Nature and Space
Who is left behind in global
food systems? Local farmers
failed by Colombia’s avocado
University of Wisconsin Madison, USA
King’s College London, UK
Work on global food systems has focused on the livelihoods of farmers directly affected as
growers of agricultural export goods and has paid less attention to those who are left behind
by new patterns of production and consumption. The connections between pre-existing
agricultural livelihoods and the new systems of provision associated with fashionable products
are poorly understood. Global trends in food culture have wide ranging local impacts. In this
paper, we argue that researchers need to look beyond linear commodity chains and the
goods that travel from producers in one country to consumers in another and expand global
food systems analysis to understand what regional livelihoods are modified or displaced by
globalized agriculture. Avocados are a popular health food among millennials. Colombia is
experiencing a boom in exports. Avocados have long been grown in the Santander region, but
global demand has turned them into a politically important crop. Using food systems analysis, our
field research illuminates how new opportunities for capital accumulation are transmitted through
global markets and shape regional agricultural practices. Large investors have profited, while small-
scale farmers have been impoverished. We demonstrate how the interplay of requirements for
homogenous fruit from local supermarkets, demand for the export Haas variety, as well as the
government’s export-oriented policies have modified local livelihoods.Our contribution examines
the broader social space in which agriculture is located. We argue for the need to study food
systems beyond the vertical relations that constitute linear supply chains and examine the
horizontal context of systems of provision.
Agriculture, avocados, Colombia, systems of provision, food systems, production
Angela Serrano, University of Wisconsin Madison, 8128 William H. Sewell Social Sciences Building, 1180 Observatory
Drive, Madison, WI 53706, USA.
Environment and Planning E: Nature and
!The Author(s) 2019
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Commodity chains research, and related approaches, have eﬀectively mapped connections
between production and consumption and interrogated how diﬀerent forms of labour are
entangled in the global economy (Henderson et al., 2002). Vertical lines of connectivity have
been drawn between farmers and other producers, often in the global South, and companies
that market food products that reach the plates of consumers, primarily in the global
North (Goodman and Dupuis, 2002). In particular, this work has looked at various
booms in newly fashionable goods, including French beans (Freidberg, 2004), papayas
(Cook, 2004), and bottled water (Jones et al., 2017) and contested the ethical production
of items such as Fairtrade bananas (Wilson and Jackson, 2016), wine (Kleine, 2008), and
organic coﬀee (Mutersbaugh, 2002). Here we build upon this body of work, but look at what
farm to shelf research has missed. We focus on the wider horizontal impacts of food systems
on the production regions where they are situated and turn our attention to the pre-existing
agricultural practices and livelihoods modiﬁed or displaced as regions are reoriented towards
the global market. Studies of agricultural booms have ably identiﬁed the transnational
impacts of consumer demand on those directly aﬀected as producers, but have overlooked
those who are left behind. New global production aﬀects political dynamics, displaces old
agriculture and disrupts regional socio-economic practices. By focusing on the pre-existing
livelihoods threatened by the integration of agricultural regions in to global commodity
chains, rather than the workers and socio-natures that are directly exploited, our ﬁeld
work on avocado agriculture in Colombia demonstrates that consumption booms can fail
traditional growers of newly desirable products. Global agriculture and food trends have
wider impacts that deserve further attention.
Rich, creamy and nutritious avocados are a very fashionable food. The fruit is favoured
for its unique health beneﬁts including ‘good fats’ (Frank and Clegg, 2017; Hass Avocado
Board, 2016a). Avocados have come to symbolize conspicuous consumption among cash-
rich millennials – people born between 1983 and 2000 – across Australia, Europe, and North
America (Bellet and Sihra, 2017). These fruits are reiﬁed on social media and are a relatively
costly, yet nutritious, convenient food. Asia is a growing market and Steve Barnard,
president of Mission Produce, the world’s largest avocado distributor, claims demand in
China from middle class ‘young, trendy people’ for this ‘heart-healthy’ fruit ‘appears to just
double every year’ (quoted in Daniels, 2018: 2–3). Smashed avocado is as popular in the
cafes of Bogota as it is in Brussels, Boston, or Beijing. Colombia has long been a major
producer of avocados for domestic consumption, but has the potential to become one of the
world’s largest exporters (PTP and LKS, 2013). Rising demand from China, the US, and
Europe is driving international trade. Global wholesale prices surged by 50% in 2017 and
appetite for the fruit shows no sign of abating as growers and retailers struggle to maintain
supplies (Butler and Jones, 2017). Colombian exports grew exponentially from an average of
5401 (US$) per year between 1997 and 2007 to over 52 million (US$) in 2017 (see Figure 1).
The Colombian government is actively promoting avocado exports and their policies are
shaping agricultural practices. In the north east region of Santander, new farming patterns
are changing relationships between the state, agricultural capital, and smallholders. Here we
ask how is the global avocado boom transforming the livelihoods of pre-existing Colombian
farmers? Although most Santander farmers only produce for the domestic market they
have still been aﬀected by the national government’s export initiative. The international
demand for avocados has spill over eﬀects on broader local economies outside of global
commodity chains. We unravel how and why government oﬃcials and agricultural extension
agents promote adherence to the requirements of consumers in Europe and the United States
even though small farmers are not capable of exporting avocados and are being at best
2Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 0(0)
left behind by the boom and at worst marginalized by the changing global political economy
We take a food systems approach to investigate both the chains of activities that interlink
production and consumption and the social context in which they are located. To explain the
food system we need to understand the material and cultural speciﬁcities that bring together
production, distribution, and trade, as well as the consumption patterns that emerge through
a whole web of relationships and transactions (Benson and Fischer, 2007; Freidberg, 2004;
Galt, 2014; Mutersbaugh, 2002). We also draw from work analysing how agricultural
livelihoods are aﬀected by changing relations in food production and consumption (Fine,
2002; Friedland, 1984). Santander’s pre-existing avocado farmers’ choices are further
enabled and constrained by other local and international actors; this includes the broader
eﬀect of changes to the political economy of agriculture and state policy eﬀorts at the
horizontal level. Our discussion of avocados is limited by the methodological challenges
of investigating international trade (Hulme, 2016). We investigate the supply region rather
than the emergence of consumer demand in China, Europe, and North America. Work by
Marsden and other food scholars has established how government policies, consumer
movements, and major supermarkets produced retail-led food supply networks for
tropical fruits in global marketplaces (Flynn et al., 2000; Marsden et al., 2000).
