Is Eating Blueberries Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

Is Eating Blueberries Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

By
Teresa Mersereau

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Blueberries are a popular American fruit, with almost 700 million lbs of them produced every year. They are an amazing addition to baked goods and pack a strong nutritional punch with lots of antioxidants and vitamin K. However, there are also many aspects of the blueberry industry that can cause significant humanitarian and environmental issues. So, we had to ask: Is eating blueberries ethical and sustainable?

Eating blueberries is very unethical. The blueberry industry has been involved in numerous reports of criminal practices such as child labor, improper housing conditions, strike-breaking, and poverty wages. Therefore, they are extremely unethical compared to other fruits. 

Eating blueberries is very unsustainable. Their production involves the use of very damaging practices to the environment, such as high pesticide usage, harmful fertilizers, plastic packaging, monoculture farming techniques, and a high carbon footprint. 

In this article, we will assess both the ethical and sustainability practices of the blueberry industry. Through these two lenses, you will be able to gain in-depth knowledge of the overall impacts of the blueberries that you eat!

Here’s How We Assessed the Ethics & Sustainability of Blueberries

The Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture Systems (SAFA) is one of the ways we measure the externalities of our actions, like the consumption of blueberries. It is a holistic assessment based on the potential impact of food and agriculture operations on the environment and people. Those impacts are changes in our environment that can have adverse effects on the air, land, water, fish, and wildlife or the inhabitants of the ecosystem.

“Ethical: The discipline concerned with what is morally good and bad and morally right and wrong”

Encyclopedia Britannica

Ethics and sustainability are closely interconnected concepts that share a common objective: the well-being and preservation of our planet, including all its life and future generations.

“Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

Basically, all goods and services you buy—including blueberries—leave an impact on people, animals, and our environment. And when it comes to food in general, the following are key factors for their ethics and sustainability:

To understand the overall environmental impact of blueberries, we must assess each of their key factors. This Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture Systems (SAFA) is a tool developed for assessing the impact of food and agriculture operations on the environment and people. And this tool helps us to evaluate whether eating blueberries is ethical & sustainable.

Here’s How Ethical & Sustainable Eating Blueberries Is

The overall ethics & sustainability of blueberries is very low. Their production involves many different unethical and unsustainable practices, including child labor, low wages, deforestation, monoculture farming, and plastic packaging. 

There are a few positive qualities to blueberries when it comes to ethics and sustainability. For example, they don’t require any irrigation because they grow in a very rainy climate, and they also don’t produce any organic waste. However, the vast majority of their practices are extremely unethical and unsustainable. 

So, let’s have a look at the ethics & sustainability impact of each key factor of blueberries!

Key Assessment FactorsEthics & Sustainability
Social and economic conditions of blueberriesBlueberries’ social and economic conditions are very negative. The blueberry industry has some of the most egregious labor rights violations, including the use of child labor, criminally low wages, and dangerous housing situations for workers. 
Seasonality of blueberriesBlueberries’ seasonality is fairly long, running from April to September. Because they have to be shipped from South America during the winter, their seasonality is very important to their sustainability. 
Land requirements for blueberriesBlueberries’ land requirements are fairly high. On top of this, they also use harmful practices like monoculture farming and are known to contribute to soil erosion.
Water footprint of blueberriesBlueberries have a moderate water requirement of 50 inches per year. However, because of where they grow, they don’t need to be irrigated, which lowers their water footprint significantly. 
Agrochemical usage for blueberriesBlueberries’ agrochemical use is fairly high. Their use of ammonium nitrate fertilizer is a particular concern, meaning this stage is not very sustainable. 
Carbon footprint of blueberriesBlueberries have a high carbon footprint of 0.45kg (1lb) of CO2e per pound of blueberries. This is mainly because of their high pesticide use, mechanized farming methods, refrigerated transportation, and use of plastic packaging. Their footprint is significant compared to many other fruits, especially other berries.
Waste generation of blueberriesBlueberries’ waste generation is moderate. Though they don’t have much organic waste, they use plastic packaging, which usually ends up in landfills. 

These are the overall summaries, but there is a lot more to the story. In the next few sections, we will dive deeper into each stage to illustrate to you all the important aspects of blueberries’ ethics & sustainability.

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Social and Economic Conditions for Blueberries

Blueberries’ social and economic conditions are very negative. The blueberry industry has some of the most egregious labor rights violations, including the use of child labor, criminally low wages, and dangerous housing situations for workers. 

