Is Eating Dates Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

Is Eating Dates Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

By
Teresa Mersereau

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Dates are a sweet, often dried delicacy that’s popular in Middle Eastern desserts. They also have an ever-increasing global market, reaching over a million tons in volume in 2021. In terms of health benefits, dates pack a good amount of protein, potassium, and fiber. However, there are many aspects to the date industry that can be very unethical and unsustainable. So, we had to ask: Is eating dates ethical and sustainable?

Eating dates is somewhat unethical. There are several dangers associated with farming, as well as poor living conditions for migrant workers in California. However, there are no direct reports of child labor within the date industry. 

Eating dates is fairly unsustainable. Dates have a moderately negative environmental impact. Their main impacts come from high requirements for irrigation and land, as well as their use of harmful nitrogen fertilizers and plastic packaging.

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

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

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

To understand the overall environmental impact of dates, 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 dates is ethical & sustainable.

Here’s How Ethical & Sustainable Eating Dates Is

The overall ethics & sustainability of dates is fairly low. This is mainly due to their high land requirements, high irrigation needs, use of nitrogen fertilizer, and plastic packaging. 

Dates have a lot going for them when it comes to ethics and sustainability. They are excellent at sequestering carbon in soil, as well as preserving moisture and fertility. In this sense, they can have some positive impacts on the environment. However, many of their farming practices are still harmful to people and the environment. 

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

Key Assessment FactorsEthics & Sustainability
Social and economic conditions of datesDates’ social and economic conditions are somewhat bad. This is because of reports of safety hazards for farm workers, as well as the potential for exploitation of migrant workers in California. 
Seasonality of datesDates’ seasonality is between late August and October. They are often imported regardless of season, though from a further distance during the off-season, making them less sustainable. 
Land requirements for datesDates’ land requirements are fairly high. However, date trees also sequester carbon very well and preserve moisture and nutrients to maintain fertile soil.
Water footprint of datesDates have a high water requirement of 64–83 inches of water per year. Because of where they grow, they need significant irrigation to meet this need. Their use of plastic packaging is also harmful to oceans.
Agrochemical usage for datesDates’ agrochemical use is moderate. They have low pesticide rates, but they use nitrogen fertilizers, which can be harmful to waterways and aquatic life.
Carbon footprint of datesDates have a moderate carbon footprint of 0.27kg (0.6lb) of CO2e per pound of dates. This is mainly because they use plastic packaging, have high irrigation requirements, and use mechanized harvesting techniques.
Waste generation of datesDates’ waste generation is high. This is primarily because of low composting rates and low recycling rates for plastic packaging.

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 dates’ ethics & sustainability.

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

Dates’ social and economic conditions are somewhat bad. This is because of reports of safety hazards for farm workers, as well as the potential for exploitation of migrant workers in California. 

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 date industry fares in relation to these ethical questions.

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

  • Are farmers paid fair wages to grow dates: Many farmers in India make significant amounts of money off of their date farms. One farmer, for example, can make the equivalent of $2,000 USD per batch. This is a very good wage for a farmer and so dates can be a very profitable business. However, some effects of climate change are lowering date yields worldwide, meaning they could easily become less profitable in the coming years. 
  • How safe are the working conditions to grow dates: There are many hazards to growing dates that workers can face. One of the biggest hazards is the height of the trees, which can present serious falling hazards. Many workers cut safety corners, such as forgoing a harness, because they are paid by the pound. This leads to an increased amount of injuries. 
  • Are there reports of child or forced labor to grow dates: There aren’t significant reports of child labor within the date industry specifically. However, Mexico, where many US-consumed dates come from, has a significant amount of children forced into labor. Tunisia, another regular exporter of dates to the US, also has significant rates of child labor. Therefore, it is possible that there is child labor within the date industry. 
  • What is the wider economic impact on the communities that grow dates: Since many workers within the California date industry are migrants from Mexico, there are a certain number of vulnerabilities to the workforce. Many date workers live in substandard housing, such as trailer parks, in order to be near the farms. This is less than ideal and can lead to certain potential health and safety risks. 

In short, there are some significant ethical concerns within the date industry, mainly due to safety concerns for farm workers and potential migrant worker exploitation. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Seasonality for Dates

Dates’ seasonality is between late August and October. They are often imported regardless of season, though from a further distance during the off-season, making 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 date industry accommodates year-round demand.

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

  • When is the natural season for growing and harvesting dates: Dates are in season in Mexico between late August and early October. They will thus be more widely available in Mexico and California during this time. 
  • How are dates naturally grown in-season: Most in-season dates are grown in Mexico. This means that they will still have to be imported, but at a much shorter distance, making them somewhat more sustainable. 
  • How are dates grown out-of-season: Out-of-season dates are typically imported from Tunisia or Algeria, which is much further than Mexico. As a result, in-season dates are more sustainable than out-of-season dates. 

In short, the sustainability of dates is tied to their seasonality, with in-season dates being more sustainable than out-of-season dates. However, dates are still relatively unsustainable all year round because they are regularly imported from other countries.

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Land Requirements for Dates

Dates’ land requirements are fairly high. However, date trees also sequester carbon very well and preserve moisture and nutrients to maintain fertile soil.

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 dates’ land usage affects their sustainability.

