Is Eating Onions Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

Is Eating Onions Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

By
Grace Howarth

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As the third largest fresh vegetable industry in the United States, onions are a staple ingredient in many households. In fact, onion consumption has risen by an enormous 79% over the last thirty years, and 93% of restaurants in America feature this root vegetable on their menus. Since onions are so widely consumed, it is important to know the impact that they have on the planet and the people on it. So we had to ask: How ethical and sustainable is eating onions?

Eating onions is overall quite ethical. Supporting this industry can help improve the quality of life for global farmers. However, agricultural workers are often underpaid and can be vulnerable to abuse or trafficking. Purchasing Fair Trade onions can ensure your purchase is as ethical as possible.

Eating onions is sustainable because they have one of the lowest carbon footprints of any vegetable. They have a moderately low water and land footprint, and use few pesticides, making their environmental impact lower than that of many other crops.

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

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

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

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

Here’s How Ethical & Sustainable Eating Onions Is

All crops have an impact on the environment, as a great many resources, like land and water, are needed to produce food on a mass scale. As well as this, the global consumption of a crop will lead to ethical and sustainable issues, such as land loss and exploitation of workers across the world.

Overall, onions are one of the more ethical and sustainable food choices out there. They have a very low carbon footprint, water footprint, and use few agrochemicals. As well as this, they store well and can be grown locally across most of America. Yet, like in many different crop farming operations, there have been reports of child labor and human trafficking in the onion industry. Purchasing onions from local, trusted sources can help make this vegetable a more ethical choice.

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

Key Assessment FactorsEthics & Sustainability
Social and economic conditions of onionsThe social and economic conditions around farming onions are complex. Like all agriculture, farming onions can be dangerous work and is often underpaid. As well as this, troubling forced labor and child labor concerns have been discovered in the onion industry.
Seasonality of onionsOnions are typically in-season during the summer and fall. Eating them at this time of year is the most sustainable option, as the crops do not have to be transported from different climates. However, onion varieties, such as chives, scallions, and shallots, can be grown naturally throughout the year, making the seasonality of onions relatively sustainable.
Land requirements for onionsOnions, like all crops, have an impact on wildlife, habitable land, biodiversity, and soil erosion. However, as a relatively land-efficient crop, with a yield of 18-40 tonnes per hectare, the environmental impact of the land usage of onions is low compared to other vegetables.
Water footprint of onionsOnions have a moderately low water footprint of 30 liters per 4 ounce serving. They often require additional irrigation due to their shallow root systems. This increases their blue water footprint, in particular. However, overall the environmental impact of the water used to grow onions is far smaller than other crops, such as asparagus or the soybeans grown as animal feed.
Agrochemical usage for onionsOnions were fourth in the Environmental Working Group’s ‘Clean Fifteen’ list, making them one of the crops with the lowest use of pesticides and fertilizers. Since agrochemicals can have a negative impact on the environment, choosing onions is a more sustainable option.
Carbon footprint of onionsOnions have a carbon footprint of 0.11 kg (0.25 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. This is a very low carbon footprint in comparison to other vegetables, and is largely because onions can be grown locally, have a long shelf life, and often require few resources, such as pesticides, to grow.
Waste generation of onionsAround 43,000 tonnes of avoidable onion waste is discarded every year. However, since onions are often sold loose, it is possible to avoid creating any plastic waste when consuming this vegetable. Choosing unpackaged onions is an easy way to reduce the environmental impact of your purchase, as well as storing them correctly.

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 onions’ ethics & sustainability.

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

The social and economic conditions around farming onions are complex. Like all agriculture, farming onions can be dangerous work and is often underpaid. As well as this, troubling forced labor and child labor concerns have been discovered in the onion industry.

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 onion industry fares in relation to these ethical questions.

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

In short, while onions are a relatively ethical and sustainable choice, the economic and social conditions of farmers can make them less so. Try to purchase locally or Fairtrade to make your purchase as ethical as possible for onion farmers.

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Seasonality for Onions

Onions are typically in-season during the summer and fall. Eating them at this time of year is the most sustainable option, as the crops do not have to be transported from different climates. However, onion varieties, such as chives, scallions, and shallots, can be grown naturally throughout the year, making the seasonality of onions relatively sustainable.

Every crop 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 vegetable is year-round. This demand is often met by importing produce 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 onion industry accommodates year-round demand.

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

  • When is the natural season for growing and harvesting onions: Onions are a cool-season crop, planted in either spring or fall, depending on location. They are usually then harvested in late-summer to early fall. This means that onions can be a more sustainable choice than other crops, as they don’t have to be transported from warmer climates.
  • How are onions naturally grown in-season: Onions grown from seed take around four months to mature, whereas onions planted as sets take just under three months. They grow underground and the bulbs are harvested once the tops of the plants start to die. Purchasing in-season produce will always be more sustainable, as it requires less resources than crops grown in greenhouses.
  • How are onions grown out-of-season: With proper planning, onions can be grown across every season on the same plot of land. Chives can be harvested in spring, bulbing onions in summer, and leeks during fall and winter, with scallions, shallots, and walking onions harvestable throughout the year. This makes the onion industry one of the more sustainable ones.

In short, varieties of onions can be grown throughout the year, making them a sustainable and ethical choice.

