of our growers’ farms in the region to gain an in-depth understanding of their water use (as well as their carbon footprint, which we will detail in a subsequent article).
He and his team have made frequent visits throughout the production year conducting analyses according to ISO 14,046, the international standard for water footprint assessment. They have concluded that on average the orchard had a footprint of 1,083m3 for each ton of avocados produced, including green (rain), blue (irrigation) and grey water (detailed below).
This is a little less than 55% of the international reference value of 1,980m3, calculated by the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education and cited by the Water Footprint Network.(3)
We should note that while the UNESCO has based their reference on a region with a similar subtropical climate, there may still be differences in soil and weather patterns compared with Jalisco, where Frutícola Santa María is located. We have to continue to assess additional farms to be able to put the Jimenez family’s performance into its proper local context.*
That said, based on his experience, Dr. García de Alba believes that the farm achieves a meaningful water footprint reduction compared with the local average. He attributes the result to three crucial, interrelated factors:
Combining efficient irrigation methods with precision — that is, knowing exactly how much water is needed and when — is key. On Frutícola Santa María, there is a micro-sprinkler system installed throughout the orchard combined with tensiometers that extend 40cm deep into the topsoil. They measure humidity and in turn, control the activity of the sprinklers, releasing each drop of water when it is needed.
This not only eliminates water waste, but also ensures that the trees never experience water stress, maximizing the quality of the avocados that they produce. Dr. García de Alba says that contrary to popular wisdom, it is not worth irrigating only around trees, as the surrounding drier soil draws away the water, requiring excess irrigation, creating temporally uneven distribution, and causing stress for the plants. In the long run, it pays off to reach for the same moisture level throughout the entire orchard.
The second key factor beyond Frutícola Santa María’s favourable water footprint is composting. The professor says most farmers do not make a significant use of this method, because it is relatively labour intensive — and because farmer generations have grown up with the idea that fertilizers are products to be bought, and not something that they themselves can produce. Yet incorporating compost, that is, rich organic matter into the topsoil not only provides balanced nourishment to avocado trees, but also reduces the farm’s water footprint on two fronts at the same time.
On the one hand, composting fosters a healthy soil life and a complex soil structure that significantly improves water retention, reducing the need for irrigation. On the other hand, when farms are fertilized with compost, the runoff of excess nutrients that negatively impact local water resources — measured as the “grey water” in a farm’s water footprint — is minimized.
The third factor is something that rarely comes up in discussions around water use — yet it can make a world of difference. The Jimenez family has good, mutually respectful relations with their workers, all of whom have access to social security, paid holidays, bonuses and other benefits — something that we may take for granted in Europe, but that is far from the being a universal norm in the agricultural sector of most countries. Workers are trained well and employed for long periods — many of them have been at Santa María for over ten years.
All of this means that they have the incentives and the knowledge to produce sustainably. They not only have a genuine care for the orchard, but they also got to know it deeply. They know the locations of wetter and drier spots where sprinklers may need to be placed differently – and they know where diseases related to water-use are likely to occur, so that they can anticipate and prevent them instead of managing the problem after it surfaced.
The results that their experience and pro-active attitudes produce are very different from those of the farms that try to take advantage of short term, underpaid and uninsured workers — even when the same state-of-the-art equipment is available. As we have seen in countless other areas: social sustainability enables environmental sustainability.
We continue to assess our other farms, trusting that a comparative understanding of methods and results will help us develop a collection of the very best practices for reducing the water footprint of avocados — something that growers around the world will then be able to use. In the meantime, we believe that implementing the three key points above is already going to do a service to farmers in Mexico and beyond.
Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for our upcoming article on the carbon footprint of our avocado orchards.
*Water footprint data from around the globe is currently scarce. We are aware that last year some farms reported even better results from Spain, and we should indeed expect different footprints in Mediterranean climates. We currently focus our assessments on Mexico as the world’s largest producer of avocados, since demonstrating how water use can be reduced there can have the most significant impact in terms of scale.