Article originally published in El Independiente.
The Sarmiento farm - located in Vélez-Málaga, in the heart of La Axarquía - is one of the centres of avocado cultivation. Ten hectares of dense canopies with large leaves that produce a good proportion of the fruit managed each year by Trops, a cooperative of more than 2,000 farmers who produce 28 million kilos of avocados – half the national crop.
Here, in late May, the last avocados of the season, which have been on the tree since December, are harvested. One of the curiosities of its cultivation is that, although the fruit is ripe in December, it can last up to five months on the tree. "The tree is the cold store," explains David Sarmiento, Trops agrotechnical manager, as he walks through the trees. The ground crunches beneath his footsteps, as in an avocado plantation it is covered with organic matter made up of tree prunings and avocado stalks, in order to fertilise the soil.
This organic waste produces lignin, a fortifier that fights fungi and works as a natural pesticide. Thanks to this, avocados are an "almost pesticide-free" crop, as Sarmiento highlights, since "they only need herbicides once or twice a year". This is one of the characteristics of the avocados that grow in Andalusia; another is the weather, which is somewhat different to the subtropical climate, as it has colder winters, which means this fruit is considered to have a higher quality, only matched by the fruit produced in California and superior to that of the largest producers, such as Mexico or Peru. On the negative side, this climate makes the tree produce less - approximately half that in Latin American countries, which produce 14,000 kilos per hectare - therefore also making the fruit more expensive. No wonder seven out of ten avocados consumed in Spain are imported.
The limit is set by the water
In La Axarquía they have been producing avocados for about 40 years, but the area devoted to the crop has not increased in recent years for one reason, according to producers. "Water is our limiting factor," explains Enrique Colilles, the manager of the cooperative, "a problem that is not due to the lack of water, but to the lack of infrastructure. A few kilometres from here the river Guadiaro pours 700 hectolitres a year into the sea – cultivation would only need 40.”
Avocado: good for health, bad for the planet
Water is the Achilles' heel of avocado cultivation. Some studies estimate 2,000 litres are required to produce one kilo of avocados, although in the La Axarquía region of Malaga, the farmers claim they have optimised their production to a range of between 700 and 1,000 litres. "And we now have projects under way to reduce the water required to 500 litres, less than a citrus tree needs," says Colilles.
However, a recent study by Carbon Footprint Ltd points out that the carbon footprint generated by just two avocados is double that of a whole kilo of bananas, and this footprint is not due especially to their cultivation, but to global emissions - direct and indirect - from storage and, above all, transportation. The highest emissions are associated with avocados arriving from the other side of the Atlantic.
From La Axarquía to Europe
In Trops, the avocados ripen at a rate of 250,000 kilos a day. They are collected from the tree, the stalk is cut on the same farm and they go straight to the warehouse in boxes (those of each of the 2,000 cooperative members), where they are monitored at all times through an app that farmers use with a PDA. "You can see where the avocados are and, after being classified, it tells you their size and quality," explains Colilles.
The same applies to another of the big producers, Reyes Gutiérrez, where they have specialised in derived products (mainly guacamole and sauces) that are prepared with the least visually attractive avocados, which cannot be sold at the same price. This company supplies national avocados to the main supermarkets and exports to Europe.
The Spanish are not avocado lovers (yet!)
Although it is the main producer in Europe, Spain is not at the forefront of consumption, which grew in Europe by no less than 65% between 2016 and 2018, according to the World Avocado Organisation (WAO). In Spain, according to WAO manager Xavier Equihua, President and CEO of the World Avocado Organization, "there is still a lot of potential, we are at just over a kilo per person and we need another kilo and a half to match France."
Foods that should not be missing in your pantry if you want to have a healthy heart
Despite this, in 2018 Spain broke a new record for consumption, with 74 million kilos consumed. Of this, only 30% was produced in Spain, the rest came from Peru, South Africa, Colombia and Mexico, according to WAO data.
This shows the great potential avocados have in Spain and is one of the reasons why the WAO landed in Spain at the end of 2018, with the aim of expanding consumption internationally and promoting national production. "In Spain they are consumed mainly in Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao and Valencia. Quality avocados hardly reach any other provinces," they say at Trops, where they realise that the product has yet to become popular.
Good for the palate and the heart
Rich in omega 3 and 6 acids, eating avocados reduces overall and "bad" cholesterol levels, as well as blood triglycerides. They also have antioxidant properties that inhibit the production of free radicals (involved in ageing and the onset of various chronic diseases).
These fats, which are beneficial for health, also provide energy to the body, which together with their flavour, are the reasons behind the rising demand for this green gold.