Is Eating Grapes Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

Is Eating Grapes Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

By
Teresa Mersereau

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Grapes are a delicious and versatile fruit, with 30% being consumed directly, and the other 70% used to make wine. Originating as a crop around 8,000 years ago, grapes have a long agricultural history. However, there can also be some very unethical and unsustainable components to the grape industry. So we had to ask: Is eating grapes ethical and sustainable?

Eating grapes is very unethical. This is mainly because of reports of child labor and wage theft on US farms. However, grape farms have also been reported to pay higher wages than many other fruit farms. 

Eating grapes is very unsustainable. The main contributing factors to this are their use of styrofoam and plastic packaging, high pesticide usage, and high carbon footprint. However, they use less harmful fertilizers than many other fruits and use land very economically. 

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

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

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

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

Here’s How Ethical & Sustainable Eating Grapes Is

The overall ethics & sustainability of grapes is fairly low. This is mainly caused by land encroachment, irrigation requirements, reports of child labor in the US, plastic and styrofoam packaging, and a high carbon footprint. 

There are some positive qualities grapes have in terms of their ethics and sustainability. For example, they have very economical land usage, and they don’t use fertilizers that are known to be very unsustainable, such as nitrogen fertilizer. However, other aspects of their processes engage in very unsustainable practices.

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

Key Assessment FactorsEthics & Sustainability
Social and economic conditions of grapesGrapes’ social and economic conditions are very bad. There have been reports of child labor within the US grape industry, though there are also reports of high wages for workers. 
Seasonality of grapesGrapes’ seasonality is between May and January, meaning that they are only imported from Peru in the springtime. 
Land requirements for grapesGrapes’ land requirements are fairly low. However, grape vineyards are vulnerable to soil erosion and have impacted California’s wildlife significantly, meaning they are very unsustainable at this stage.
Water footprint of grapesGrapes have a very low water requirement of 25–30 inches of water per year. However, because of where they grow, they still need some irrigation. As a result, their water footprint is moderately high.
Agrochemical usage for grapesGrapes’ agrochemical usage is moderate. The pesticides they use can be very unsustainable. However, their fertilizers are more benign.
Carbon footprint of grapesGrapes have a very high carbon footprint of 0.64 kg (1.42 lbs) of CO2e per pound of grapes. This is mainly because of their irrigation needs, high pesticide use, refrigeration requirements during transportation, and high levels of packaging.
Waste generation of grapesGrapes’ waste generation is very high. This is because they use harmful packaging materials like styrofoam and plastic, which are very hard to recycle. 

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 grapes’ ethics & sustainability.

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

Grapes’ social and economic conditions are very bad. There have been reports of child labor within the US grape industry, though there are also reports of high wages 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 grape industry fares in relation to these ethical questions.

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

In short, despite their high wages, the grape industry has engaged in some seriously unethical practices, mainly due to reports of child labor in the US. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Seasonality for Grapes

Grapes’ seasonality is between May and January, meaning that they are only imported from Peru in the springtime. 

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 grape industry accommodates year-round demand.

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

  • When is the natural season for growing and harvesting grapes: Grapes are in season for most of the year, between May and January. They are only out of season in the early spring. This means that most of the year, you can find domestically-grown table grapes. 
  • How are grapes naturally grown in-season: In-season, most grapes in the US are grown in California. This means that they need to be transported shorter distances and are thus more sustainable. 
  • How are grapes grown out-of-season: When the US does import grapes, they mainly come from Peru, as well as Chile and Mexico. Grapes imported from these countries take more energy to get to your supermarket and are thus less sustainable. 

In short, grapes’ long seasonality means that there is only a small portion of the year when they need to be imported. However, during this time, they are less sustainable. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Land Requirements for Grapes

Grapes’ land requirements are fairly low. However, grape vineyards are vulnerable to soil erosion and have impacted California’s wildlife significantly, meaning they are very unsustainable at this stage. 

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 grapes’ land usage affects their sustainability.

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

In short, the grape industry contributes significantly to soil erosion and habitat loss in California. So, they are very unsustainable, despite their economic land yield and carbon sequestering properties.

