Which Fruits and Vegetables Have the Lowest Carbon Impact?

There’s nothing like a fresh salad on a hot summer day, crisp and refreshing lettuce crackling in your mouth and ripe tomatoes bursting with flavor. Or how about a delicious fruit salad to snack on, colorful and tangy, its sweetness the perfect end to a meal or revitalizing snack to get you through the doldrum of the early afternoon at work.

But what is the carbon impact of these healthy and delicious fruits and vegetables, now that we are still in prime fruit and veggie season?
It’s interesting breaking down the carbon impact of fruits and vegetables because there are many factors that go into the production and there is no set rules on how to measure it.Fruit

A big factor in production is the use of fertilizers and pesticides, which often account for 1/3 of greenhouse emissions in the production process. In many cases, these factors are so important that they overshadow the carbon output from the “transportation miles” of the product, making local worse for the environment than products shipped longer distances.

Local isn’t always necessarily better.

In addition, we need to look at the calories the item contains. A diet based on just rice and beans would be the best for the environment because rice is a high yielding caloric crop and beans are rich in protein and often don’t require as much fertilizer and pesticide to grow. A diet based on bananas, strawberries, and soy can have a higher impact on the environment because bananas require a huge amount of fertilizer and strawberries require so many pesticides that their carbon footprint is elevated – simply due to the atmospheric impact of producing, hauling, and producing these chemicals.

Be sure to read Green Blizzard Food Miles

There’s a rich array of websites that environmentally assess food options based on calories and other factors.   Many illustrate that a food item may not be as bad for the environment than previously thought because carbon per calorie ratios are low. However, this is useful to a certain extent  – no one is advocating a rice and bean diet.

Soybeans are one of the highest yielding crops in regards to calories, yet over 90% of soybeans are used to support livestock, which if used to feed humans would ensure that the whole world was fed. In addition, if you made a switch from eating strawberries every morning to eating apples, you probably wouldn’t eat more apples than strawberries based on calorie levels. Calories are useful if you are looking at subsistence level diets, but if you are looking at a normal, high to medium level caloric diet, calories aren’t a pragmatic factor to include.

A practical recommendation is to stay away from tropical fruits when possible – because of the intense fertilizer, pesticide, and transportation miles required.

Another suggestion is to buy local produce that is in season. This is critical because there are many “local” products that are grown in greenhouses. While local means that transportation costs are drastically reduced, the energy required to grow a product which includes the watering and heating costs often outweigh the transportation mileage environmental impact..

A study done illustrated how importing tomatoes from Spain to the U.K. was in many cases better for the environment than eating locally grown tomatoes out of season.  They found that heating greenhouses in the U.K. requires more fuel than growing the product under the Spanish sun and shipping it over longer distances to market.

In general, leafy greens, grains, and beans are the vegetables with the lowest carbon footprint. Trees that produce fruit and vegetables like peaches, oranges, and avocados are in the middle as are onions and corn. The worst crops are fruits like bananas and worst of all strawberries. Now this is not to say you should never eat strawberries or bananas, but that you should look at diversifying your diet if you aren’t married to eating fruits and vegetables that are more harmful for the environment. Rather than a banana with your cereal every morning try apple slices or oranges. A switch from strawberries to oranges can reduce the environmental impact of your meal by 10x, and it’s these simple changes that most people wouldn’t really notice that can help lower their environmental impact.

Sustainable Living writer John GarnettBe sure to check out our green lifestyle store Green Blizzard Store. Check out these related Green Blizzard articles: Seafood Watch, Are We Eating Fish Into Extinction, Carbon Impact of Meats, or Local Produce.


About the author

John R. Garnet

John's work in the energy market fostered his interest in the environment. He recently completed his graduate work at George Mason University, But more interestingly, John has a passion for food and cooking and to provides some light-hearted tips to make people's lives greener while enjoy the good life with everyday practical tips from brewing tea, growing basil, or drinking raw milk.