The article proceeds with a literature review which explores approaches for mapping
agricultural systems, followed by some notes on methodology and the Colombian case
study. ‘The avocado food system in Colombia’ section provides an overview of Latin
American agriculture, a general description of the avocado food system, and a discussion
of how increasing global demand for avocados, mediated by the export goals of the
Colombian government, shapes livelihood opportunities. Next, in the ‘Experiencing the
avocado system’ section, the experience of various farmers illustrates their diﬀerent
positions within a food system. Finally, the conclusion highlights how a newly fashionable
food is being grown in a context that produces relationships which marginalize livelihood
opportunities for local pre-existing farmers, rather than providing opportunities for them to
2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
Trade Value (US$)
Figure 1. Colombian Avocado exports 2008–2017 (UN COMTRADE, 2019).
Serrano and Brooks 3
beneﬁt from global trade boom. We argue that commodity studies need to pay greater
attention to the livelihoods displaced by production for globalized markets.
Tracing global connections in food systems
The relations between producers and consumers in international food supply chains are
often distant and anonymous, making them diﬃcult to map (Hinrichs, 2003). Food
systems frameworks were proposed to describe the stages through which an agricultural
commodity is transformed and acquires value, rather than forensically charting
transactions (Dixon, 1999). Friedland (1984), Fine (2002), and other authors have
challenged us to think of commodities as objects with a social as well as a physical
presence, immersed in cultural and historical contexts. This is important as the relations
between food production and consumption relate to how decisions or changes at one point
of a food system can aﬀect other actors and environments in distant places. In this section,
we review important transformations in the conceptualization of global relations in food
systems and highlight the need to pay deeper attention to the farmers whose livelihoods are
left behind by booms, or rapid transformations of consumption trends, in these systems.
Two landmark interventions in the study of the relations between food production and
consumption are Friedland’s (1984, 2001) commodity systems analysis and Fine’s (1994)
systems of provision (SOP). Interested in how technology, legislation, and other aspects of
the social and political environment of food systems were rapidly transforming labour and
production conditions in agriculture after the 1970s, Friedland (2001) proposed a
commodity chain analysis methodology to identify how changes outside agriculture shape
social relations within farming. Such analysis considers the political economy of the links
between production and consumption, particularly in terms of production practices,
characteristics of the labour market, producers’ organizations, application of science,
marketing and distribution, and the role of the state. Working with co-authors, Friedland
et al. (1981) and Friedland and Barton (1975) researched the lettuce and tomato industries in
the 1970s in the US, showing the consequences of agricultural mechanization on growers,
worker displacement, and shifts from male to female labour. Friedland’s studies represent an
important contribution highlighting the many factors and relations shaping farming in the
context of increasingly globalized food systems. Fine’s SOP approach also studies the
connections between production and consumption of food, but without placing a special
focus on agriculture. Instead, he calls attention to the dynamic interplay of factors along
commodity chains, including agriculture, but also banking, retail, and consumption
preferences (Fine, 1994: 520). This approach combines two perspectives: ﬁrst, it traverses
the vertical commodity chains, the relationships between diﬀerent companies and individuals
associated with the trade of a particular commodity and second examines the horizontal
context, that being the social and historical environment in which food production and
consumption are situated (Fine, 2002). Fine et al. (1996) traced the history of British sugar
consumption which is connected to changing patterns of sugar cane and sugar beet production.
The former was shaped by the geographies of British colonialism in the Caribbean, and the
latter by the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, alongside other historical and
political factors outside the immediate domain of sugar supply chains (Mintz, 1985). The SOP
approach emphasizes the importance of studying not only the relations between actors along
food supply chains but also the social and historical environment in which those relations are
situated, yet this wider awareness of the regional impacts has been overlooked in many recent
studies of global food production that have reiﬁed the production of high-value food
commodities for northern consumers.
4Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 0(0)
Parallel to developments in the study of global networks around food systems,
Global Value Chains (GVCs), Global Production Networks (GPNs), and ‘follow the
thing’ approaches developed as tools for understanding links between production and
consumption both in food and non-food sectors (Gereﬃ, 1994; Hess and Coe, 2006).
GVC and GPN approaches have examined how particular ﬁrms capture proﬁt by
controlling nodes in commodity networks and which actors have the power to deﬁne the
price and characteristics of a product (McGrath, 2013). In agricultural research, GVC
analysis has been used to trace the displacement of smallholder agriculture in Ghana due
to the changes in European consumers’ preferences for a new pineapple variety (Fold and
Gough, 2008). The GPN approach has served to analyse the role of government policies. For
instance, McGrath (2013) shows that the Brazilian state actively reproduces exploitative
labour conditions in the sugar cane industry in order to meet the demands of
international buyers. Cook (2004) uses the multi-sited ethnographic ‘follow the thing’
approach to map the economic biography of a single papaya as he follows the fruit from
a farm in Jamaica to London. By narrating not only economic transactions, but also
personal stories, Cook et al. (2006) are able to expose meanings and social relations in
global trade. Yet there are limits to this method as the conditions for trade depend upon
historical relations that exceed the links that can be mapped by tracing the journey of a
single fruit from ﬁeld to fork. The focus of these approaches on power relations between
diﬀerent actors in global networks and the value of the personal stories from people
experiencing these networks has inﬂuenced the scholarship on food systems. Building on
the work of Friedland, Fine, and other developments in the study of global networks, food
systems scholars have sought to conceptualize relevant relations in food systems in
increasingly comprehensive ways. Goodman and Dupuis (2002) make a call to link
political economy production-centred analyses with cultural approaches to consumption.