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Water Footprint of Grapes

Grapes have a very low water requirement of 25–30 inches of water per year. However, because of where they grow, they still need some irrigation. As a result, their water footprint is moderately high.

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 grapes’ water footprint.

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

In short, grapes’ high use of pesticides, but low use of irrigation means that they are somewhat unsustainable at this stage.

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Agrochemical Usage for Grapes

Grapes’ agrochemical usage is moderate. The pesticides they use can be very unsustainable. However, their fertilizers are more benign.

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 grapes’ pesticide and fertilizer rates really are.

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

In short, the amount and types of pesticides that grapes use are highly damaging to the environment, though their fertilizer usage is less harmful.

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Carbon Footprint of Grapes

Grapes have a very high carbon footprint of 0.64 kg (1.42 lbs) of CO2e per pound of grapes. This is mainly because of their irrigation needs, high pesticide use, refrigeration requirements during transportation, and high levels of packaging.

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 grapes contributes to their overall sustainability.

How ethical & sustainable is the carbon footprint of grapes?

  • What is the overall carbon footprint of grapes: The overall carbon footprint of grapes is 0.64 kg (1.42 lbs) of CO2e per pound of grapes. This means that for every pound of grapes produced, 0.64kg of carbon is released into the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of driving a car over a mile and a half! Grapes’ carbon footprint is significantly higher than most fruits. 
  • What are the main contributors to the carbon footprint of grapes: The main contributing factors to grapes’ carbon footprint are their irrigation requirements, pesticide use, and plastic packaging
  • Which life-cycle stage of grapes has the highest carbon footprint: The life cycle stage of grapes that has the highest carbon footprint is waste. This is because grapes use plastic and styrofoam packaging which have very high emissions when created and disposed of. 

In short, though grapes have some positive qualities, they create a very high amount of carbon emissions, much higher than the average fruit.

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

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Waste Generation of Grapes

Grapes’ waste generation is very high. This is because they use harmful packaging materials like styrofoam and plastic, which are very hard to recycle. 

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 grapes’ waste generation is.

How ethical & sustainable is the waste generation of grapes?

In short, the fact that grapes use both plastic and styrofoam packaging, some of the most environmentally-damaging packaging materials out there, means that they are very unsustainable at this stage. 

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

The grapes industry has been very unethical and unsustainable over the years, mainly due to reports of wage theft and the impact on California’s land loss and water pollution. 

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 grapes have fared throughout history.

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

In short, grape agriculture’s infringement on California wildlife, as well as their reports of wage theft and high pesticide usage means that they have been considerably unethical and unsustainable over the years. 

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

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

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

  1. Buy in-season grapes: When grapes are out of season, they are typically imported, rather than grown in California. If you limit your grape consumption to between May and January, then you will be eating more sustainable grapes. 
  2. Buy grapes without packaging: Grapes’ use of styrofoam and plastic packaging is one of their most unsustainable aspects. If you buy grapes with less packaging, paper packaging, or no packaging at all, you will be helping to mitigate a significant amount of grapes’ unsustainability. 
  3. Buy organic grapes: Grapes have very high pesticide usage compared to other fruits. Organic farms, however, generally avoid high amounts of chemical pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers and so they are good to support if you want to reduce your pesticide and fertilizer impact. Plus, fewer chemicals means that the conditions on farms are somewhat safer for workers, making organic grapes both more ethical and more sustainable. 

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

In the table below are some of the best charities that work in the areas where grape 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 grape 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 grapes!

“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 grapes:

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 grapes. 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 grapes – 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 grapes, 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 grapes.

Final Thoughts

Grapes are certainly not the most sustainable or ethical fruit. They have very high carbon footprints, use a significant amount of pesticides, and use some of the most harmful types of packaging. They also have reports of major violations like child labor and wage theft. However, there are still plenty of things that you can do to mitigate the damage that comes from consuming grapes. Recycling and reducing your grape packaging, supporting organic grape farms, and supporting organizations that help tackle the bigger issues of the agricultural sector can all help you to reduce your harm and be a more ethical and sustainable grape consumer!

Stay impactful,

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