The production of Colombia avocados has grown by 600% in the last 5 years as the country begins cashing in on an international avocado boom. Foreign ag industries are moving into Colombia, buying up land, planting avocados and mining the new ‘green gold’. But satisfying the world’s growing appetite for avocados is reshaping the country’s landscape and not without environmental consequences.
Colombian avocados are descendants of the stone fruit native to Mexico. They were carried to South America through migration and trade and are recorded being enjoyed by the Spaniards over 400 years ago.
Native Colombian avocados, called green skin avocados, belong to the Lauraceae family. The fruits are also known under local names like Leche, Sonson and Uraba. They vary in appearance from medium to large in size with smooth skin, pale-green to golden-yellow flesh with sweet to nutty flavors, depending on the season, region and climate.
The native Colombian avocados are well suited to tropical climates. Their large size makes them ideal for use in traditional Colombian family dishes. But their thin skin makes them ripen quickly and bruise easily, an avocado too delicate to ship to distant markets.
Meanwhile, the Hass avocado variety has a thick, bumpy skin, becomes dark green and purple when ripe, has a unique flavor and can survive the shock of shipping to export markets. It is the most commercially preferred avocado around the world and in recent years can be found in the markets of Colombia.
History of the Hass Avocado
I always thought the Hass avocados found in Colombia were imported from Mexico. But market vendors told me they came from the local farmers.
Colombia only began exporting the first Hass avocados a few years ago. Since then Hass avocado trees were planted in rapid expansion. In 2014 farmers exported 1,408 tons of Hass avocados. And by 2020 exports reached a record 544,000 tons.
While Mexico is the largest producer, Hass avocados were actually developed in California.
In 1926 a mailman, Rufolph Hass, had a small piece of land in southern California and experimented planting different avocado seeds. One seed produced an odd, bumpy fruit. He though of cutting it down but his children liked the taste of the fruit so much he kept it. As the tree’s yield grew larger, Hass sold what his family didn’t eat to his co-workers at the post office. One of his first clients was a grocery store in Pasadena. Here it was discovered by local chefs who fell in love with the nutty-tasting fruit and started serving it to the town’s wealthier, well-traveled clients. The rest is history.
Hass patented the tree in 1935 and made contact with a nursery to sell his grafted seedlings. Unlike other avocado trees growing in California, the Hass variety had a year-round yield, was more productive, a larger fruit, with a longer shelf life and richer flavor.
By the early 21st century the Hass avocado accounted for 80% of the avocados grown worldwide. Each year 11 billion pounds of avocados are consumed around the world. It is a $15 billion industry. The biggest markets are North America, consuming a whopping 40% of the world’s exports followed by Europe and Asia.
While Colombia is the 8th largest producer of Hass avocados in the world it is projected to be the second largest producer, after Mexico, in the next decade.
Colombian climate change, while bad for coffee, is favorable to the production of avocados
Colombia’s green gold mining is producing a cash crop only second to coffee and the illegal production of coca leaves. This comes at a time when land under coffee cultivation has shrunk by 20% since the 1990s according to the Federation of Coffee Growers representing half a million Colombian coffee farmers.
But since 2008 the country has seen drastic temperature changes, with droughts and heavy rains. Coffee production now can vary up to 40%, depending on the weather. One study said climate change will soon reduce the global area suitable for coffee by 50%. They say Colombia has already lost more than 4% of its land under coffee cultivation to climate change.
Coffee trees a sensitive to small changes in the weather. As global warming progresses, the sweet spot where coffee can be grown is moving further up the mountains to higher elevations. Growers at lower elevations are ripping out under performing coffee bushes and reverting the land to cattle pasture or growing climate resistant crops like avocados.
(See article: Why Colombian Coffee is Famous and Rated the Best in the World)
Colombia is adapting to climate change by switching gears – reducing coffee production and planting profitable, climate change resistant crops like avocados, limes, coconuts, pineapples and bananas.
The avocado boom is transforming the economies of large, rural swathes of Colombia, mostly in the departments of: Antioquia, Caldas, Quindio, Valle del Cauca and Tolima. Coffee farmers are planting avocado trees which are proving more profitable than coffee, bananas or cattle.
Colombia’s climate allows production of a year-round crop. According to the Colombia Avocado Board the country has an ideal climate for growing avocados with lots of water, consistent rainfall and two growing seasons, one from October to March and another May-August making them available all year long.
Colombia is in the tropics where water is an abundant natural resource giving the country an advantage over other avocado producing areas like California and Chile where water is becoming increasingly scarce. The avocado tree is a thirsty plant requiring 40-50 inches of rainfall a year or roughly 320 liters of water per avocado. That’s more water than required by banana and coffee trees.
Due to Colombia’s access to both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the country is uniquely positioned to deliver avocados to Europe and Asia and to the east coast of the USA in 10 days and the west coast in less than 2 weeks.
The USA is the world’s largest consumer of Hass avocadoes devouring 2,288.6 million pounds a year. – that’s 8 pounds per person. Hass avocados from Colombia were first imported to the USA in 2017. While Europe has been a major importer of Colombian avocados, in 2019 Colombia started exporting to China, a huge avocado market that keeps getting bigger.
Big Market Players are Moving in
The largest producer and exporter of Hass avocadoes is the Colombian group Cartame with more than 1,000 hectares of trees. Recently large ag industry firms have been buying up plots of land in Colombia, planting trees and growing avocados for export.
Companies like Westfalia Fruit, GreenFruit Avocados, Anglo Gold, Green SuperFood, Managro, Eurofresh are paying farmers premium prices for their land, up to 50 million COP ($13,000) an hectare. Avocado farms now stretch as far as the eye can see. The companies have their own packing plants where avocados are sorted, waxed, boxed and shipped around the world. They hire 40-50 employees for every 100 hectares of trees and pay good wages and benefits.
While these big monoculture companies are buying up small farms, they are making it harder for the small, traditional farmers to survive.
Small plot holders can’t simply ditch their crops and invest their savings in a potentially risky avocado business. It takes 10 years for an avocado tree to mature and deliver maximum yields. Most of these farmers have specialized in planting crops like coffee and bananas for over 100 years and have little to no experience with avocados.
The big firms export the best avocados, around 70% of their production. The rest are dumped on the local markets providing more then enough avocados to cover the regional demand. This can flood the market and depress prices.
Labor Shortages and Ageing Farmers
Of Colombia’s half a million coffee farms, 95% are smaller than 12 acres. Many of these coffee farms are nonmechanized and labor intensive. The owners are getting on in years. There isn’t enough money to hire help. And even if they could afford a worker or two, farm workers are hard to find. Most them are older while generations of young men are leaving the countryside to find employment in the city. For lack of an alternative, small farmers are often compelled to sell their lands.
The avocado industry is opening up new opportunities in rural Colombia providing a lucrative agricultural cash crop and opportunities for steady, local employment.
But this alternative crop also has an effect on the environment and landscape. There are worries extensive avocado production will have substantial and irretrievable environmental costs and damages.
Forests lands are being chopped down and burned to provide more space and sunlight for avocado trees. They worry this will put a greater toll on global warming and soil degradation and damage wildlife and the biodiversity. Experts are also worried if avocado production continues to grow, even Colombia’s abundant water resources may be soon be challenged.