The authors claim that in order to bridge the divide it is necessary to consider the interaction
between knowledge and material practices along the diﬀerent places of food production and
consumption. This type of analysis reveals that the meanings, desires, and cultural norms in
conjunction with the physical and nutritional qualities of food shape the popularity of a
product (Benson and Fischer, 2007; Dixon, 2002; Dupuis, 2002; Freidberg, 2004). Freidberg
(2004), for instance, studies two chains of vegetable trade between Africa and Europe, and
shows how demands for homogenous food from consumers in Britain and France have
created new forms of domination as supermarkets place strict quality demands upon
smallholders in the former colonies of Zambia and Burkina Faso. The possibility to
institute those requirements is associated with both emotions and biophysical processes,
including fear of food poisoning from consumers in Europe and economic insecurities of
small-scale farmers in Africa. Benson and Fischer (2007) show how US consumers’ desires
for healthy broccoli oﬀer export opportunities for farmers in Guatemala that fulﬁl their
livelihood needs and desires for a modern life, while also transferring risk to them. These
approaches signal an increased interest on consumers and the cultural and political contexts
where food systems are embedded. Recent scholarship has further focused on how consumer
values are fuelling change along food systems. Millennial interests in health, lifestyle,
sustainability, and ethical standards have promoted the emergence of alternative food
networks, particularly around organic food and fair trade. However, these concerns may
lead to diﬀerent outcomes along food systems. A growing scholarship on food justice
highlights how alternative networks share many characteristics of the industrial global
food supply, represent the values of white middle and upper classes, and marginalize
minorities (Alkon and Agyeman, 2011; Guthman, 2014). Trauger (2015) and Wilson and
Jackson (2016) study the consequences of fair trade bananas for producers in the Caribbean
Serrano and Brooks 5
and suggest that fair trade schemes impose the values of consumers and companies in the
global North over Caribbean workers and producers, in many cases leading to a
deterioration in working conditions in producing regions. The ethical concerns of
consumers in wealthy countries can aggravate the livelihoods of farmers in the global South.
Other scholars have emphasized the role of the policy environment around food chains as
governments and other organizations play key roles mediating relations between diﬀerent actors.
For instance, Mutersbaugh (2002) and Galt (2014) point out how the regulatory environment
signiﬁcantly shapes the distribution of costs and beneﬁts in food systems. Mutersbaugh (2002)
studies the eﬀects of coﬀee certiﬁcations, ﬁnding that they create onerous new costs that rest
unequally on small growers and producer organizations. Galt (2014) ﬁnds that diﬀerent
conditions such as the biophysical environment, governance structures, market signals, and
extra-economic regulations in domestic and export markets determine pesticide use and shape
how agrochemical companies and banks can capture larger shares of value from farming
activities, at the expense of the health and economic conditions of farmers and farmworkers.
Galt (2012) also reveals how approaches to protection from pesticides based on prescriptive
‘rational’ expectations about farmers’ knowledge and behaviour ignore the conditions shaping
farmers’ pesticide use and fail to aﬀord adequate protection. These studies expose how policies
and certiﬁcations shape not only conditions of exchange, but also environmental and health risks
and decision-making power for workers and other growers.
Studies on global relations in food systems trace the connections between food production
and consumption and have progressively paid more attention to other relevant aspects beyond
those linear connections. These aspects include the role of cultural norms (Benson and Fischer,
2007; Freidberg, 2004), the organic or biophysical conditions of food and its environment
(Freidberg, 2004, 2009; Galt, 2014), the consequences of consumers’ ethical concerns for
producers (Guthman, 2014; Trauger, 2015; Wilson and Jackson, 2016), and the role of
broader institutions shaping the relations beyond linear commodity chains (Galt, 2012;
Mutersbaugh, 2005). In the present study, we follow a comparable food systems approach
and traverse part of the avocado system in Colombia to understand what type of agricultural
practices and livelihoods are being developed. We go beyond linear relations between
consumers and producers to investigate the eﬀects of changing consumption trends on
traditional avocado farmers who cannot satisfy demand for a trending avocado variety and
are left behind in a context of increasing opportunities for wealthier growers. Analysing the
impacts of the avocado consumption boom requires documenting the relations that take fruits
from the tree to the table, but, more importantly, an understanding of why these relations
happen in the ﬁrst place and how the eﬀects of these relationships are transmitted for diﬀerent
producers. In practice, this entails examining the material processes that make the provision of
avocados possible and interpreting the processes that create value in avocados. As we discuss
below, the material properties of the diﬀerent avocado varieties grown in Colombia aﬀect
consumption patterns as well as agricultural production. At the same time, consumer
preferences for certain varieties and product qualities, in conjunction with the priority
assigned to export-oriented policies by the government, have transformed livelihood and
business opportunities for producers. Yet not only have they changed practices for export-
oriented farmers, but they have also changed the livelihoods of small-scale farmers who only
produce for a pre-existing domestic market.
Researching avocado agriculture in Colombia
Inequalities in agriculture have increased in Colombia in the past decades and led to violent
conﬂicts over land (Richani, 2013; Thomson, 2011). Our ﬁeld research was undertaken in
6Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 0(0)
Santander, traditionally one of the largest avocado-producing regions, which in the past
decade has lost comparative importance in avocado production (PTP and LKS, 2013). A
region in ﬂux shows how both livelihood possibilities change under evolving market
conditions and reﬂect how diﬀerent types of agricultural practices prevail. Through our
analysis, the changing circumstances of farmers in Santander are linked to global avocado
consumption, as they are mediated by the state, and national and international trade.
The economy of Santander relies mainly on manufacturing (DANE, 2015a).
