Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that my avocado habit is bad for the environment and my carbon footprint? — J. Pilsen, Olathe, KS
Compared to other fruits and vegetables that are grown closer to home, eating avocados — most of which are flown in from Central America — can be a drag on your carbon footprint. Furthermore, they require a lot of water, fertilizers and pesticides to grow, further complicating this seemingly “green” superfood.
Avocado’s environmental impacts come from the “energy, water, fertilizer and pesticides required to grow them, the resources used for packaging materials and the energy used in processing, transporting and keeping them cool to preserve their freshness,” Tom Cumberlege of Carbon Trust tells Vice.com, also pointing out that some of the biggest markets for avocados are in the UK, northern Europe and Canada.
Despite that avocados can now be grown around the world, the majority of them (upwards of two metric tons annually) come from Mexico. “A Mexican avocado would have to travel 5,555 miles to reach the UK,” reports Honor May Eldridge of the non-profit Sustainable Food Trust. “Given the distances, fruit is picked before it’s ripe and shipped in temperature-controlled storage, which is energy intensive.”
Avocados also require an astonishing amount of water to grow, some 320 liters per fruit. “The UK’s imports of avocados contain over 25 million cubic meters annually of virtual water — equivalent to 10,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools,” reports Eldridge. “With global temperatures rising and water becoming scarce, this has serious impacts on local communities who do not have access to drinking water.”
Furthermore, the global popularity of avocados in recent years has led to “monoculture” farms that grow only one crop over and over, degrading soil quickly and requiring increasingly more chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Surging demand has also led to rampant deforestation, especially in areas like Mexico’s mountainous Michoacán. A researcher from Mexico’s National Institute for Forestry found that avocado production there tripled there from 2001-2010, causing the loss of some 1,700 acres of forest annually.
Compared to meat, avocados are still a much better deal for the environment — and much less of a drag on your carbon footprint. Indeed, the Evening Standard reports that eating a kilo of lamb generates some 46 times the carbon emissions as the average pack of avocados. Enjoying a piece of farmed salmon will also increase your carbon footprint more than having some guacamole or avocado toast every now and again.
As a consumer, the best thing you can do with an avocado is to “make sure that it doesn’t go to waste,” says Cumberlege. “…Avocados will not last days in the fridge after they have been prepared, so [they] should be enjoyed sooner rather than later.”
Contacts: “Green Gold: Global Avocado Boom Destroying Mexico’s Forests,” https://sputniknews.com/latam/201608121044220909-avocado-mexico-destroy-forests; “This Is How Bad Your Avocado Obsession Is for the World,” https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/7xm8ab/this-is-how-bad-your-avocado-obsession-is-for-the-world; “How Much Water Does It Take To Grow An Avocado,” old.danwatch.dk/en/undersogelseskapitel/how-much-water-does-it-take-to-grow-an-avocado.
Dear EarthTalk: How are we doing in the battle to stop or slow deforestation, especially in the tropics where forests store so much of the world’s biodiversity? — M. Lark, Neptune, Iowa
In short, not so good. Global Forest Watch, a project of the non-profit World Resources Institute (WRI) that uses satellite data to track global forest loss, found that the world lost some 3.8 million hectares of tropical primary forest (defined as forests of native trees undisturbed by human activities) in 2019 — equivalent to one soccer field every six seconds and an area about the size of Switzerland in total.
One particularly nasty side effect of all this forest loss is the release of more than two billion tons of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere as the trees came down in 2019. (To put that into context, this is more emissions than caused by all of the vehicles on the road in the United States during the same 12-month stretch.) The tropical primary forest loss in 2019 is the third-highest amount in recorded history, behind only 2016 and 2017.
While deforestation is an issue everywhere, it is particularly problematic in the tropics where the majority of the world’s biodiversity lives. Another leading conservation group, WWF, points out that some 17 percent of the forest across the Amazon has been cut down over the last 50 years, mostly to make room for cattle ranching — so we can enjoy our steaks and burgers. The group warns that if nothing is done to stop it, some of the world’s most iconic and biologically diverse forest landscapes could be lost to deforestation, including primary habitat for iconic wildlife species like orangutans, tigers and elephants.
“The hot spots are located in the Amazon, the Atlantic Forest and Gran Chaco, Borneo, the Cerrado, Choco-Darien, the Congo Basin, East Africa, Eastern Australia, Greater Mekong, New Guinea, and Sumatra,” reports WWF. “Up to 420 million acres of forest could be lost between 2010 and 2030 in these ‘deforestation fronts’ if current trends continue.”
Brazil suffered the largest total primary forest loss of all in 2019, with deforestation for agriculture and other new land uses increasing rapidly through that country’s vast stretches of Amazon rainforest. Meanwhile, neighboring Bolivia experienced the largest surge in primary tropical forest loss, where rampaging wildfires, most likely set intentionally to clear land for farming, reduced 80 percent more tree cover than in previous years.
On the bright side, Global Forest Watch reports that primary forest loss was reduced significantly in Indonesia, where a recently imposed government moratorium on clearing land for palm oil plantations — along with beefed up enforcement — has reduced annual forest loss to levels not seen for 15 years (before the palm oil craze swept the region). Primary tropical forest loss was also down some 50 percent in both Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire.
What’s the solution? Frances Seymour of WRI tells The New York Times that she’d like to see the international community address the problem through economic incentives that encourage forest protection. She adds that governments should focus on preventing forest burning, increasing monitoring and enforcement to stop encroachment while providing the poor with alternatives to forest exploitation.
