Is Eating Cherries Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

Is Eating Cherries Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

By
Teresa Mersereau

Read Time:22 Minutes

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Cherries are a staple fruit in everything from pies to mixed drinks. Moreover, their blossoms draw millions of crowds to public parks every spring, especially in Japan. They’re healthy too—a cup of cherries provides 3 grams of fiber and 1.4 grams of protein. But there are also many unethical and unsustainable qualities to cherries. So we had to ask: Is eating cherries ethical and sustainable?

Eating cherries is very unethical. This is mainly because of reports of child labor, as well as harsh working conditions on US farms and high pesticide usage. However, it is possible to make high wages in some cherry industries. 

Eating cherries is somewhat sustainable. The negative aspects mainly come from their use of pesticides, monoculture farming methods, and high irrigation requirements. However, cherry trees also have carbon sequestering abilities and fertilize the soil when grown. 

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

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

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 cherries. 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 cherries—leave an impact on people, animals, and our environment. And when it comes to food in general—and cherries in specific—the following are key factors for their ethics and sustainability:

To understand the overall ethics and sustainability of cherries, 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 cherries is ethical & sustainable.

Here’s How Ethical & Sustainable Eating Cherries Is

The overall ethics and sustainability of cherries is somewhat negative. The main impacts come from child labor reports, high agrochemical use, occasional use of monoculture farming, and irrigation. 

Cherries have some positives when it comes to ethics and sustainability. Some of their more positive impacts include using polyculture farming methods sometimes, and being involved in reforestation projects around the world. They do, however, still have some negative impacts. 

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

Key Assessment FactorsEthics & Sustainability
Social and economic conditions of cherriesCherries’ social and economic conditions are very bad. There have been reports of child labor and heavy pesticide usage within cherry farms. 
Seasonality of cherriesCherries’ seasonality is between April and July, where they are most commonly produced in Michigan, Oregon, Washington, and California. Outside of this season, they have to be imported from Chile, which makes them less sustainable. 
Land requirements for cherriesCherries’ land requirements are fairly high. This Is mainly because of their high pesticide use and occasional monoculture farming practices. This means that their land use is moderately unsustainable. 
Water footprint of cherriesCherries have a very low water footprint of 35 inches of water a year. They can, however, be unsustainable, considering they use a high amount of pesticides and irrigation when grown in California.
Agrochemical usage for cherriesCherries’ agrochemical use is high. This is made worse by the fact that they use highly polluting nitrogen fertilizers. 
Carbon footprint of cherriesThe carbon footprint of cherries is fairly low at 0.19kg (0.41 lb) of CO2e per pound of cherries. This is mainly caused by their high pesticide use, low-density farming, and significant plastic packaging. Their carbon footprint is medium to low compared to other fruits. 
Waste generation of cherriesCherries’ waste generation is high. This is mainly due to their use of plastic packaging and low composting rates. 

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 cherries’ ethics & sustainability.

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

Cherries’ social and economic conditions are very bad. There have been reports of child labor and heavy pesticide usage within cherry farms. 

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 cherry industry fares in relation to these ethical questions.

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

In short, the use of child labor as well as excessive pesticides within the cherry industry means they are significantly unethical. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Seasonality for Cherries

Cherries’ seasonality is between April and July, where they are most commonly produced in Michigan, Oregon, Washington, and California. Outside of this season, they have to be imported from Chile, which makes them less sustainable. 

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 cherry industry accommodates year-round demand.

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

  • When is the natural season for growing and harvesting cherries: Cherries are in season between April and July. This means they will be more plentiful and sustainable during this period. 
  • How are cherries naturally grown in-season: Cherries grow on trees. In-season, they are typically grown on the west coast, in California, Washington, and Oregon. During this season, they are very widely available in the US. 
  • How are cherries grown out-of-season: Out of season, the US imports most of its cherries from Chile. This means that they need to be transported further during this time and are thus less sustainable. 

In short, cherries’ seasonality impacts their sustainability significantly. They are far more sustainable in-season than out-of-season. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Land Requirements for Cherries

Cherries’ land requirements are fairly high. This Is mainly because of their high pesticide use and monoculture farming, in some cases. This means that their land use is moderately unsustainable. 

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 cherries’ land usage affects their sustainability.