Everything we consume was made or harvested by somebody. In past centuries, this was often someone who lived in your community and who you might have even known personally. But through the rise of globalized distribution systems, we have become increasingly alienated from the people who make our food. This leaves a lot of room for exploitation and abuse, both of which are rampant in the food industry. Here, we will look at how the blueberry industry fares in relation to these ethical questions. 

How ethical & sustainable are the social and economic conditions of growing blueberries?

In short, the blueberry industry’s participation in significant labor violations, such as child labor, substandard conditions for workers, and extremely low wages means it is one of the most unethical fruits out there. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Seasonality for Blueberries

Blueberries’ seasonality is fairly long, running from April to September. Because they have to be shipped from South America during the winter, their seasonality is very important to their sustainability. 

Every fruit has a natural season in which they grow, usually lasting a couple of months, which can range depending on the region. However, international demand for every kind of fruit is year-round. This demand is often met by importing fruits from tropical places which can grow year-round, or by growing them in greenhouses. Both of these methods use more resources and are thus less sustainable than conventional farming. Here, we will look at how the blueberry industry accommodates year-round demand.

How ethical & sustainable is it to grow blueberries in-season vs out-of-season?

  • When is the natural season for growing and harvesting blueberries: Blueberries are in-season between April and September. This is on the longer end of seasonality for fruits. 
  • How are blueberries naturally grown in-season: In-season, most blueberries are grown in North America, especially in states like Oregon and Washington
  • How are blueberries grown out-of-season: In the winter months, most blueberries are grown in South America. This means that they need to be shipped long distances and so are less sustainable during the winter months. 

In short, because blueberries can’t grow in North America during the winter, their seasonality matters considerably for their sustainability. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Land Requirements for Blueberries

Blueberries’ land requirements are fairly high. On top of this, they also use harmful practices like monoculture farming and are known to contribute to soil erosion.

Illustration of global land use for food production
Our World in Data: Global land use for food production

The growth stage has a major impact on fruits’ sustainability. The amount of land used, especially in relation to its expansion, the method with which they are grown, and their effect on surrounding land and wildlife are all important factors. In this section, we will look at the ways in which blueberries’ land usage affects their sustainability.

How ethical & sustainable are the land requirements for growing blueberries?

In short, despite their carbon sequestering properties, blueberries’ use of monoculture farming and participation in soil erosion means they have a very unsustainable relationship to land. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Water Footprint of Blueberries

Blueberries have a moderate water requirement of 50 inches per year. However, because of where they grow, they don’t need to be irrigated, which lowers their water footprint significantly. 

Water usage is one of the most important factors in a fruit’s sustainability. Practices like irrigation use significant resources and can cause pollution, and as such, factors like the amount of water used, where it is sourced, as well as the way they affect the water sources around them, are all important. Here, we will look at these different angles of blueberries’ water footprint.

How ethical & sustainable is the water footprint of growing blueberries?

In short, despite their excessive usage of pesticides, blueberries’ water usage is very low and so they are relatively sustainable at this stage. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Agrochemical Usage for Blueberries

Blueberries’ agrochemical use is fairly high. Their use of ammonium nitrate fertilizer is a particular concern, meaning this stage is not very sustainable. 

Pesticides and fertilizers are agrochemicals that are very unsustainable and damaging to ecosystems. This is because they require resources to create and can easily run off into groundwater and soil systems. Here, we will look at how sustainable blueberries’ pesticide and fertilizer rates really are.

How ethical & sustainable is the agrochemical usage of growing blueberries?

In short, the fact that blueberries use damaging and potentially dangerous chemicals like ammonium nitrate, as well as high amounts of pesticides, means their sustainability is very low at this stage. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Carbon Footprint of Blueberries

Blueberries have a high carbon footprint of 0.45kg (1lb) of CO2e per pound of blueberries. This is mainly because of their high pesticide use, mechanized farming methods, refrigerated transportation, and use of plastic packaging. Their footprint is significant compared to many other fruits, especially other berries.

Illustration of global greenhouse gas emissions from food production
Our World in Data: Global greenhouse gas emissions from food production

Carbon footprint is one aspect of the overall sustainability of a fruit. It essentially measures how much carbon or other greenhouse gasses the production of fruits emits into the atmosphere. Emissions from product manufacturing, irrigation, transportation fuel, and landfills all add up to create the overall carbon footprint of a fruit. Let’s see how the carbon footprint of blueberries contributes to their overall sustainability.