Contacts: Global Forest Watch, globalforestwatch.org; World Resources Institute, wri.org; WWF’s “Living Forests Report Chapter 5: Saving Forests at Risk,” worldwildlife.org/publications/living-forests-report-chapter-5-saving-forests-at-risk.
Dear EarthTalk: I am adding a deck onto my house this summer and wonder which decking materials (wood or otherwise) are the greenest? — Bill A., San Francisco, CA
As the weather warms up, we gravitate toward the outdoors, and what better way to enjoy the sunshine than on your very own deck. If you are building a new deck or sprucing up an existing one, you have the opportunity to make green choices so you can relax outside guilt-free. Luckily, there are plenty of attractive and low-maintenance options out there these days that won’t break the bank or ruin the planet.
Of course, most of us think wood when we think about our ideal deck. It’s non-toxic, natural, renewable and recyclable, and it biodegrades without any polluting by-products. Cedar, which is naturally rot- and insect-resistant, may be the most common decking wood, but it takes regular maintenance if it’s going to look its best and last more than a few years. Redwood is another great naturally hearty choice for decks, but it’s hard to come by — and expensive — given limited supply. Another common wood for decks is pressure-treated Yellow Pine, but the chemical impregnation that makes it stand up to the elements doesn’t look great, and, even worse, can leach copper into aquatic ecosystems.
Then there are the tropical hardwoods, controversial given the decimation of tropical forests by mechanized logging since World War II. But certification of these woods as “sustainably harvested” by non-profits like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) can help consumers on the hunt for deck wood feel better about their use of ipe, garapa, cumaru or tigerwood — each of which evolved in the tropical rainforests of Latin America and are known for durability and natural resistance to rot and insects. Ipe, given how attractive it looks and that it can last up to 40 years in a decking application, has become especially popular in recent years.
That said, just because your tropical hardwood is FSC-certified doesn’t mean it’s as green as something that grows closer to your home. Factoring in the length of the journey from the source forest to your home — knowing that fossil fuels will be spewed along the way — is key to determining how green your decking choice is overall.
Besides straight-ahead wood, another option is modified wood. Kebony, for instance, is an FSC-certified pine product that’s modified to last three to five times as long as other deck woods. The modification process changes the cellular structure of the wood on a molecular level, increasing its density by permanently swelling and thickening the cells. Thermory is another modified wood product that’s excellent for decking, guaranteed to last 25 years without rot.
Beyond wood, composite decking (TimberTech, Trex, Dura-Life, etc.) is gaining traction, even among some environmentalists given that it doesn’t contribute to deforestation and the resins used in its production are typically recycled. Unlike wood, these come in a variety of colors, don’t need repainting and are splinter-free. If you want to split the difference between plastic and wood, Cali-Bamboo’s composite decking made from recycled bamboo is a solid choice.
Dear EarthTalk: What are some ways environmentalists use civil disobedience to accomplish their goals? — Robert P., Portland, OR
The concept of civil disobedience (defined by Merriam-Webster as the “refusal to obey laws as a way of forcing the government to do or change something”) dates back to the dawn of civil society. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are primary examples of non-violent resistors using civil disobedience as a tool to achieve their goals. Of course, environmental proponents have been practicing civil disobedience in various forms for decades if not longer. After all, proto-environmentalist Henry David Thoreau wrote his seminal essay on the topic in 1846 after spending the night in jail for refusing to pay his back taxes. He feared the money would go toward funding the Mexican-American War, which he opposed, by a U.S. government that also happened to permit slavery, which he also opposed.
“If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood,” wrote Thoreau. “This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.”
While not an environmental essay per se, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience makes the case for nonviolent resistance as “a counter friction to stop the machine.” While democracy might be the best form of government we can hope for, the dominance of the majority inevitably leads to the trampling on the hopes, dreams and rights of the minority. In Thoreau’s mind, individuals shouldn’t let governments doing the will of an amoral or immoral majority overrule their own consciences and thus enlist them as collaborators in injustice.
Even though its focus is more general, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience has certainly fueled many an environmental campaign in the intervening years. Cut to the present, and we have Extinction Rebellion (XR), a two-year-old UK-born movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience “in an attempt to halt mass extinction and minimize the risk of social collapse.”
Activists working on behalf of XR’s cause have been in the news lately for various “monkeywrenching” antics, such as supergluing themselves to infrastructure like roads, trains and buildings and attempting to shut down oil rigs and airports. Last spring the group brought traffic in parts of London to a halt for hours by parking a hot pink sailboat in the middle of a busy intersection, while activists threw black paint at the London headquarters of Shell Oil and blockaded entry to the company’s corporate headquarters. Seven-hundred XR activists were hauled off to jail as a result of the protest, which won’t likely be forgotten by any London commuters trying to get home that day at least. More recently, activists from the group have been generating controversy by threatening cyberattacks if the UK government bails out its ailing airline industry.
While XR may be attracting the headlines lately, they are following a civil disobedience trail blazed by many others over the last half century. Activists from groups such as 350.org, Sea Shepherd, the Hambach Forest Occupation, EarthFirst!, Greenpeace, and thousands of others engage in acts of civil disobedience every day all over the world in their pursuit of protecting wildlife, the environment and/or the health and safety of humans.
Contacts: Extinction Rebellion, rebellion.earth; 350.org, 350.org; Julia Butterfly Hill, juliabutterflyhill.com; Sea Shepherd, seashepherdglobal.org; Hambach Forest Occupation, hambachforest.org; EarthFirst!, earthfirst.org; Greenpeace, greenpeace.org.