For today’s fruit and vegetable interview we are with Javier Fernández, CEO of Tropical Millenium, a Malaga based company that produces and exports tropical produce, mainly; avocados, mangoes, papayas and dragon fruit (pitayas).
Javier was born in Brussels in 1968, he is son of Spanish emigrants. Culturally Javier’s mentality is Belgian although he claims to feel Spanish.
Javier studied economics at the Catholic University of Louvain, an Erasmus sent him to Granada which is where he went on to start his working career.
Javier eventually took an opportunity to work at the “Continente Hypermarket” in Palma de Mallorca from there he was transferred to Malaga, where he settled, met his wife, and raised his family.
A lover of sports, playing tennis frequently and I would emphasize that he is a good friend of his friends. Perhaps he is one of the top three most knowledgeable people I know in foreign trade.
Javier has been associated to the avocado sector for most of his working life.
Polyglot; bilingual Spanish / French, also speaking English and Flemish in a more than remarkable way and even if he says it’s not true I know he also defends himself well in German.
With Javier we are going to talk about the avocado, also known as the “green gold”, “the bacon from the orchard”, from the literal translation of the Aztec “the third Spanish testicle” or the “new blood diamonds”.
– The Avocado is now a social phenomenon, even in Madrid there are restaurants such as Avocado love, Auakt or Bunp Green (Salamanca district) that only cook dishes that contain avocado. Demand has multiplied 4 times over in recent years and the Axarquia region (eastern Malaga) has a turnover of over 125 million euros per year. Where is the consumption ceiling in Europe?
I think that at the moment no one can say where the ceiling for avocado sales is. It has entered a new consumer audience. The public are younger and have a greater awareness for their diet.
– I have heard about an important Family Clan (famous for the porcelain figures) from the Region of Valencia, who have retired from their usual business and 12 months ago went on to plant 70 hectares of avocado, it is said that they have a further 80 hectares in the pipeline. Are you not afraid of these situations?
Yes, it is true in that there are many new expansions of production area. If consumption continues to increase by the levels that we are currently experiencing, it should not represent a risk in the short term.
– If the Region of Valencia remove their orange trees / Cádiz and Huelva they remove centenary oaks and olive trees to plant avocados, what might happen to Axarquia and its companies when it ceases to be the avocado capital of Europe?
It’s evident that you are going to see a displacement of the cultivation area towards several border areas. La Axarquía has years of knowledge of the product and the market, but following a learning period, most could reach their level of expertise.
– Do you foresee scenes similar to those seen in Almeria in which farmers felt the need to waste their cucumbers due to a sudden collapse in demand?
In the short term I do not believe that this will happen, there is still a large gap in supply and demand during the Spanish seasonal production window. This will help keep average returns reasonable for the producer. It does not mean that prices will remain at the high levels of recent years, but they will be well above breakeven.
– I have noticed there are various environmental associations backed by the tourism and R&D sectors who claim that to produce 1kg of avocado a grower needs 800 litres of water, the avocado plantations are therefore claimed to not be sustainable in Malaga. Are golf courses in Malaga compatible with avocado plantations? What would you say to those who state that the water in Malaga should be prioritised for tourism since a golf course has a yield per hectare of €200k per year while the same agricultural area does not affect the farmer more than €3k?
Well this is an obvious fight. It is not necessary to analyse only in terms of profitability per hectare, but rather as a solid economical balance and considering the positive social and environmental impact. In particular I refer to the pressure of this actual pandemic and it highlighting the need to above all else, produce food.
– If the return to the producer of the Hass variety is € 2/kg, Fuerte € 1.20 / kg, Bacón € 0.80 / kg, who is taking the rest of the final price?
Firstly, this year the prices are higher than the ones you mention, but saving the difference that it supposes, the difference is made up of all the links in the supply chain until it reaches the stores, without forgetting that we are speaking of a product that matures, has losses and high waste. Eventually if considering the costs of transport, materials, ripening, packaging, labour, storage, the difference is no longer so great.
– Peru claim to be increasing their production window, that Colombia are also beginning to export a certain volume, both these geographical locations coincide with the Malaga harvest and supply window, from February to April. Does this additional supply source situation affect Spanish avocados?
This is great challenge for Spanish production. At the moment there is a huge qualitative difference between Spanish fruit and Peruvian or Colombian fruit mainly due to transit times and also that of residency time in storage.
Markets are willing to assume a geographical spread between origins, but up to a point. It does mean that Spanish fruit is subject to price pressures not forgetting that our Spanish supply window also competes directly with Moroccan and Israeli production.
– The Netflix Series Rotten (Season 2 Episode 1), “The Avocado War” demonstrates how avocado production in order to align with the upwards consumption trend is annihilating the planet. Not forgetting this is also a product which is almost mono varietal (80% of all production is of Hass variety). The TV program specifically states that avocado production is an unsustainable large-scale cultivation, so in the medium term not so desirable. What are your thoughts?
Yes, we must all be more responsible in the face of the challenges that civilization and the environment put upon us. The unstoppable growth of the world’s population, its need for food and the limited resources, force us to make a controlled and reasoned use of soil and water. The origin of the planet’s problems do not rest with the avocado, there are huge issues in terms of contamination via multitudes of vectors of the air, water, soil, mineral with overexploitation, deforestation. However it is not right that this cultivar should contribute to its increase. Ideally more stringent governmental control measures should be put in place encompassing global worldwide production.
– The journalist Andy Robinson in his book “Gold, Oil and Avocados” reflects the reality of this crop in Mexico, where drug cartels are involved in the production and sale of avocado. It is estimated that its profits amount to more than 100 million dollars, creating a panorama of exploitation, kidnappings, truck robberies, extortion, forcing farmers to sell their avocados at ridiculous prices onto the most powerful hypermarket chain in USA and the world. Why do you think this multinational is supposedly contributing (by inaction or omission) to this situation?
This is a very delicate issue, where my opinion lacks secure information; it is based on publications, on ephemeris, on comments. I think of the saying “when the river sounds, water it carries”. What is certain is that this situation cannot be ignored by the large corporations’ in charge of marketing the product.
– In the future, could this situation affect consumption in Europe?
Consumers are becoming more and more responsible and this type of situation can lead them to rethink their shopping habits and normalize atypical situations.
– Is it more than likely that a European retailer has sold avocados from this source?
Without their implicit knowledge, I think it is very likely.
– Can avocados from Mexico be turned into the new blood diamonds?
It is a good headline for an article, but any sector that generates profits can be the victim of cartels or mafias, be it by extortion, money laundering or whatever. It means that the situation should be regulated to avoid such occurrences.
– What is the world’s largest avocado producer and what is the largest consumer country in Europe?
Without a doubt, the largest producer in the world is Mexico and the biggest consumer of avocados in Europe is France.
– What do you think of the organic avocado, is there scope for expansion in this niche?
Within responsible consumption, the consumer is increasingly attracted to organic product. The avocado does not buck this trend.
– Can an avocado from South America be considered “organic” having crossed the Atlantic?
Some think that bringing organic fruit from overseas breaks the philosophy of respect for the environment and they may have some reasoning. However are we willing to have empty shelves for several months of the year? The answer is in the purchasing response of the consumer.
– Where do you see yourself and your company four years from now?
This answer is very easy as 4 years is a pretty short span. I envisage a steady, sustainable business growth and with that I hope to feedback to you with good health and enthusiasm.
At LQA Organic we are extremely grateful to Javier Fernandez for the time he has dedicated to us in this interview, we hope you have enjoyed it!