Is Eating Lemons Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

Is Eating Lemons Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

By
Teresa Mersereau

Read Time:22 Minutes

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Lemons are an iconic, diverse fruit, with over 40 different species existing globally. They are an excellent source of vitamin C and fiber. Furthermore, they are a staple ingredient in many drinks, baked goods, and in general-purpose cooking. However, there are many different areas during the lemon farming and production process that can be very unethical and cause harm to the environment. So, we had to ask: Is eating lemons ethical and sustainable?

Eating lemons is somewhat unethical. Their production is known to involve several abuses of workers rights, such as wage theft, low wages, and even child labor in places like Argentina. However, these practices are not as widespread as they are with some other fruits.

Eating lemons is moderately unsustainable. The lemons industry engages in some very unsustainable practices, such as monoculture farming. They also contribute to deforestation, have high pesticide usage, and require significant irrigation. However, they still have a low carbon footprint and don’t use plastic packaging. 

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

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

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 lemons. 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 lemons—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 lemons, 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 lemons is ethical & sustainable.

Here’s How Ethical & Sustainable Eating Lemons Is

The overall ethics & sustainability of lemons is poor. They engage in both unethical practices, like low wages and wage theft, as well as unsustainable practices, like deforestation, monoculture farming, and high irrigation requirements. 

Lemons have some good qualities when it comes to ethics and sustainability. For example, they don’t have significant reports of child or forced labor in the US, and they generally avoid the worst forms of packaging, such as plastic and styrofoam. However, for the most part, their practices are significantly unethical and unsustainable. 

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

Key Assessment FactorsEthics & Sustainability
Social and economic conditions of lemonsLemons’ social and economic conditions are very poor. In the US, workers are subject to restrictive contracts and below-living wages. In some other countries like Argentina, children are exploited as workers on lemon farms. 
Seasonality of lemonsLemons’ seasonality is not particularly important to their growth practice. They tend to be grown similarly year-round. 
Land requirements for lemonsLemons’ land requirements are fairly low. However, they have been identified as participating in deforestation, desertification, and monoculture farming, which means that their land footprint is moderately high. 
Water footprint of lemonsLemons have a moderately high water footprint of 60 inches of water per year. Because of where they are grown, they require a high amount of irrigation.
Agrochemical usage for lemonsLemons’ agrochemical usage is high. The specific agrochemicals they use, such as nitrogen fertilizer and fungicides, are particularly harmful to the environment.
Carbon footprint of lemonsThe carbon footprint of lemons is 0.09kg (0.19lbs) CO2e per pound of lemons, which is fairly low compared to other fruits. The main contributing factors to this carbon footprint are the pesticides used in production, long transportation distances, and the lack of proper waste management.
Waste generation of lemonsLemons’ waste generation is moderate. They use cardboard packaging, which is easily recycled but still has fairly 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 lemons’ ethics & sustainability.

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

Lemons’ social and economic conditions are very poor. In the US, workers are subject to restrictive contracts and below-living wages. In some other countries like Argentina, children are exploited as workers on lemon 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 lemon industry fares in relation to these ethical questions. 

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

In short, the lemon industry’s use of horrific practices like child labor (in Argentina), restrictive working conditions, and below-living wages mean that they are a very unethical fruit. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Seasonality for Lemons

Lemons’ seasonality is not particularly important to their growth practice. They tend to be grown similarly year-round. 

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 lemon industry accommodates year-round demand.

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

  • When is the natural season for growing and harvesting lemons: Lemon trees don’t have seasons in the conventional sense. They are harvested roughly once every few months year-round
  • How are lemons naturally grown in-season: In-season lemons are grown in much the same way as out-of-season lemons. However, there is typically a higher lemon boost in the winter
  • How are lemons grown out-of-season: Out-of-season lemons don’t have a marked difference from in-season lemons and therefore their sustainability is unaffected. 

In short, seasonality does not have a major impact on the relative sustainability of lemons. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Land Requirements for Lemons

Lemons’ land requirements are fairly low. However, they have been identified as participating in deforestation, desertification, and monoculture farming, which means that their land footprint is moderately high. 

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 lemons’ land usage affects their sustainability.

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

In short, the lemon industry’s use of monoculture farming, as well as their participation in deforestation means that their agricultural practices are fairly unsustainable. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Water Footprint of Lemons

Lemons have a moderately high water footprint of 60 inches of water per year. Because of where they are grown, they require a high amount of irrigation.

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 lemons’ water footprint.

