Is Eating Limes Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

Is Eating Limes Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

By
Teresa Mersereau

Read Time:22 Minutes

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Limes are a very popular fruit with over 23.5 million tons produced every single year. They are commonly used in desserts like key lime pie and even classic cocktails. Limes pack a health punch too, containing a healthy amount of vitamin C and antioxidants. But there can also be some unethical and unsustainable qualities to the production and farming of limes. So we had to ask: Is eating limes ethical and sustainable?

Eating limes is somewhat unethical. The industry has been involved in wage theft accusations, as well as reports of child and forced labor in Turkey and Belize. However, the US lime industry has no such reports. 

Eating limes is very unsustainable. This is mainly because they use nitrogen fertilizers, excessive pesticides, and plastic packaging. The industry also contributes to deforestation and groundwater pollution. However, they have a very low carbon footprint. 

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

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

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

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

Here’s How Ethical & Sustainable Eating Limes Is

The overall ethics & sustainability of limes is very bad. The main factors that contribute to this are the industry’s participation in wage theft, agrochemical use (particularly nitrogen fertilizer), the use of plastic packaging, and high irrigation requirements.

There are many positive qualities to limes when it comes to ethics and sustainability. For one, the industry isn’t involved in any major reports of child or forced labor within the US. They also have a very low carbon footprint and can be grown within the US when they’re in-season. 

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

Key Assessment FactorsEthics & Sustainability
Social and economic conditions of limesLimes’ social and economic conditions are moderately bad. Though they can make wages approaching a living wage, the industry is involved in cartels in Mexico, which increases the risk of worker exploitation. 
Seasonality of limesLimes’ seasonality is from March to August. During this time, they can be grown in the US, but outside of this period they are grown in Mexico. 
Land requirements for limesLimes’ land requirements are moderate. However, their participation in rainforest destruction is very unsustainable.
Water footprint of limesLimes have a moderate water requirement of 50 inches per year. However, the regions they grow in have low rainfall. So, they require a significant amount of irrigation. Furthermore, their pesticide use is damaging to surrounding water sources.
Agrochemical usage for limesLimes’ agrochemical usage is very high. They use considerable pesticides, as well as nitrogen fertilizer, which is very unsustainable. 
Carbon footprint of limesThe carbon footprint of limes is low at 0.18kg (0.39lb) of CO2e per pound of limes. This is mainly caused by their irrigation requirements, high use of pesticides, plastic packaging, mechanized harvesting methods, and refrigerated transportation from Mexico.
Waste generation of limesLimes’ waste generation is fairly high. This is because they use both plastic and cardboard packaging and have 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 limes’ ethics & sustainability.

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

Limes’ social and economic conditions are moderately bad. Though they can make wages approaching a living wage, the industry is involved in cartels in Mexico, which increases the risk of worker exploitation. 

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 lime industry fares in relation to these ethical questions.

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

In short, the lime industry’s participation in Mexico’s cartels means that some of their dealings may be somewhat unethical. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Seasonality for Limes

Limes’ seasonality is from March to August. During this time, they can be grown in the US, but outside of this period they are grown in Mexico. 

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 lime industry accommodates year-round demand.

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

  • When is the natural season for growing and harvesting limes: Limes have a relatively long season between March and August. Limes are more likely to be produced in the US during this period. 
  • How are limes naturally grown in-season: Limes are grown on trees in orchards. They are typically grown in Florida when they are grown in the US in-season. 
  • How are limes grown out-of-season: When limes are out-of-season, they almost always come from Mexico. This means that out-of-season limes will be significantly less sustainable than in-season limes. 

In short, limes are relatively sustainable when in-season because they can be grown in the US. However, out of season, they need to be imported from Mexico, making them a less sustainable choice. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Land Requirements for Limes

Limes’ land requirements are moderate. However, their participation in rainforest destruction is very 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 limes’ land usage affects their sustainability.

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

In short, limes’ tendency to grow on deforested rainforest lands has a devastating impact on biodiversity, land fertility, and wildlife and is thus very unsustainable. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Water Footprint of Limes

Limes have a moderate water requirement of 50 inches per year. However, the regions they grow in have low rainfall. So, they require a significant amount of irrigation. Furthermore, their pesticide use is damaging to surrounding water sources.

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 limes’ water footprint.

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

In short, limes’ high irrigation requirements, as well as their high pesticide usage means that they have a very high water footprint. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Agrochemical Usage for Limes

Limes’ agrochemical usage is very high. They use considerable pesticides, as well as nitrogen fertilizer, which is very unsustainable. 

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 limes’ pesticide and fertilizer rates really are.

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

In short, limes’ high pesticide use, as well as their need for harmful nitrogen fertilizers means that their agrochemical impact is very negative. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Carbon Footprint of Limes

The carbon footprint of limes is low at 0.18kg (0.39lb) of CO2e per pound of limes. This is mainly caused by their irrigation requirements, high use of pesticides, plastic packaging, mechanized harvesting methods, and refrigerated transportation from Mexico.

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 limes contributes to their overall sustainability.

How ethical & sustainable is the carbon footprint of limes?

In short, despite some of the carbon-emitting resources allocated to limes, they still maintain a below-average carbon footprint amongst fruits.

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

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Waste Generation of Limes

Limes’ waste generation is fairly high. This is because they use both plastic and cardboard packaging and have 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 limes’ waste generation is.

How ethical & sustainable is the waste generation of limes?

In short, limes’ use of plastic packaging, as well as low composting rates means that they are fairly unsustainable at this stage. 

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

The lime industry has historically had a harmful effect on people and the environment. Their main offenses over the years include wage theft, desertification, harmful pesticide pollution, and plastic 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 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 limes have fared throughout history.

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

In short, limes have harmed workers and the environment considerably over the years, particularly through wage theft, the use of harmful pesticides and fertilizers, and the creation of desertification areas.

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

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

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

  1. Buy unpackaged limes: Plastic nets used to package limes contribute significantly to landfills and ocean plastic. Therefore, opting to buy loose limes without these nets can help you raise the sustainability of your lime consumption considerably. 
  2. Buy organic limes: Pesticides are a majorly unsustainable aspect of lime agriculture, and so you should try to cut down on these as much as possible. Organic farms commit to avoiding chemicals. If you try to buy limes from organic farms, you will thus be greatly reducing all the environmental damage that pesticides can cause. You will also be avoiding one of the biggest work hazards in agriculture, which is pesticides. 
  3. Compost lime peels: Food waste ending up in landfills is very unsustainable. If you make the effort to compost your lime peels, then you will avoid them ending up in landfills. If your city doesn’t provide composting, you can consider creating your own
  4. Use lime peels: If you don’t want to compost, you can also consider using the whole lime so nothing goes to waste. Lime zest is a popular ingredient in baking and cocktails. You can even make lime peels into candy!

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

In the table below are some of the best charities that work in the areas where lime 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 lime 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 limes!

“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 limes:

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 limes. 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 limes – 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 limes, 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 limes.

Final Thoughts

Limes are a great garnish for drinks and ingredient in baking, but they come at a fairly high environmental and human cost. Their use of pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers, as well as plastic packaging are very unsustainable. Their reports of wage theft and low pay are some of their ethical concerns. However, by changing your consumption habits, as well as supporting organizations dedicated to reversing and preventing these effects, you can become a much more responsible lime consumer!

Stay impactful,

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