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Chilean Avocado producers are innovating for water efficiency

Now over ten times more popular than in the 1980s, in some ways the avocado has been a victim of its own success. Its notoriety (particularly amongst millennials) has brought its supposed water footprint in Chile under the spotlight, but often in reports which turn a blind eye to other water-thirsty crops.

How accurately does this reporting reflect the real situation on the ground in Chile?
We spoke to some industry leaders to find out.

Judging by the sensationalist headlines in the English-speaking media, you’d almost believe that Chileans are not aware of the water issue. But make no mistake, this is already an ever-present concern in the South American country. In agriculture and beyond, water efficiency drives are well under way at levels. As an example, Escenerios Hidricos 2030 was launched in 2016 by the NGO Fundación Chile. Its president, Alejandro Jadresic, remarks: “The urgency of the water situation in Chile challenges us to integrate this resource into the sustainable development of the country.”  Humans often show their most innovative sides when faced with crises, and this one is no different. “It’s time to face up to the scarcity of this vital resource and see it as an opportunity for innovation”, Jadresic continues (full interview here). More recently, in March this year on World Water Day, the Ministry of Agriculture launched the United for Water campaign, underlining the commitment to innovate: “This year alone we have committed more than $67 billion for irrigation tenders, all to answer the call for Chilean agriculture to make more efficient use of crop water.”

As a hugely significant part of the Chilean economy, avocado producers in particular have risen to this challenge to innovate. At the epicenter of this innovative drive is the Hass Avocado Committee. In an illuminating conversation, its General Manager, Francisco Contardo-Sfeir, gave us an insight into the response of growers to water scarcity. Avocados grow best in semi-arid regions, and this is a factor behind water use: “Water is important for all of agriculture but for us in particular as 70% of our plantations are in mountainous areas, so the efficient use of water is paramount and is something that we always emphasize.”

While each grower has their own efficiency projects, the Committee has been collaborating with INIA, the Institute of Agricultural Research of the Ministry of Agriculture, on a range of different water efficiency innovations. This includes plastic mulch for optimizing evapotranspiration, and a new drip irrigation using tubes slightly submerged underground, which makes irrigation even more efficient and direct, without the water eroding the earth. They’re also experimenting with glass roofs to see how this has the effect of ‘reusing’ the evapotranspiration of the trees. “These three projects are helping us in the pursuit of better efficiency and less water use,” says Contardo-Sfeir, “and this is continuing our long-term campaign to be as sustainable as possible.”

In response to international press coverage, the Committee has published illuminating statistics on the actual water footprint of particular regions. Measured in Liters per Kilogram of produce, the largest reported water footprint was in the Limarí region (462.6), and the smallest in Maipo (338.3). This is no small amount of water, but it’s important to note that even the smallest reported footprint pales in comparison to some other everyday foods around the world, from coffee to meat and even bananas:

Source: Hong Kong Water Supplies Department

An even more surprising finding is that the statistics for all Chilean regions are wildly different from those published by the WFP (Water Footprint) – stats which were used as the source for some of the sensationalist media coverage. As this chart shows, the actual water use was often less than half that reported by the WFP:

(Full statistics and anaylsis available here.)

The widespread media coverage was then inaccurate in many ways – it wilfully ignored food products which consume more water, spread statistics which did not truly reflect the reality on the ground, while making no mention of the innovation drives towards increased water efficiency.

Nobody is denying here that the avocado is a thirsty crop but, as Ignacio Cabellero Torretti of Fruits from Chile tells us, it is a case of leveraging new technologies: “There are many places which already employ irrigation technology but we need a way to become more efficient with water use for irrigation.” And now that the wheels are in motion, with public and private bodies and growers all pulling in the same direction, this sustainable drive in Chile will only keep increasing over time. As Contardo-Sfeir concludes: “As an association and as growers, we are constantly on the lookout for innovations, new products/services which help us continue being as efficient as possible in water use.”

With this in mind, Santiago-based IST Group has developed Water Consciousness for Agriculture in Chile 2030, the result of a collaboration between public and private entities seeking innovative water solutions. Within the remits of this program is the new ‘Campos Responsables’ (Responsible Fields) initiative which aims to recognize producers who are incorporating new technologies into water efficiency efforts. “Several producers have already joined, and we are working to add more avocado producers to this water efficiency program throughout 2019,” says IST Group’s Felipe Villarino. This interest underlines how mindful producers now are of making sustainability an integral part of their operations.

From all this, one thing is clear: the avocado’s thirst for water is equally matched by Chilean producers’ thirst for innovation, with which water efficiency and sustainability are only set to keep increasing.