Bucaramanga, the capital of Santander, is an aﬄuent city; however, rural areas are
signiﬁcantly deprived, and inequality persists. Twenty per cent of people are below the
poverty line, and extreme poverty has risen in recent years (DANE, 2015b). Our research
was mostly conducted in the neighbouring municipalities of San Vicente de Chucurı
Carmen de Chucurı
´, an important avocado-producing area with very good land quality, but
limited road access (PTP and LKS, 2013). Farms vary in size, with the largest (more than
400 hectares) on the main road to Bucaramanga and the smallest ones (less than 4 hectares)
located near hard-to-access tracks. Before producing avocados, San Vicente and El Carmen
focused on coﬀee, ﬁrst, and cocoa, later. Avocado trees were initially used to give shade for
other crops, and then their fruit became an important crop. Most avocado farmers in this
region have grown this crop for decades.
Interviews were used as the primary methodology and focused on the experience of each
actor within the food system and their relations with other actors. The purpose was to use an
in-depth and open-ended approach to the dynamics of the avocado sector and, most
importantly, to explore how these dynamics shaped the everyday life of research
participants. Most interviews were at interviewees’ workplaces. As a consequence, we
were able to learn not only from their verbal answers, but also from observations of
farms, warehouses, and other sites. A total of 27 interviews were conducted by a native
Spanish speaker. Most interviews involved avocado farmers, but some included traders and
people who implement government agricultural policies. Interviews were complemented by a
secondary review of formal documents and oﬃcial statistics on avocado production and
trade (e.g. CBI Ministry of Foreign Aﬀairs, 2013; DANE, 2014; PTP and LKS, 2013). These
constitute oﬃcial sources of textual data where it is possible to see some of the ways in which
policymakers and practitioners are shaping the avocado system.
The avocado food system in Colombia
In this section, we ﬁrst provide a brief overview of Latin America’s historical role in global
food systems. Second, we discuss the millennial boom in avocado consumption. Next, we
sketch the overall context of Colombian avocado farming and the state’s export plans.
Finally, we map the international and domestic supply networks.
Latin America has long played a crucial role in producing agricultural resources to meet
global demands, especially tropical colonial products such as rubber, sugar, and bananas
(Bucheli, 2005; Frank and Musacchio, 2006; Mintz, 1985). More recently perishable crops
including berries, cut ﬂowers, and kiwifruit have been produced for export, facilitated by
improvements in transport infrastructure (Challies and Murray, 2011). These are the types of
exotic products particularly popular among millennials (Saulo, 2016). During the last
decades, several Latin American governments have encouraged export-oriented models of
large-scale agriculture that can potentially deliver higher crop yields by incorporating more
eﬃcient biotechnologies. Greater investment has come from transnational corporations,
local capitalists, and international lending and aid organizations (Renfrew, 2011).
The agricultural policies of many Latin American states have focused on promoting
Serrano and Brooks 7
opportunities for investors over creating livelihood possibilities for farmers or controlling
the environmental impacts of production (McGrath, 2013). Avocados have recently been
championed by Latin American states who have capitalized on a booming international
market. Between 2004 and 2014 the international avocado trade almost tripled
(FAOSTAT, 2014). In the United States and Europe, consumption increased by more
than 40% between 2010 and 2015, while in China it grew by an incredible 126,000% over
the same period (CBI Ministry of Foreign Aﬀairs, 2015; Ferdman, 2015; HSBC, 2015).
International marketing campaigns and dietary guidelines have encouraged consumers to
eat more avocados. Medical studies of the health beneﬁts funded by trade groups have
further catalysed consumer interest (Hass Avocado Board, 2016a, 2016b; Khazan, 2015;
Wang et al., 2015). Promotional activities are speciﬁcally associated with the Hass variety.
The ‘Love one todayÕ’ campaign popularizes a very particular idea about the size and shape
of an avocado and encourages consumers to share their avocado images on social media with
the hashtag #loveonetoday (Hass Avocado Board, 2016a). Digital technologies facilitate
searches about food and eating practices, although the eﬀects can be diﬃcult to map
(Lupton, 2017). Only 2,062 posts on Instagram have used the #loveonetoday hashtag and,
in comparison, a search for #avocado returned 8,297,431 posts.
This suggests that the
popularity of avocados is more associated with individual choice. But #loveonetoday is
just one market intervention, the cumulative eﬀect of a wide suite of advertising, as well
as social media activities, endorsements, new recipes, menus, promotions, and retail oﬀers
has led consumers to gravitate towards collective positions and popularized avocado
consumption (Saulo, 2016). Moreover, the type of avocado consumption that is popular
mirrors the objectives of the formal Hass campaign.
A reoccurring motivation for avocado consumption discussed across diverse media is the
health beneﬁts and nutritional content and their position in a particular diet and associated
lifestyle. The Hass Avocado Board (2016b) describes eating avocados as ‘a way of life,
a delicious way of life’ (11). Only the small and durable Hass avocados can fulﬁl the
lifestyle promises, so increasing demand is coupled with very speciﬁc requirements.
Purchase decisions are mainly inﬂuenced by the physical conditions of avocados: they
must be the right size, have bright skin, and be ﬂawless fruits (Gamble et al., 2010; Hass
Avocado Board, 2016a; Restrepo, 2014).
Opportunities for avocado farmers are restricted by multiple factors, in addition to the
appearance of the fruit. Avocado consumption, trading requirements, and production
conditions have shaped each other, creating and transforming the political economy of
production regions. A small-scale farmer who sells in the domestic market is realistically
unable to sell avocados abroad. Global avocado food systems are composed of distinct roles
for diﬀerent actors who face signiﬁcant barriers to perform other activities (Henderson et al.,
2002). In order for Colombian avocados to be traded internationally, they must be
accredited for good agricultural practices, and have phytosanitary certiﬁcation, export
authorization, and chemical test results, all issued by Colombian authorities, as well as an
international certiﬁcation of good agricultural practices from the GlobalG.A.P. certiﬁcation
body (CBI Ministry of Foreign Aﬀairs, 2013; ICA, n.d.).
