I love avocados. Every Mexican does. They are a staple of the Mexican diet – the butter for every sandwich, the topping on a taco, the humble side on a dish that was nutritious, delicious and accessible to even the poorest of households. At some point in the past 10 years, however, avocados began to feel luxurious; they became a treat.
I can pinpoint that time in my life to a trip back to Mexico in 2016 for a family visit. Mam loves food shopping as much as I do, so going to the supermarket with her, for the food-shopping extravaganza that happens whenever I visit home – she wants to make every single dish I've ever missed in 20 years of living abroad – is always a treat. That day, however, she approached the mound of Hass avocados – possibly the cheapest variety known to Mexicans – in the fruit-and-veg section and looked horrified at how much they cost: 54 pesos per kilo!
She was incredibly vocal about the price. By then I'd been living in Ireland for 16 years, and couldn't think what 54 pesos would be in euro, but I could sense her distress. She begrudgingly put a few avocados in our basket, then complained about the price all the way home. There would soon be a day when our family couldn't afford them, she said, lamenting that low-income families already weren't eating enough of this wonderfood any more.
The minimum wage in Mexico was 73 pesos a day. It meant a kilo of the avocados we bought would have required almost six hours of minimum-wage work to pay for. I was horrified
When we got home I asked my dad about Mexico’s minimum wage – and ended up as horrified as Mam had been about the price of the avocados. In 2016 the minimum wage was 73 pesos – and not per hour but per eight-hour day. Most low-income families in Mexico would earn two minimum wages a day, but 73 pesos is still shockingly little. It meant a kilo of the avocados we bought would have required almost six hours of minimum-wage work to pay for.
In 2016, it turned out, 73 pesos was about €3.25, and 54 pesos was about €2.40. So seeing smashed avocado on toast sell for €15 at a trendy cafe back in Ireland made me recoil in disgust. Some hipster in a woolly hat would happily squander €15 three times a week on a bloody piece of toast with an entire avocado on it while my family back in Mexico was struggling to buy them. A ridiculous food trend was making a staple unaffordable at home. So I stopped ordering anything with avocado when I was going out – although I would buy them to eat sensibly at home.
Then a friend in Mexico’s avocado-growing region told me that drug cartels had moved in, evicting – and in many cases killing – landowners to take control of production. It was horrifying. Every time I went to pick an avocado I would think of all of the innocent people who have died in the trade, driving an industry that is worth billions of dollars to drug traffickers. I was eating less and less avocado. I just couldn’t stomach the guilt.
The final straw was when I realised the environmental impact that growing avocados was having. They require huge amounts of water, and, with the whole world seemingly crazy about them, the push for intensive production was increasing. It has left people in parts of Michoacán, in Mexico's avocado-growing region, with no drinking water – and the pesticides used on the crop have been blamed for giving some of them rare forms of cancer.
The environmental disaster, the deforestation caused, to feed the avo-on-toast craze made me feel so disgusted that I decided to stop eating them altogether. Almost five years later I do miss avocados, but I won't be part of the exploitation of land and people to satisfy a crave. I believe that consumer purchasing power can effect change both ways. Every person I speak to, every recipe I develop, every class or supper club I host will include a little rant about avocados, trying to educate people about the impact their production has.
Read JP McMahon's recipe for an alternative guacamole that uses artichokes instead of avocados here
Lily Ramirez-Foran is the chef-owner of Picado Mexican, a boutique grocer and cookery school in Dublin. She also writes a food blog, A Mexican Cook, and is a member of Euro-Toques Ireland