Unilever Company Susses Out the Murky Sourcing of Avocados

The way the global food system grows, distributes, eats and disposes of food has dramatically changed over the years, and not necessarily for the better. Today’s food supply chain is a complex ecosystem that relies on interconnectedness and interdependencies across many stakeholders and is often ripe with blind spots and vulnerabilities. Even as part of Unilever PLC, one of the largest food companies in the world, navigating the global food landscape to create a supply chain we are really proud of is a challenge.

As consumer appetite for ethically-produced goods increases, food companies must prioritize mapping the knowns and unknowns within their supply chain and strengthening supplier relations — turning them from transactional players to long-term partners. This includes shining a light on the smallholder farmers that are doing a lot of the heavy lifting to contribute to our food supply chain, as well as forging stronger relationships with the small, boutique suppliers that are a lynchpin of providing ethically-sourced, high-quality ingredients to the industry.

Smallholder farmers refers to growers with less than five acres of land. While they may hold only 12% of farming land, they are responsible for producing up to 80% of the world’s food. Because of their small scale (and because so much of the market is controlled by large-scale agribusiness), they lack the power to negotiate fair prices, demand for safe labor practices and often struggle to meet their basic human needs.

Doing right by the smallholder farmers in our food ecosystem includes making sure they receive a fair price for their product, work in safe conditions, and earn the necessary income to support their communities. But, it starts with bringing increased traceability and transparency to our upstream supply chains and, ultimately, it comes down to creating systems that can meet the needs of an increasingly dynamic food chain. After all, it’s hard to address issues if you’re unable to see what the issues are. No one is going to have a blinking neon sign advertising violations like forced labor, entrapment, or pesticide-rich run-off. If an issue in your supply chain is uncovered by a third-party source, watch dog or advocacy group, it’s too late.

Avocado Obsession

Ever since Kensington & Sons LLC became a B Corp in 2018, we’ve spent a lot of time investigating the social and environmental risks associated with ingredients for our Sir Kensington’s brand mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard and other spreads. In some areas, like agri-chemical use and workers’ exposure to those chemicals, we’re able to take action by transitioning to Certified Organic. In other areas, however, the supply chains are so complex and clouded, that even identifying the full range of risks is proving difficult. We see these challenges sprouting in one of America’s favorite ingredients and in one of our most-used ingredients: avocado oil.

From brunch staple to creamy smoothie ingredient, Americans on average eat 70 avocados per year. And, while the link between drug cartels and avocado production has been exposed by the media in the past, many consumers still may not know just how risky avocado oil production is. Frankly, we’ve been studying the topic and while we don’t know for certain if our social and environmental concerns are founded, the fact that we don’t know what’s happening in the Mexican state of Michoacán, where 90% of the world’s fresh avocados are sourced, is as big of a neon sign as we need.

We do know that, in order to keep up with demand, land is being cleared at exponential rates to grow more and more avocados. It is believed that 30-40% of deforestation in Michoacán between 2001 and 2017 was associated with the expansion of avocado plantations, causing irreversible damage. Moreover, the pesticides and fertilizer used to keep up with production demands are wreaking havoc on the area’s biodiversity, which when compounded with expanded deforestation is limiting available habitats for species like the Monarch butterfly.

Avocado production’s harmful agricultural practices don’t just do damage to environmental ecosystems, they can also negatively affect the health and well-being of farm workers and rural communities. In addition to the environmental issues causing harm to nearby communities, there are some very real human rights concerns, as well. Not only is there evidence that farmworkers are subject to human trafficking, child labor, withheld wages, and lack of healthcare, but working conditions are likely poor with long hours either harvesting, sorting, or manufacturing.

By the time avocado oil makes it onto store shelves or into products like our mayonnaise, it’s passed through so many hands — from farm to refinery — that it’s difficult to identify if and where these atrocities are occurring. It’s also hard to know, as a purveyor, if these specific issues are happening within your supply chain or just in the industry at large without having a system in place to understand where your ingredients are coming from and who your supplier is. The problem is, we can’t solve big problems like this on our own.

Murky Sourcing

Our avocado oil supply chain is just one example within the global food system where food companies like ours are challenged by the opacity upstream. Sourcing is a complex area that many food companies actually have little direct control over.

Mapping Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers is often easier — they’re likely the last ones that touch the product and are more likely to be where you send checks to directly — checks that can be contingent upon meeting certain standards of social and environmental protection. It’s when you get further upstream that things get really murky.

Most brands don’t have the manpower needed to solve these challenges and, while technology, like blockchain, can help when it comes to traceability, industry players need to come together for the greater good and collectively address these serious ethical and environmental issues.

At Sir Kensington’s, we’re investigating whether Fair Trade is a possibility to help us get some of the increased transparency that we’re looking for when it comes to at-risk ingredients like avocado oil. Working with third-party organizations like Fair Trade is one way to bring traceability to the challenged, opaque supply chains that often come with at-risk ingredients. Our products are only as good as the ingredients we source, and that means that we’re only as good as the company we keep.

It’s time for all of us in the industry to be held accountable for the issues that may lurk within our supply chains. After all, knowing there’s a problem and not doing anything about it is akin to corporate suicide, especially as customers demand more from us. But, food companies can work together to better understand where the risks are and collectively try to push for a more equitable, sustainable food system. Shout if you know anyone in avocado oil production who wants to help.

Alex Medeiros is general manager at Sir Kensington’s and head of Greenhouse foods at Unilever, where he supports growth-stage food brands.

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