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

  • What is the land usage of dates: Dates yield around 10–15 tons per hectare. This is a fairly low land yield amongst fruits. For example, strawberries and mangoes both yield up to 20–25 tons per hectare and bananas and pineapples both yield up to 100 tons per hectare. Therefore, each pound of dates is going to need more space than a pound of strawberries and significantly more than a pound of bananas. This can increase the land used for their cultivation and the resources allocated to them, which is less sustainable.
  • Where and how are dates grown: Most dates are grown in Egypt, followed by Iran and Algeria. Dates are grown on trees known as date palms. Date palms are particularly good at absorbing carbon. Carbon sequestering helps to capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the ground, offsetting some of the emissions associated with date farming and thereby improving their environmental impact. However, date palms are almost always planted in monocultures, which are generally bad for the environment. Therefore, despite their carbon sequestering properties, dates’ growth method can be fairly unsustainable. 
  • How does the growing of dates affect soil fertility and erosion: Date palms have actually been found to be very beneficial to soil. They prevent soil from eroding and becoming depleted through their moisture-absorbing roots. In this way, dates are actually very sustainable. 
  • How does the dates industry affect the loss of habitable land: Date farms are much less productive per hectare than other farms, such as apples and oranges. This means that to produce the same amount of dates, they will have to use more land. However, dates have also been used to prevent land depletion and so can actually make land more habitable if used right. 
  • How does the date industry affect wildlife and biodiversity: Monocultures are terrible for biodiversity as they limit pollination, soil microbes, and other wildlife. Because dates are generally planted in monocultures, they are very unsustainable at this stage. 

In short, date farming takes part in several unsustainable agricultural practices. However, their natural abilities to sequester carbon and maintain soil fertility means they are only slightly unsustainable at this stage. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Water Footprint of Dates

Dates have a high water requirement of 64–83 inches of water per year. Because of where they grow, they need significant irrigation to meet this need. Their use of plastic packaging is also harmful to oceans. 

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 dates’ water footprint.

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

In short, dates are fairly unsustainable when it comes to water use. They require a significant amount of irrigation and their use of plastic packaging is harmful to oceans.

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Agrochemical Usage for Dates

Dates’ agrochemical use is moderate. They have low pesticide rates, but they use nitrogen fertilizers, which can be harmful to waterways and aquatic life.

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 dates’ pesticide and fertilizer rates really are.

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

In short, though dates’ pesticide usage is low, their use of nitrogen fertilizer means that their agrochemical usage is still fairly unsustainable.

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Carbon Footprint of Dates

Dates have a moderate carbon footprint of 0.27kg (0.6lb) of CO2e per pound of dates. This is mainly because they use plastic packaging, have high irrigation requirements, and use mechanized harvesting techniques.

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 dates contributes to their overall sustainability.

How ethical & sustainable is the carbon footprint of dates?

In short, dates’ carbon footprint is moderate amongst fruits. Their carbon footprint is mainly caused by their plastic packaging rates, high irrigation requirements, and waste disposal practices.

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

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Waste Generation of Dates

Dates’ waste generation is high. This is primarily because of low composting rates and low recycling rates for plastic packaging.

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 dates’ waste generation is.

How ethical & sustainable is the waste generation of dates?

In short, the waste management of dates is very unsustainable, mainly because of their use of plastic packaging.

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

The date industry has historically been fairly unethical and unsustainable. This has mainly been because of monoculture farming and the use of nitrogen fertilizer.

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 racked up some serious damage along the way. Whether it’s exploiting labor, deforestation to meet demand, water pollution, or disruption of wildlife, most fruits have left a path of destruction. Let’s see how dates have fared throughout history.

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

In short, date farming has been involved in some very unsustainable practices over the years. The steadily-growing date industry will likely continue to cause these damages.

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

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

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

  1. Buy dates in-season: Though in-season dates are still imported from Mexico, the out-of-season dates imported from Tunisia are much less sustainable because they have to be transported further to reach the US. Therefore, if you make sure to buy your dates in-season then you will be eating more sustainable ones. 
  2. Buy organic dates: Though dates have low pesticide rates, their use of nitrogen fertilizer is one of the most unsustainable aspects of their industry. Organic farms generally avoid nitrogen fertilizers and so they are good to support if you want to make your date consumption more sustainable. 
  3. Buy low-packaging dates: Plastic packaging is a huge problem in the date industry and beyond. If you want to reduce your environmental impact when buying dates, then you should make sure to avoid plastic packaging as much as possible. Buying dates in cardboard packaging is much more sustainable, since it is more easily recycled. No packaging at all, of course, is best.

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

In the table below are some of the best charities that work in the areas where date 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 date 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 dates!

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 dates:

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 dates. 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 dates – 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 dates, 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 dates.

Final Thoughts

The date farming industry has a lot to answer for in terms of ethics and sustainability. They use significant amounts of irrigation, implement nitrogen fertilizers, and are packaged in polluting plastic. There are also some reports of the unethical treatment of workers in date agriculture. However, they also have plenty of good qualities, like carbon storage, and with the right efforts on your part, can have a much less negative impact. Consider following some of the reduction methods suggested above or supporting a charitable organization to help you become more ethical and sustainable while still consuming dates. 

Stay impactful,

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