The majority of global avocado exports originate in Mexico, Chile, Peru, Spain, and
South Africa and the major importers are the United States, the Netherlands, France,
Japan, and the United Kingdom (FAOSTAT, 2012; PTP and LKS, 2013). The United
States, the largest importer, represents an attractive market for avocado producers,
especially for those in nearby Latin America (FAOSTAT, 2012; Vanguardia Liberal,
2015). Import regulations are restrictive and Colombian avocados only recently gained
access to the United States. In the case of the United Kingdom, France, and other
8Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 0(0)
European countries, avocado imports come from more than 40 countries (International
Trade Center, 2015). However, export opportunities are still highly restricted, and any
avocado found on the shelf in Europe did not arrive there by chance. It was most likely
intended to reach that part of the world ever since the tree was planted.
Hass avocados predominate in the markets of the global North because they can survive
inter-continental shipment and meet the requirements of traders, retailers and, ultimately,
the cultural norms expected by consumers (Restrepo, 2014). Hass avocados are only grown
starting at 1500 metres above sea level (green and native varieties can be grown at lower
elevations). They are well suited to export because they have a thick shell preventing damage
and can take more than two weeks to ripen, which enables them to be transported by trucks
and boats from farms in Colombia to Europe (Bernal et al., 2008; Restrepo, 2014). These
attributes are important, as retailers demand fruits in perfect and homogenous conditions,
ideally in the same volume and quality. Moreover, international buyers commonly only pay
for an order after they have received it (Restrepo, 2014). So, producers must be able to aﬀord
the costs of growing and delivering avocados, while their payment arrives two to six weeks
after dispatch. Therefore, only growers with the capacity to aﬀord the ﬁnancial outlay,
located in areas suitable for Hass avocado, which produce suﬃcient yields, and implement
the required managerial practices, are able to beneﬁt from the opportunities presented by
European and other overseas markets.
The Colombian government is trying to promote avocado exports. As Juan Manuel
Santos, Colombia’s former president, explained ‘We managed to open the market for
Colombian avocados, which is a golden opportunity for thousands and thousands of
farmers and trade in general’ (Caracol Radio, 2017). The National Avocado Council, an
advisory body to the government, is focused on supporting groups of avocado producers to
jointly build the infrastructure and pay for the certiﬁcations required for export. To comply
with the international requirements production must follow speciﬁc technical practices.
Trade links determine the portion of value that each actor can capture (Gereﬃ and
Karina, 2011). Every kilo of avocados exported from Colombia is sold on international
markets for an average of 2.2 US dollars (FAOSTAT, 2012). In sharp contrast, the
average price paid to Colombian producers (including those selling for national and
international markets) is 0.57 dollars per kilo (DANE, 2014), although this average
conceals disparities. Some interviewees claimed to receive 0.33 dollars per kilo, while
others reported prices around 1.85 dollars per kilo. Despite the diﬀerences, averages
illustrate the contrast between the opportunities in domestic and international markets.
The state is actively transforming the system. Government policies emphasize that
Colombia must export avocados and farmers must adopt new production practices
to satisfy international markets. One of the main policies is the Ministry of Trade’s
Productive Transformation Program (PTP), which ‘seeks the internationalization of the
Colombian economy through the modernization and transformation of the productive
apparatus’ (PTP and LKS, 2013). The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development
(MADR, Spanish abbreviation) and the horticulture trade group, Asohofrucol (which
manages the national horticultural fund, assigned by the MADR), have focused on
transforming avocado farming, among other crops, prioritising: ‘the standardization of
production quality, market expansion and consolidation, fruit transformation and
industrialization’ (MADR, 2009: 7). According to Asohofrucol (2012), it has provided
technical assistance to over 15,000 fruit and vegetable farmers, including teaching
planting techniques, how to handle crop pests, and business practices. Additionally,
avocado is one of the prioritized products for Colombia Siembra, a policy designed to
increase the supply of agricultural products and promote exports by giving credit
Serrano and Brooks 9
subsidies for new crops (MADR, 2015, 2016). Between 2011 and 2016 the planted area of
avocado in Colombia grew from 35,211 to 66,921 hectares (DANE, 2016). In the same
period, exports have increased, and domestic prices have been relatively stable (DANE,
2018; UN COMTRADE, 2019).
Government-sponsored programmes are increasing avocado productivity and
standardization to meet the requirements for international trade. As the GPN approach
(Henderson et al., 2002) suggests, actors beyond the ﬁrms that compose the avocado
production network are actively shaping how this fruit is produced. But, more
importantly, the relations described show the inseparable links between consumption and
production activities. As highlighted in SOP research, this includes the vertical relations
between avocado producers, traders, retailers, and consumers which determine the
distribution of value along the avocado commodity chain, as well as the wider, horizontal,
political economy context of the Colombian government’s eﬀorts to diversify agricultural
exports and boost national income (Fine, 1994). In this case, it is possible to see how
consumption preferences and trade requirements literally shape avocados. Crops are
aﬀected by environmental circumstances; seasonal yields vary and fruits of diﬀerent sizes,
weights, and appearances grow. But in order to produce homogenous Hass fruits with bright
surfaces and equal weight it is necessary to implement highly controlled production
techniques and produce a new rural environment. However, these technologies are not
available to everyone.
Colombia has a big domestic market for avocados and receives imports from
neighbouring countries. Indistinguishable fruits from Ecuador and Venezuela, including
the popular green varieties, are sold alongside domestic avocados. While demanding a
broader range of varieties, large supermarket chains in Colombia require similar quality
standards and regular supplies as international buyers. Supermarkets often withhold
payment for weeks and only buy standardized fruits from well-capitalized producers. In
other words, these commercial relations are shaped by buyer-driven power (Kleine, 2008).
Similarly, wholesalers often pay their suppliers after selling an order. In wholesale centres
transactions are frequently informal and depend on trust between people with established
business relations. Only suppliers with a regular stock of products can build strong relations
and direct sales are mainly restricted to large producers or itinerant traders, as discussed
below. Wholesale clients are relatively diverse and include street vendors, restaurants,
supermarkets, other marketplaces and, frequently, even their own suppliers, as suppliers
may buy other fruits to sell elsewhere. Payment conditions are highly dependent on each
client, but the most inﬂuential is demand credit. For wholesalers to maintain their clients,
they need to oﬀer a constant supply that meets the conditions demanded by large clients.