How ethical & sustainable is the carbon footprint of blueberries?

In short, blueberries have a lot of high-emitting steps in their manufacturing process, leading them to have an above-average carbon footprint for a fruit, which is not very sustainable.

Related: Check out our full article on “What Is the Carbon Footprint of Blueberries? A Life-Cycle Analysis” to find out all about the carbon footprint of blueberries and how each stage of their life-cycle contributes to it (plus, what you can do to reduce your carbon footprint when shopping for blueberries).

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Waste Generation of Blueberries

Blueberries’ waste generation is moderate. Though they don’t have much organic waste, they use plastic packaging, which usually ends up in landfills. 

When fruit waste, either in the form of packaging or organic materials, is disposed of, it can cause a lot of problems. Whether it’s damaging wildlife, getting into oceans, emitting methane, or dissolving into microplastics that contaminate groundwater, all these materials have their part to play. The sheer amount of waste we produce is reaching a crisis point and won’t be able to continue much longer. In this section, we will look at how sustainable blueberries’ waste generation is.

How ethical & sustainable is the waste generation of blueberries?

  • What is the packaging of blueberries: Blueberries are typically packaged in either cardboard trays or plastic clamshells. Both cardboard and plastic are very unsustainable during their production alone—cardboard because of its link to deforestation, and plastic because of greenhouse gas emissions and chemical runoff associated with this material. Because they use these types of packaging, blueberries have very unsustainable packaging. 
  • How is the packaging of blueberries disposed of: Plastic and cardboard can both generally be recycled, but they aren’t recycled at the same rates in practice. Cardboard has a very high recycling rate of 89%, whereas plastic has a very low recycling rate of 9%. Therefore, the plastic portion of blueberry packaging is very likely to end up in landfills. Landfills cause significant environmental damage, including land clearance and chemical pollution. Furthermore, plastic can take up to 500 years to decompose. This waste disposal practice is extremely unsustainable.
  • How are blueberries disposed of: Blueberries are generally consumed whole, so they don’t have significant consistent food waste. They also have a significantly longer shelf life than other fruits, which means that spoilage is not too much of a risk. When it comes to just food waste, blueberries are actually somewhat sustainable.

In short, blueberries’ use of plastic packaging means that their waste disposal is very unsustainable. 

What Have Been Historical Ethics & Sustainability Issues Connected to the Blueberries Industry

The blueberries industry has historically engaged in many unethical and unsustainable practices. They have been accused of multiple major labor violations and have contributed extensively to land loss, especially in Georgia. 

All fruits have had a complex road toward global distribution. They originate in one part of the world and often travel far to end up in your local supermarket. From farm to table, some of our favorite fruits have used unsustainable practices. Whether it’s exploiting labor, deforestation to meet demand, water pollution, or disruption of wildlife, most fruits have left a path of destruction. Many of these effects are still felt today or have even increased. Let’s see how blueberries have fared throughout history.

What have been the key ethical & sustainable issues of the blueberries industry?

In short, blueberries have historically participated in some very unethical and unsustainable practices, such as extreme labor violations, habitat loss, and pesticide pollution. 

How Can You Reduce Your Environmental Impact and Offset Your Personal Carbon Footprint

There are a few things you can do to make your blueberry consumption more ethical and sustainable, while still enjoying them. You can also consider offsetting your personal and blueberry-related carbon emissions, which work to remove carbon emissions elsewhere that are then attributed to you. Here, we will walk you through how to accomplish both of these things.

How Can You Shop for Blueberries More Ethically & Sustainably

In this section, we give you a short list of ways you can consume blueberries in a more sustainable way. This list is designed to target the most unsustainable parts of blueberries’ life-cycle:

  1. Buy blueberries from ethical sources: Since child labor and labor violations are so prevalent in the blueberry industry, even among farms that supply to major retailers, you should be very careful where you buy your blueberries. You can look for certain labels that indicate they are fair trade or do some research into farms that prioritize ethical treatment of workers. Local farmers markets are also a good option because many of these markets feature independent sellers. Furthermore, avoid fraudulent farmer claims on supermarket produce by asking questions and reading the fine print. 
  2. Try foraging or growing your own: Luckily, if you live in North America, you might already be living in an area that is perfect for blueberry growing. Finding forested areas with wild blueberries or planting a blueberry bush is one of the most ethical and sustainable ways to consume blueberries. They will be local, have minimal pesticides, and won’t involve huge, unethical farming methods. 
  3. Eat blueberries in-season: Blueberries are one of those fruits that have major differences in their sustainability depending on when they are consumed. Winter blueberries have higher carbon emissions than summer blueberries. If you buy blueberries in the summer months only, then you will be cutting down on these distances. Plus, it will be much easier to forage and grow your own during the summer months. 

