Take Two for December 5, 2012

One man's mission to preserve endangered avocados

Avocados are labelled with the European

DPA/AFP/Getty Images

Avocados are labelled with the European Union's logo for organic food on February 15, 2012 at the BioFach trade fair for organic products in Nuremberg, southern Germany.

The humble avocado is a staple in Latin America, but it's also become quite popular in Southern California, and is used with amazing versatility in kitchens all over the globe.

You can make avocado smoothies, ice cream, you can smear it on toast or even use it as a beauty aid to condition your hair or skin. And let's not forget about guacamole. While there seems to be enough avocados to go around, some breeds of the fruit are in danger. Luckily there are people working to save this precious, and delicious, resource. 

Richard Campbell is one of the Tropical Fruit Curators at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Florida, and he's traveled the world to find and preserve rare avocados.

"The problem is that the avocado really is endangered," said Campbell on Take Two. "Due to disease, habitat loss, and market loss, they really are endangered and their varieties are dropping off the planet at an alarming rate."

Campbell and his team are particularly interested in large, smooth, green or black-skinned varieties of avocados, not the common pebbly-skinned black Hass variety so common in U.S. markets. Campbell travels to places like Indonesia, Africa, Central and South America, and even in parts of the U.S. like Florida and California, where the fruit does considerably well. 

"[We search] anywhere where people grow the West Indian-type avocado," said Campbell. "These are lowland fruit from the Caribbean and from the tropics, essentially. Everybody has a backyard tree, we talk to people that sell their fruit in local markets, find the tree and talk to the people about saving them."

But first, he must gain the trust of the avocado sellers. He usually goes through a kind of fixer. Basically, a person who markets the fruit and knows the owners and locations of all the different varieties of avocado trees in the area. 

"Otherwise you're shooting in the dark, if you just go into a market it won't work because the people in the markets are always thinking you're there to shut them down or you represent the government," said Campbell. "They always think you're doing something nefarious."

Though it takes some time to earn the trust of the tree owners, Campbell says they usually come around because they have the same interest in mind. The avocado owners want to market and sell their produce and Campbell's team wants to preserve as many breeds as possible in their genetic bank. 

Once Campbell has samples of each avocado, including pieces of the tree's branch, he grafts the plant with a seedling tree in South Florida, which is frost-free and is the perfect climate for avocados to thrive. He also has living collections in Central America, typically located at a school or near a local park. That way the local people, especially the children, learn to appreciate the fruit and continue to cultivate it in their village. 

"That's part of the big problem, with this material disappearing, they don't really realize the value of this material, and so if we can put it with the schools and work with the schools to teach the kids that this is a good resource for their village," said Campbell. "That way there's a backup in case something happens."


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