Other important actors in this system are itinerant traders, or cacharreros. They drive
around agricultural regions and buy produce to supply wholesale centres. Areas with poor
access are usually served by one single trader and farmers in those regions have little
bargaining power (Galt, 2012). Cacharreros usually buy products of varied qualities and
pay in cash but pay low and variable prices. Low payments and unstable trading conditions
mainly aﬀect the smaller farmers whose harvests are insuﬃcient to cover the costs of taking
their products to other markets. Cacharreros need to have the ﬁnancial capacity to aﬀord to
pay producers upfront and to sell to wholesalers on credit and are literally the main drivers
connecting the places of production and consumption. Connections between farming and
retail vary (see Figure 2). Some farmers are able to gain higher proﬁts by avoiding
intermediary traders, including producers who sell directly to shops, restaurants, or
consumers and farmers grouped into producer associations, which can build relations
with commercial clients (Fine and Leopold, 1993).
10 Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 0(0)
Experiencing the avocado system
Some of the most crucial actors in charge of promoting the ‘technicalization’ required to
produce fruits that can meet export requirements are Asohofrucol agricultural extension
agents. Two of them working in Santander explained that technicalization involves using
certiﬁed seeds, having a fertilization plan, renovating trees (cutting old ones down and
planting or grafting new ones), and monocropping. As the Asohofrucol regional
coordinator for Santander discussed, ‘avocado crops are to be handled alone. That idea
of mixing so many trees does not work’ (J.P. Salamanca 2015, Interview, 10 June).
Asohofrucol oﬀers ﬁeld trainings to engage associations of producers interested in
learning these techniques, where extension agents teach cropping and business practices.
The training closes with a practical test to select the best producers for further assistance
on production, marketing, and business support.
The prescriptions oﬀered by Asohofrucol are supposed to increase fruit production and
minimize losses, but there is a perception that farmers fail to see the beneﬁts of adopting the
technicalization conﬂicts a bit with production culture (...) some producers do not see the result
of how genetically improved plantations work and the eﬀect of technology-intensive crops,
clones or varieties, because they expect to give the new variety the same treatment as a
traditional crop. (J.P. Salamanca 2015, Interview, 10 June)
The problems were attributed to cultural traits: ‘People from Santander have a character.
It is diﬃcult that they give-in. The culture has a lot to do. The culture here is diﬃcult’
(D. Morales 2015, Interview, 19 June). Governments and the agrochemical industry often
blame the limitations of capital-intensive farming practices on a cultural deﬁciency of
farmers (Galt, 2012). Here, extension agents reduce material constraints that include
Figure 2. Diagram of avocado trade relations.
Serrano and Brooks 11
access to markets and capital, and seasonal environmental conditions, to farmers’ inability
to adapt. The policy emphasis on avocado exports has set export-quality standards as the
norm. Farmers unable to reach these standards are perceived as failures, despite the fact that
they have long produced avocados that are consumed locally.
Handling crops according to customary practices lies outside of deﬁnitions of good
production. The adjectives of ‘technical’, ‘well managed’, and ‘rational’ are restricted to
those who follow a speciﬁc model of intensive technology and standardized practices.
The La Bodega
farm in San Vicente is a good example. Alejandro, its owner, is a
businessman with investments in agroindustry and real estate sectors. He mainly grows
citrus and avocados. These crops are clearly separated and managed in diﬀerent and
specialized ways. To learn how to plant and handle avocado crops, Alejandro travelled to
Chile and visited several monocrop farms, and hired an agronomist.
At La Bodega, avocado trees are perfectly aligned on ridges, treated with pesticides when
workers detect fungi or certain insects and irrigated by fertilized dripping. Consequently, the
harvests are less vulnerable to seasonal changes (e.g. precipitation) and oﬀer relatively
constant production throughout the year, with two mild yield peaks. Two employees
serve every 8 hectares of avocado crops. A farm truck delivers fruit directly to restaurants
in Bucaramanga, some of them owned by personal friends of Alejandro, who deal with a
commercial manager. Sales are formalized in a yearly contract that ﬁxes conditions
(including fruit quality, prices, and payment conditions). Alejandro is currently focused
on selling in the national market, as the green avocado varieties he can produce are not
suitable for export. However, he would be interested in exporting if there was demand for
green avocados. He has the technical capacity to produce homogeneous fruits, in constant
volume and quality throughout the year. Farming practices at La Bodega required
substantial investments, enabled by Alejandro’s capital from other business ventures. His
farm now delivers high productivity and proﬁts.
As in Alejandro’s case, the farms owned or managed by Jorge, Julio, Gerardo, and
Nestor, directly serve consumers, shops, or wholesalers, skipping at least one possible
intermediary in the value chain. Many of them have personal connections that allow them
to sell directly to restaurants or retailers and are able to hire sales people. In all of these
farms, trading and agricultural tasks are usually divided between diﬀerent employees.
Avocados are planted as monocrops. Fertilization, fumigation, and sometimes irrigation
are performed according to standardized procedures. These activities and the related pay
rolls are usually ﬁnanced by proﬁts coming from other businesses. The owners of these farms
all have something in common: they do not work on their own land. They have the
possibility to invest revenues from other economic activities into their crops and do not
rely solely on farming to earn a livelihood. They are investors and their farms are sources of
proﬁt. They have started growing avocado in the last 10 years and are beneﬁting from the
possibilities brought by an expanding avocado market.
In contrast to these larger commercial farms, there are farmers for whom avocado
agriculture is their primary livelihood. Andres and his father, Pablo, have been in the
business for much longer. They have less technical approaches to land management and
produce a diﬀerent type of agricultural landscape. It takes an avocado tree approximately
three years to provide the ﬁrst harvest, therefore Andres planted quick-growing plantain in
between trees, to provide some income and pay for the costs of planting. Pablo, Andres’s
father, owns an older avocado crop that has been producing for decades. Pablo has cocoa or
mango trees and cassava plants between his avocado trees. At a distance, the variety of trees
in Pablo’s farm seems an indistinguishable me
´lange that contrasts with the landscape at
Alejandro’s farm. However, high productivity is not Pablo’s priority. Instead, he is
12 Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 0(0)
worried about having constant revenue, in the context of the risks he faces such as pests, low
prices, or low yields in any of his crops.
