What's the carbon footprint of avocados?
We’re a nation of avocado lovers. In fact, according to Waitrose, avocados were in the top three items delivered across several parts of the UK in 2021. But what's the carbon footprint of an avocado and how can you enjoy avocados as part of a sustainable diet?
Avocado Carbon Footprint
1 medium avocado (160g) produces 384g CO₂e*
9% more than a glass of milk
31% more than a baked potato
86% more than an orange
72% less than a chicken breast
equivalent to charging 46 smartphones
*CO₂e means carbon dioxide equivalent and measures total greenhouse gases
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Where greenhouse gases come from in avocado production
Getting an avocado from the field to your home has many stages, each of which can contribute to the carbon footprint of avocados. At each stage, greenhouse gases can be released into the atmosphere. To find out which greenhouse gases, and how much gas is released, an analysis methodology called life cycle assessments are used.
Life cycle assessments of avocados show us overall the carbon footprint of avocados. They also show us which stages of avocado production are responsible for emitting the most greenhouse gases.
Avocado carbon footprint from irrigation, air transport, and hot water treatment
Avocado trees require lots of water to produce fruit and they often grow in areas that are scarce in freshwater. This makes irrigation on farms essential to get enough water to the trees. Irrigation is the main energy user in avocado farm production but produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct. In fact, the highest proportion of an avocado's carbon footprint is from its time in the field.
Once avocados are picked, they take a hot bath! Hot water treatment stops insects from infesting the fruit and prevents decay before avocados are exported. But these hot water tanks are heated to 55°c for an hour and a half. That needs a lot of energy and means this stage produces a significant amount of greenhouse gases, too.
Most avocados in British supermarkets are grown outside of Europe and travel long distances to get to your home. To keep avocados fresh whilst travelling thousands of miles, they're often transported by plane which has a higher carbon footprint than by lorry.
Where do avocados come from?
We Brits ate over 100,000 tonnes of avocados in 2020. The majority of avocados in the UK are imported from countries in Central and South America, including Chile, Mexico, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic. A smaller proportion are from Israel, Spain and Morocco.
Can you grow avocados in the UK?
It is possible to grow avocado trees in the UK, but they will rarely produce fruit. Avocados need a warm and humid climate to grow. To grow avocados in the UK, you would need to create these conditions artificially, for example in a temperature-controlled greenhouse.
However, growing avocados in the UK wouldn't necessarily be more sustainable. Creating artificial conditions needs lots of electricity and energy. This produces a lot of greenhouse gases in the process, oftentimes more than the amount of greenhouse gases generated from transporting avocados.
Are there other ways avocados impact your carbon footprint?
Yes. In fact, avocados have one of the highest environmental impacts (per kilogram) of all fruits for several reasons.
Food waste. Food waste is a major sustainability issue. But it's particularly problematic for avocados. How often have you gone to slice an avocado to find it has gone bad? There's also a lot of food waste in the supply chain before avocados reach your home.
The standards that determine whether an avocado is "good enough" to be sold (this process is called 'grading') see 30% of all avocados grown going to waste. Avocados have the highest likelihood of not making the cut for all fruit.
Water use. Many avocados are imported from countries facing freshwater scarcity. To grow avocados on the scale that we demand them, irrigation is needed. This takes freshwater away from other natural resources and produce, and from local communities' drinking water, too.
Land use. We often think of animal agriculture using lots of land. But avocados have one of the highest agricultural land uses for fruits. At nearly 2m²a to produce a kilogram of fruit, that's just 6 or 7 avocados in 2m² per year. By comparison, this is almost three times the land needed for oranges!
Fertiliser use. Nitrogen fertilisers are used heavily on non-organic avocado farms. Nitrogen fertiliser production emits a very potent greenhouse gas: nitrous oxide (N₂O).
In avocado fields, fertiliser acidifies soils which degrade the soil and makes it harder to grow crops in the future. The fertiliser also runs off into rivers and water supplies and causes eutrophication, where algae thrive but make life difficult for existing and diverse marine ecosystems.
How bad are avocados?
Compared to meat and fish, avocados have a lower carbon footprint. But an avocado produces more CO₂e than a 200ml glass of milk.
When compared to other fruits and vegetables, it's clear that avocados take their toll on the environment. They have a higher carbon footprint than other fruits, due to the energy needed for irrigation and air freight, and avocados guzzle a lot of scarce water.
We've explored some of the environmental factors affected by widespread avocado production, but it's important to consider the social impact, too. Water scarcity affects the amount of drinking water available for communities living near avocado farms.
Although the avocado boom has created new industries and employment for hundreds of thousands of people, there is evidence of exploitation, violence, and gang-related crimes due to the global demand for avocados.
Tips for choosing more environmentally-friendly avocados
You can still enjoy avocados as part of a sustainable diet. Our tips for eating avocados sustainably are to:
Eat less of them. #TacoTuesday and Sunday brunch can go avo-less most weeks. Why not try a more sustainable substitute below? Historically, avocados were a luxury – we think it's time to indulge in them as an occasional treat once again.
Choose by origin. Next time you pick an avocado, check the label to find its origin. Avocados from the Dominican Republic create fewer problems with water scarcity, while Spanish avocados travel less distance to the UK and produce fewer greenhouse gases
Sustainable substitutes for avocado
Make seasonal guacamole using local broad beans or peas
Use hummus for your next no-avo on toast
Swap avocado for nut and seed butters for creaminess in smoothies