Following some of these methods can really help you to make your blueberry-eating more sustainable. None of these will completely eradicate the negative impacts, since there are always effects that may be outside of your control. But some reduction is always better than nothing!

Which Organizations Can You Support to Help Promote Ethics & Sustainability

While blueberry production engages in some very unsustainable practices, there are also some organizations that help you change the parts of these processes that would otherwise be outside of your control. These organizations are working hard to prevent and reverse damage to the environment caused by industries like blueberry agriculture, towards a more sustainable future.

In the table below are some of the best charities that work in the areas where blueberry production are very unsustainable—and beyond:

Overall ethics & sustainabilityBest charities that advance ethics worldwide
Best charities that promote sustainability
Social and economic impactBest charities that help farmers
SeasonalityBest charities that fight to protect our environment
Land requirementsBest charities for reforestation
Best wildlife conservation charitiesBest charities for protecting the Amazon rainforest
Water footprintBest charities that fight for clean water
Best charities that help conserve our rivers
Best charities to save our oceans
Agrochemical usageBest charities for helping farm animals
Carbon footprintBest charities for climate change
Best carbon offsets for individuals
Waste generationBest charities that fight to reduce food waste
Best charities that fight to end plastic pollution
Best charities that promote recycling

Though it is helpful to boost the sustainability of your personal blueberry consumption, supporting these organizations takes your positive impact a step further. You will be reaching far beyond your own consumption impacts and helping to build a better world for everyone!

How Can You Offset Your Personal Carbon Footprint

The carbon footprint is a key part of how sustainable we live. And it is one of the ways we measure the effects of our human-induced global climate change. Yes, even from eating blueberries!

“Carbon footprint: the amount of greenhouse gasses and specifically carbon dioxide emitted by something (such as a person’s activities or a product’s manufacture and transport) during a given period”

Merriam Webster

Basically, it is the amount of carbon emitted by you as an individual or an organization providing you with goods and services – including blueberries:

Illustration of carbon emissions from food
Our World in Data: Emissions from food alone would take us past 1.5°C or 2°C this century

Carbon offsets are reductions in carbon emissions that are used to compensate for carbon emissions occurring elsewhere – for example for the carbon emissions that are associated with blueberries. They are measured in tons of CO2 equivalents and are bought and sold through international brokers, online retailers, and trading platforms on what is known as the global carbon offset market. 

“Carbon Offset: a way for a company or person to reduce the level of carbon dioxide for which they are responsible by paying money to a company that works to reduce the total amount produced in the world, for example by planting trees”

Oxford Dictionary

In terms of blueberries – and indeed all food types – there will always be a carbon footprint, because of the resources it takes to get your food from farms to the place where you’ll eventually eat them. And while there are ways to reduce your carbon footprint when shopping for blueberries, carbon offsets would be a way to reduce your CO2e emissions all the way down to net zero (or even to become climate positive).

However, when you purchase carbon offsets, it’s important that they actually make a difference in offsetting (aka reducing) total carbon emissions. To achieve that, the following are key criteria:

  • Carbon offset projects have to be effective (different projects have different effectiveness rates)
  • Carbon offset projects have to be additional
  • Carbon offset projects have to be permanent
  • The claims from carbon offset projects have to be verifiable

To find the best carbon offsets for you personally, check out our full guide on the best carbon offsets for individuals, where you’ll also learn more about how these carbon offset projects work, what their respective offsetting costs are, and what your best way would be to offset your own carbon emissions.

Related: Check out our full guide on “What Are the Best Carbon Offsets for Individuals: Complete 2024 List” to find the best carbon offset providers for your personal carbon emissions and those associated to, e.g., eating blueberries.

Final Thoughts

The blueberry industry has a lot to answer for when it comes to ethics and sustainability. These demonstrate some of the most horrific labor conditions in the fruit industry—including child labor—and some very unsustainable practices such as plastic packaging and monoculture farming. However, the good news is that you can have an impact on these conditions. By consuming more ethically and sustainably, you can do your part to support better farms, and by supporting organizations that fight for labor rights and environmental protections, you can be a part of a mass movement towards a more ethical and sustainable fruit industry. 

Stay impactful,

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