Pablo and Andres plant cocoa, mango, cassava, or plantain between the avocado trees
because ‘it would be a shame to lose that space’ (P. Mejı
´a 2015, Interview, 11 June). This
practice may reduce the productivity of each avocado tree but enables diverse production in
a limited area. Furthermore, Pablo, as with many other farmers, ﬁnds that intercalating
diﬀerent types of trees contributes to limiting the spread of pests and provides several
sources of income he can rely on when one crop is not producing or the price is too low.
Other farmers also highlight the role of plant assortment in contributing to the diversity of
soil nutrients. These multi-cropping practices may result in a lower average income for
Pablo, but also reduce expenditure on pesticides and fertilizers and provide a reliable
income to maintain his livelihood.
Each year, Pablo gets two major avocado harvests, one or two cocoa and cassava
harvests, one mango harvest, and some sporadic yields throughout the year. He cannot
aﬀord an irrigation system that could enable constant production. In order to buy one, he
could take out a loan, using land as collateral. However, he is not willing to do this as his
family’s livelihood would be at risk if he failed to make repayments. Without an irrigation
system his harvest depends on seasonal weather. Favourable weather results in high regional
yields and a glut of avocados on the market depresses the prices. Therefore, Pablo gets the
lowest prices per avocado, precisely when he has the highest amount of produce.
Andres and Pablo sell their produce to cacharreros who drive by their farms every week.
In recent years, they have searched for alternative ways to market their products. When they
tried to supply a wholesaler directly, sales were diﬃcult as they were unable to create regular
trading relations and were oﬀered low prices. Their yields were too low to supply
supermarkets. Pablo says,
I’ve tried selling all around the country. Leaving the farm at 9pm, to meet at 2am with a guy who
has monopolized the wholesale center and tells me that avocados are one thousand pesos [US
0.33 per kilo] today. As a small farmer with a full truck, I have to sell them at one thousand [a
very low price]. (P. Mejı
´a 2015, Interview, 11 June)
The conditions set by the wholesaler are Pablo’s only option. In contrast, wholesalers have
an increasing range of suppliers to choose from. According to Carlos, a long-time
wholesaler, 20 years ago he only knew of three large industrialized producers, ‘It was a
diﬀerent story. Today, there are over a thousand producers’ (C.Ruı
´z, Interview, 15 June).
So, as Alejandro and other business people are attracted to the opportunities oﬀered by the
increased consumption of avocados, stable prices, and export prospects, Pablo’s sale
opportunities are shrinking.
‘What we need is support to sell. To produce ...we know how to produce. But see?
The Opossums end up eating it’ (P. Mejı
´a 2015, Interview, 11 June) says Pablo, while
pointing at produce decomposing on the ground of his farm. He has been growing
avocado for over 30 years and has complete conﬁdence in his agricultural techniques.
Pablo is reluctant to adopt more industrialized practices requiring high investments, as
him and many others recall how small farmers with monocrops or debts to pay for
irrigation have been driven out of business in times of pests and low prices. Additionally,
these practices would not solve his main diﬃculty: accessing the higher value and more stable
markets that Alejandro and other large producers are able to access. As mentioned earlier,
only farmers willing to adopt the practices prescribed by Asohofrucol are oﬀered technical
assistance, which includes marketing and crucially business advice. Farmers committed to
more traditional agricultural practices are considered culturally unsuited. Long-standing
Serrano and Brooks 13
avocado farmers like Pablo are disadvantaged and left behind. They cannot get the state
support they need as the government’s policy objectives are dominated by export-oriented
Wilmer, Carmenza, and Jose
´describe similar cropping practices to those of Pablo.
However, they own smaller areas of land that do not provide a suﬃcient income to pay
for nutritious meals every day. Like many other farmers in the area, they have tall and old
trees around 10 metres high and sometimes more than 40 years old that are less productive
than younger plants. These farmers cannot aﬀord to cut down old trees to graft or plant new
ones, as this would mean waiting one to three years for the next harvest. They keep less
productive plants to survive and supplement farm income with low-paid insecure work on
other farmers’ land. Agricultural labour in the region, as in many areas of Colombia, is
usually hired on a temporary basis, at a daily rate below the minimum wage, and without
any social security beneﬁts. These impoverished farmers are stuck with the conditions oﬀered
by cacharreros. Moreover, cacharreros know this, and sometimes pay them even less than
they pay farmers like Pablo who can aﬀord to seek alternative clients. Therefore, those with
the greatest need and least productivity are paid the lowest prices for their produce. The
distribution of land in the region and labour conditions in rural Colombia, among many
other historical and social horizontal factors shape the livelihood possibilities of each of these
farmers, beyond the relations between the actors involved in the avocado production
network (Fine, 2002; Friedland, 1984).
As more avocado markets open for Colombian producers in general, opportunities for
long-term small farmers are closed, and inequalities among agricultural producers widen.
Export prospects, stable retail prices in the domestic market, and the support oﬀered by the
government have made this crop more attractive for business people like Alejandro, Jorge,
Julio, Gerardo, and Nestor. Revenue from other businesses allows them to make the
investments to produce homogenous fruits all year-round and hire sales people to market
their produce. In contrast, experienced small-scale farmers are squeezed out of markets.
With lower relative power to bargain with sales intermediaries and no direct channels to
consumers and retailers, they are forced to accept lower prices. Additionally, the practices
that allow small farmers to sustain low-investment crops to stay in business render them
unable to access the marketing and business advice now available through Asohofrucol to
other farmers. Instead of proﬁting from the booming avocado business, small farmers are
struggling more and more to sustain their livelihoods.