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

In short, cherries are somewhat unsustainable in terms of land, mainly due to their high use of pesticides and occasional monoculture farming practices. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Water Footprint of Cherries

Cherries have a very low water footprint of 35 inches of water a year. They can, however, be unsustainable, considering they use a high amount of pesticides and irrigation, when grown in California.

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 cherries’ water footprint.

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

In short, cherries’ high use of pesticides and irrigation requirements, depending on where they are grown, amount to a moderate water footprint. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Agrochemical Usage for Cherries

Cherries’ agrochemical use is high. This is made worse by the fact that they use highly polluting nitrogen fertilizers. 

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 cherries’ pesticide and fertilizer rates really are.

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

In short, cherries’ use of excessive pesticides as well as nitrogen fertilizer means that their agrochemical footprint is very high. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Carbon Footprint of Cherries

The carbon footprint of cherries is fairly low at 0.19kg (0.41 lb) of CO2e per pound of cherries. This is mainly caused by their high pesticide use, low-density farming, and significant plastic packaging. Their carbon footprint is medium to low compared to other fruits. 

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 cherries contributes to their overall sustainability.

How ethical & sustainable is the carbon footprint of cherries?

  • What is the overall carbon footprint of cherries: The overall carbon footprint of cherries is 0.19kg (0.41 lb) of CO2e per pound of cherries. This means that for every pound of cherries produced, 0.19kg of carbon is released into the atmosphere. This is a fairly low carbon footprint compared to other fruits. 
  • What are the main contributors to the carbon footprint of cherries: The main factors that contribute to cherries’ carbon footprint are their use of plastic packaging, above-average pesticide use, and lower-density orchards compared to many other fruits. 
  • Which life-cycle stage of cherries has the highest carbon footprint: The stage that contributes the most to cherries’ carbon footprint is harvesting, processing, and packaging. This is due to their mechanized processing and plastic packaging

In short, cherries have a fairly low carbon footprint compared to other fruits. Though they still cause emissions through plastic packaging and pesticide use.

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

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Waste Generation of Cherries

Cherries’ waste generation is high. This is mainly due to their use of plastic packaging and low composting rates. 

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 cherries’ waste generation is.

How ethical & sustainable is the waste generation of cherries?

In short, cherries have a high amount of packaging and organic waste. Due to the nature of their waste, they tend to contribute significantly to landfills.

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

The cherry industry has historically been somewhat bad for workers and the environment. This is mainly because of reports of worker neglect, occasional monoculture farming, and pesticide use. 

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 cherries have fared throughout history.

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

In short, the cherry industry has caused health risks for workers and damage to the environment in many different ways over the years, mainly due to reports of worker neglect, high use of pesticides, and monoculture farming. 

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

There are a few things you can do to make your cherry consumption more ethical and sustainable, while still enjoying them. You can also consider offsetting your personal and cherry-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 Cherries More Ethically & Sustainably

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

  1. Buy in-season cherries: Cherries are much more sustainable when they are bought in season, since they can be grown in the US and don’t need to be imported from Chile. Therefore, you will be purchasing far more sustainable cherries if you do so between April and July. 
  2. Avoid plastic packaging: Many cherries come with plastic packaging. However, it is much more sustainable to choose cherries with no packaging or cardboard packaging. Cardboard packaging is more widely recycled, and so less of it will end up in landfills. Mitigating landfill contribution is essential for making cherries more sustainable.
  3. Buy organic cherries: A significantly unsustainable aspect of cherries is their pesticide use. Organic farms commit to avoiding chemicals like pesticides and thus avoid many of their worst environmental effects. Additionally, pesticides are a major hazard for workers, meaning that organic cherries are more ethical and more sustainable.

Following some of these methods can really help you to make your cherry-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 cherry 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 cherry agriculture, towards a more sustainable future.

In the table below are some of the best charities that work in the areas where cherry 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 charities
Best 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 cherry 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 cherries!

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 cherries:

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 cherries. 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 cherries – 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 cherries, 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 cherries.

Final Thoughts

Cherries might have a lot to answer for in terms of their sustainability, such as very high pesticide use. They also have some ethical issues, such as poor working conditions and reports of child labor on US farms. Low use of irrigation, domestic production, lack of major deforestation cases, and occasional use of polyculture farming means that their impact is much less than it could be. However, there are still steps you can take to make them more sustainable and ethical, such as buying organic cherries, composting, and recycling your waste. Following those steps will help you improve your sustainability while still enjoying cherries. 

Stay impactful,

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