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29 January 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:37pm

Why avocado toast is so problematic

There’s a darker side to everyone’s favourite brunch choice.

By Laura Martin

We need to talk about avocados. No, not the fact that you can now drink a green-hued latte out of their skin. Or the record-breaking woman in Hawaii who found one the same size as her head. And we definitely don’t need to discuss the pop-up where people dress up as the fruit and sumo-wrestle each other in a game called “human guacamole” (let’s never speak of that one again).

When we look back on the 2010s, the avocado in its most popular guise, the #avotoast, is likely to be the item most synonymous with this entire era.

Despite ancient civilisations in Latin America first plucking them from trees 8,000 years ago (and calling them ahuacatl, thought to mean “testicle”, as the pear-shaped fruit hung low from the branches) the “on toast” variation of avocado appears to be a 20th century invention, with a 1937 New Yorker article documenting an “avocado sandwich on whole wheat and a lime rickey” in Los Angeles. In the the 1990s in Australia, chef Bill Granger is believed to have given avocado toast its modern makeover with a twist of lime and chilli, which made its way back to New York by the millenium, then on to breakfast plates in London a few years later.

But it’s really in the past five years that the avocado has gone stratospheric. We collectively sliced, mashed and smashed five million tonnes of the fruit in 2014, a number which looks set to jump up as the avo has practically become a lifestyle choice in America, Australia and Europe and now in China – where “urban adopters” in Shanghai and Beijing call it “butter fruit” – sales look set to double this year.

Since Instagram’s launch in 2010, the avocado has become one of the top food shots to snap – there are currently more than seven million tags for for the fruit on the app. An estate agent even tried to scapegoat “smashed avocado on toast” as the reason why young people can’t afford houses

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But as a global thirst for avocados shows no sign of slowing down, there’s a darker side to everyone’s favourite brunch choice.

“They’re definitely problematic,” says London chef Joseph Ryan. So much so, that when he opened up his vegetarian and vegan restaurant Wildflower in the increasingly hipster London neighbourhood of Peckham last month, he banned them from the menu – and not just because they’ve become basic.

“First of all, there’s the cost issue – the wholesale price has gone up 50 per cent in the last year,” he explains. “Secondly, there’s the carbon footprint and air miles issue. The whole ethos of our restaurant is about trying to reduce the carbon footprint of the ingredients, so why would I use an ingredient that’s been flown in from 5,000 miles away?”

Avocados are also a huge drain on water resources in arid countries – it takes approximately a bathtub of water to produce just one fruit.

Most disturbing for Ryan, though, is the fact that gangland violence has infiltrated production of avocados: “I find it highly troublesome that in Mexico, cartels are taking over the farms with fear and killings. Avocados are something that are becoming less and less sustainable, which is why we won’t be serving them at Wildflower.”

It will probably come as something of a shock to avid avo-fans that what’s seen as a healthy, clean-eating choice in the UK is causing misery on the other side of the world. There’s currently a shortfall in the massive demand for the fruit, known as “green gold” in South America, but more recently dubbed “blood avocados”. In the state of Michoacán, which produces 92 per cent of Mexico’s avocados, brutal cartels have inflicted torture, kidnappings and murder on producers as they seized control of the industry. Farmers are being harassed and extorted for their crops, as the cartels have moved from trafficking heroin and cocaine to avocados.

Of course, Ryan is not calling for a nationwide boycott of avocados – especially as this would only further punish Mexican farmers further. He points out that you still can walk into pretty much any cafe in any hip city in the UK, and find avo toast on the menu, should you so wish. Wildflower leaving them off the menu is unlikely to make a dent in global production.

But the ever-expanding taste for avocados is putting pressure on producers to meet the shortfall in demand, similar to quinoa in 2013, when prices for the newly-fashionable grain soared, and priced out Bolivians on the poverty line.

Ryan’s stand against the avocado is also intended to make us think about that other buzzword for our time: sustainability. Shouldn’t we all be expanding our palate to include seasonal – and ethical – British fruit and veggies instead? 

For starters, the chef is focusing on swede. Maligned as watery orange mulch or stew fodder, he thinks it’s time to give the root veg a new look, which is why he is serving up a swede “fondue”. Still warm when it hits the table, it’s a savoury yet sweet dip with a great umami hit, and feels buttery and creamy despite being dairy-free. It’s also amazing slathered on top of some of the bread rolls made in-house that morning.

“Swedes are a great thing and in season now but they’re massively unloved,” says Ryan. “The fondue is essentially using them as a vessel for other ingredients – in a way like the avocado is. Avocados actually taste of very little, and it’s only when you add salt and acid, like lemon or lime, and chilli to it that it becomes tasty. What our fondue dish is doing is providing a fatty, more-ish treat, as that’s all that an avocado is, just loads of really nice fat. The swede fondue has got that same unctuous vibe.”

Over the next few months he will continue to champion an allotment’s worth of unappreciated fruit and veg for diners to revisit. Ryan says to expect things like celeriac remoulade – made with a vegan mayo – Jerusalem artichokes and January king cabbage on the menu, before wild garlic and asparagus season kicks off in March and April. And there’s no chance of a turf war over asparagus. Well, jokes Ryan, “Not unless you count Wye Valley farmers with their pitchforks.”

Whether or not we still tuck into an avocado-laden brunch, thinking about where our food comes from and the impact it has on the environment seems like a good resolution for 2018. Now, to just make swede Instagram-friendly…

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