Left behind in a globalized food system
Our research has demonstrated how global food systems have wider aﬀects on agricultural
regions beyond the linear relationships mapped in commodity chain studies. Global demand
for avocados and Colombia’s exports are booming, but small farmers in the long standing
production region of Santander are at risk of failing. Pablo, Andres, and many others have
not proﬁted and face pressures to adopt unsustainable production strategies. Pre-existing
farmers are not materially connected to international supply networks and their fruits do not
reach new consumers in Europe, North America, or China, but they are enveloped in the
same avocado food system. Using methods common to the family of approaches that
encompasses GVC and GPN, our research has focused attention on the farmers who are
left behind by new globalized patterns of agricultural production. Drawing on the system of
provision approach we have moved beyond the usual vertical relationships mapped in
commodity studies to assess both the wider horizontal factors that shape the political
economy of avocado production and the broader regional impacts on livelihoods outside
14 Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 0(0)
of global trade. This methodology helps us understand the roles that governments, traders,
interest groups, and retailers play in transmitting the demands of consumers in Europe and
the U.S. via global supply networks to Santander and how this eﬀect carries beyond export-
Ben Fine (1994) argues that the organic characteristics of food at both extreme ends of
systems are crucially signiﬁcant and that the social and economic factors of SOP determine
each other in historically contingent ways. We can extend this argument by adding that they
not only determine one another, but also they can further determine livelihoods outside of
global food systems. Small and ﬂawless Haas avocados that meet international demand can
only be produced all year-round in monocrops, under standardized and capital-intensive
cropping practices unavailable to small livelihood farmers. Pre-existing farmers need to grow
more than avocados and engage in activities that provide a stable, less risky income. New
investors like Alejandro are attracted by export prospects and compete in local markets that
Pablo and other small farmers used to supply. The deterioration in their livelihood
opportunities has been mediated by the government and materialized through agricultural
extension agents. By promoting technicalization and oﬀering business support to new
producers, extension agents contribute to squeezing pre-existing farmers out of domestic
markets. Extension agents attribute farmers’ resistance to change to irrational ‘cultural
traits’. Their actions may not be rational in the sense of the classical characteristics
associated with the gendered and abstract ﬁgure of Economic Man who with his complete
knowledge of the global market, entrepreneurial spirit, and self-interest would always choose
to maximize proﬁt (Galt, 2012). But through detailed ﬁeldwork we can understand how
livelihood farmers’ choices are rational and risk averse.
Using a food systems approach has enabled us to take our analysis further than just
explaining the decision-making processes of livelihood farmers (Fine, 2002; Friedland, 1984).
We can explain how they are being impoverished by the state’s manipulation of the market.
Examining the global and regional contexts in which a new fashionable food system has
emerged, has enabled us to reveal how diﬀerent farming approaches have developed.
Powerful connections between capital – which includes transnational corporations, local
capitalists, and international organizations – and the Colombian state have promoted a
particular vision for society and agriculture (Galt, 2014). Rather than a simple conversion
from livelihood to technology-intensive agriculture, the government is promoting a takeover
of agriculture by investment capital. This is a political decision, not a simple outcome of market
forces as it is led through the state. The standardized Hass fruits produced in technology-
intensive crops are not the only avocados in demand. Imported light green avocados are
reaching the same wholesale centres as avocados produced by poorer livelihood farmers,
demonstrating that there is demand and a commercially attractive market for these green
avocados in Colombia. We could not have understood these dynamics if we simply mapped
the linear, vertical commodity chain and examined the livelihoods of only those who produce
Haas avocados for global markets. Food system analyses oﬀer a perspective to identify how
relationships in markets transform environments, livelihoods, and opportunities for capital
accumulation (Hinrichs, 2003). Studying the avocado food system beyond the borders of
linear supply chains enables us to recognize the relationship between agricultural policies
and diﬀerent farmers’ livelihoods. Choosing, selling, promoting, or regulating an avocado
shapes the livelihoods and landscapes of many apparently disconnected, but actually
inextricably interconnected actors and places.
It is easy to reify fashionable products like Haas avocados, but a narrow focus on
individual ‘things’ can constrain horizons. Our research has demonstrated that global
food systems have broader agency in the transformation of agricultural regions than
Serrano and Brooks 15
can be mapped by following the production of farm goods or tracing the vertical
connections in trade networks. There does not need to be a physical connection
between consumption and production for there to be an aﬀect. Other livelihoods are
impacted by consumers’ desires and retail trends (Guthman, 2014; Trauger, 2015). Our
work reinforced the notion that relations in global food systems are often distant and
anonymous (Hinrichs, 2003). These relations are not dependent on traceable transactions
and can further be determined by transformations to regional political economies.
Understanding these contexts requires in-depth ﬁeldwork across agricultural regions.
Our work has shown how there is a hidden geography to global food systems. Small
farmers can be left behind and struggle to make a living when they are on the margins of
globalized trade patterns. Global-scale consumer demand for foods aﬀects distant
agricultural livelihoods, including livelihoods of which consumers are not only
unaware, but to which they have never been materially connected.
.Analyses of global food systems need to consider connections beyond linear commodity
chains to understand how new patterns of production and consumption modify or
displace existing local farmers’ livelihoods.
.This paper investigates how the recent global boom in avocado consumption has
impacted the livelihoods of traditional avocado farmers in Santander, Colombia.
.Export prospects, stable prices, and government support have made avocado crops more
attractive for investors, who can fulﬁl strict quality requirements.
.Farmers who cannot produce export-quality avocados are squeezed out from the
domestic market due to increased competition and lack of government support and left
behind in a globalized market.
We want to thank the reviewers for their sound advice and relevant questions, which helped us to
improve this manuscript.
Declaration of conflicting interests
The author(s) declared no potential conﬂicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article.
The author(s) received no ﬁnancial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
1. Searches were undertaken at www.instagram.com on 26 July 2018.
2. All the names of farms and producers were changed to provide confidentiality to the interviewees.
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