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

In short, lemons’ use of extensive irrigation, as well as high pesticide usage means that they are fairly unsustainable when it comes to water usage. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Agrochemical Usage for Lemons

Lemons’ agrochemical usage is high. The specific agrochemicals they use, such as nitrogen fertilizer and fungicides, are particularly harmful to the environment.

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 lemons’ pesticide and fertilizer rates really are.

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

In short, lemons’ use of agrochemicals like pesticides, as well as nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers mean they are a significantly unsustainable fruit. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Carbon Footprint of Lemons

The carbon footprint of lemons is 0.09kg (0.19lbs) CO2e per pound of lemons, which is fairly low compared to other fruits. The main contributing factors to this carbon footprint are the pesticides used in production, long transportation distances, and the lack of proper waste management.

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 lemons contributes to their overall sustainability.

How ethical & sustainable is the carbon footprint of lemons?

In short, despite the fact that lemons engage in some high-emitting practices like pesticides and long transportation distances, they still have a very low carbon footprint, meaning they are fairly sustainable in this category. 

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

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Waste Generation of Lemons

Lemons’ waste generation is moderate. They use cardboard packaging, which is easily recycled but still has fairly 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 lemons’ waste generation is.

How ethical & sustainable is the waste generation of lemons?

In short, because lemons use less harmful packaging (cardboard) than other fruits, but still have low composting rates, their waste is moderately unsustainable. 

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

The lemon industry has historically participated in some unethical actions, such as wage theft, as well as some unsustainable actions, such as deforestation and harm to wildlife. 

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 lemons have fared throughout history.

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

  • Has labor been exploited because of lemons production: The citrus industry has a long history of exploiting workers, especially for wages. One case involved a group of 100 citrus workers banding together to sue their employer over $250,000 worth of unpaid wages. In this case and more, we can see that there have been some very unethical actions from the citrus industry. 
  • How much land has been lost because of lemon production: Lemon production has been linked to some major deforestation cases. One in particular, concerns an Argentinian farm that has been infringing on national park land, sometimes illegally. Cases like this show how dangerous and unsustainable large-scale lemon farming can be. 
  • Which wildlife species have been negatively impacted or displaced because of lemon production: Deforestation cases like the Argentinian national park incidences, have major impacts on wildlife. Deforestation causes habitat loss, which is the leading cause of wildlife population decline, contributing heavily to endangerment and extinction. Because of their involvement in deforestation cases, lemon agriculture has contributed to species population decline, especially in South America. 
  • Have water sources and soil been contaminated because of lemon production: Nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers have both been linked to invasive algae growth, which is particularly harmful to waterways and aquatic life. Their continued use of these fertilizers means that their impact on waterways has historically been very unsustainable.

In short, the lemon industry has historically been involved with both unethical practices, such as withholding wages, as well as unsustainable practices, like destroying national parks. 

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

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

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

  1. Buy US-grown lemons: Although there have been some instances of worker exploitation in the US lemon industry, there haven’t been significant reports of child labor, such as in Argentina. Therefore, if you buy lemons from within the US, there is a potentially lower risk that they have involved child labor practices. Plus, smaller transport times means a lower carbon footprint and thus a more sustainable life cycle. 
  2. Purchase organic lemons: Pesticide and fertilizer usage is a major issue in lemon farming. Organic farms 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. Making the effort to buy organic lemons can greatly lessen your lemons’ impact on waterways and soil, making them more sustainable. Additionally, workers on organic farms are exposed to fewer chemicals, meaning that chemical poisoning is one less safety concern to worry about. 
  3. Compost and recycle: One of the most unsustainable aspects of lemons is their contribution to landfills. So, by making sure you compost all lemon peels and recycle any cardboard packaging, you can reduce the impact of cardboard and organic waste in lemons’ life cycle. 

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

In the table below are some of the best charities that work in the areas where lemon 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 lemon 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 lemons!

“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 lemons:

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 lemons. 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 lemons – 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 lemons, 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 lemons.

Final Thoughts

The lemon industry has committed some very serious crimes when it comes to people and the environment. It has engaged in labor exploitation, deforestation, harmful pesticide usage, monoculture farming, and many other unsustainable and unethical practices. However, they are not the worst of fruits. On top of that, there are many things you can do to help make your lemon consumption more sustainable. You can support organic lemon farms, dispose of waste properly, and even support charities that tackle some of the larger issues. Try these things, and you can make your lemon consumption more ethical and sustainable!

Stay impactful,

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