I love how substantial, creamy and versatile this tropical fruit is, but I have lived most of my life without it and don’t need to substitute it for the nutrition I can get from equally satisfying, locally produced foods, says columnist. (Stock photo)

Food matters: Let’s temper enthusiasm about avocados

Drug cartels invading Mexican avocado farms

BY MARJORIE STEWART

What do the invasion of Mexican avocado farms by the drug cartels and the pervasive preoccupation with ‘clean eating’ have in common?

‘Clean eating’ seems to shift its meaning depending on the person using that phrase. Sometimes it sounds like my own recipe for sensible eating: avoid over-processed foods and eat locally produced foods. Sometimes it sounds like a post-truth cult run by people who make money by making pronouncements and having followers for whom belief is more important than proof. My own rule of thumb for judging dietary prescriptions is whether the people making up the rules are making money from their followers.

It’s not hard to see that the unhealthy diets that emerged from the post-Second World War industrialized production of cheap foods have resulted in, among other things, lack of faith in fast food eateries and nearly everything to eat sold in supermarkets. That loss of faith coincided with the introduction of ‘smart’ electronic devices and the rise of instant mass communication. People short of time and anxious to improve were persuaded by uncredentialed bloggers to make wholesale changes in their eating habits which were not necessarily for the better.

Now consider the avocado. Why has avocado consumption moved out of the tropics to become a staple in northern supermarkets? It has been suggested that promotion dollars spent in California, Mexico, Peru and Chile started the trend and that improved production technology helped. NAFTA also played a role in opening markets. I think social media spreads trends almost like stampedes, which leads to unforeseen marketing impacts.

As the market for avocados grew, Mexican farmers began to make a good living from the fruit they can grow all year round. Prices rose so high that many Mexicans could not afford to buy avocados. And a cartel known as the Caballeros Templaria compared the avocado market to the marijuana market. The cartel hijacked the avocado trade at every level and life for the farmers deteriorated. In 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that Mexican avocados had become the equivalent of the blood diamonds of Africa.

As of this summer, an uneasy and illegal combination of citizen police and another force funded by the avocado farmers have organized, bought weapons and fought back, vigilante-style. Regional authorities corrupted by cartel bribery and intimidation are sidelined, federal prosecutors do not interfere and the trade seems back on track.

Personally, I wish the people of the region had not been tempted into dependence on what economists call the comparative advantage of concentrating on exporting avocados as a cash crop. There are other aspects of Latin American cuisine we can enjoy.

Marjorie Stewart is past chairwoman of the Nanaimo Foodshare Society. She can be reached at marjorieandalstewart@gmail.com.

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