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Land Requirements for Onions

Onions, like all crops, have an impact on wildlife, habitable land, biodiversity, and soil erosion. However, as a relatively land-efficient crop, with a yield of 18-40 tonnes per hectare, the land usage of onions is sustainable when compared to other vegetables.

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 a vegetable’s 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 onions’ land usage affects their sustainability.

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

In short, onions are land-efficient and have a relatively small impact on wildlife, biodiversity, and loss of habitable land. Farming onions does cause some soil erosion, but this can be combated with proper soil management techniques. Overall, the land requirements of onions are more ethical and sustainable than many other crops.

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Water Footprint of Onions

Onions have a moderately low water footprint of 30 liters per 4 ounce serving. They often require additional irrigation due to their shallow root systems. This increases their blue water footprint, in particular. However, overall the environmental impact of the water used to grow onions is far smaller than other crops, such as asparagus or the soybeans grown as animal feed, which makes onions an ethical and sustainable option.

Water usage is one of the most important factors in a vegetable’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 onions’ water footprint.

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

In short, the water footprint of onions is relatively low, despite them requiring more water than other vegetables. The blue water footprint is slightly higher than other crops, like lettuce or spinach, but overall, the water footprint of onions is fairly sustainable.

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Agrochemical Usage for Onions

Onions were fourth in the Environmental Working Group’s ‘Clean Fifteen’ list, making them one of the crops with the lowest use of pesticides and fertilizers. Since agrochemicals can have a negative impact on the environment, choosing onions is a more sustainable and ethical option.

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 onions’ pesticide and fertilizer rates really are.

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

  • What is the pesticide usage of onions: The Environmental Working Group found onions to be the fourth ‘cleanest’ crop, which made it part of their ‘Clean Fifteen’ list of foods that contained the least amount of pesticides. Pesticide usage produces carbon emissions through manufacturing, transportation, and application to crops, as well as contaminating soil and causing potential harm to wildlife and ecosystems. Because onions use few pesticides, they are a relatively ethical and sustainable option.
  • What is the fertilizer usage of onions: Onions require a high source of nitrogen. Unfortunately, nitrogen fertilizer is particularly bad for the environment, as it can cause nature loss and can even be damaging to human health. Therefore, the use of fertilizers when growing onions can have a negative impact on the environment, making them less sustainable.

In short, onions are found to be a vegetable with one of the lowest use of agrochemicals. This means that they are much more ethical and sustainable than crops such as strawberries, spinach, or kale, which use far more pesticides and fertilizers.

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Carbon Footprint of Onions

Onions have a carbon footprint of 0.11 kg (0.25 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. This is a very low carbon footprint in comparison to other vegetables, and is largely because onions can be grown locally, have a long shelf life, and often require few resources, such as pesticides, to grow.

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 crop. It essentially measures how much carbon or other greenhouse gasses the production of vegetables emits into the atmosphere. Emissions from product manufacturing, irrigation, transportation fuel, and landfills all add up to create the overall carbon footprint of a crop. Let’s see how the carbon footprint of onions contributes to their overall sustainability.

How ethical & sustainable is the carbon footprint of onions?

  • What is the overall carbon footprint of onions: The overall carbon footprint of onions is 0.11 kg (0.25 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce, which is very low. Onions produce less than half of the carbon emissions of lettuce, and about a tenth of the carbon emissions of cucumber. They have the fourth lowest carbon emissions out of the most popular vegetables. The low carbon footprint means that onions are a sustainable choice of vegetable.
  • What are the main contributors to the carbon footprint of onions: Though the overall carbon footprint of onions is low, the fact that they require land, water, pesticides and fertilizers to grow creates carbon emissions. The use of tractors and drip-water irrigation contributes negatively to the overall sustainability of onions, though in comparison to other vegetables they are a low-impact choice.
  • Which life-cycle stage of onions has the highest carbon footprint: The growing stage of onion production is 0.05 kg (0.11 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 42.65% of the overall carbon footprint of this vegetable. This number is low mainly because of their efficient growth times and lack of pesticide use. Negative factors that contribute to this footprint include fertilizers and the use of tractors to plant onion seeds.

In short, the carbon footprint of onions is relatively low compared to other vegetables, and extremely low when compared to non plant-based products. Choosing locally-grown, loose produce is a way to ensure the carbon footprint of your onions is as low as possible, making this low-impact crop even more ethical and sustainable.

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

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Waste Generation of Onions

Around 43,000 tonnes of avoidable onion waste is discarded every year. However, since onions are often sold loose, it is possible to avoid creating any plastic waste when consuming this vegetable. Choosing unpackaged onions is an easy way to reduce the environmental impact of your purchase, as well as storing them correctly.

When vegetable 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 onions’ waste generation is.

How ethical & sustainable is the waste generation of onions?

In short, due to the long shelf-life of onions and the ability to sell them loose, there is far less plastic and food waste created in producing onions than there is in producing mixed salads, or cucumbers, for example. In this regard, their environmental impact is low.

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

Onions are one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world, growing in India, China, and the Middle East before recorded history. First brought to Britain in the Roman Empire, and cultivated by indigenous Americans in the New World, the sustainability and ethicality of this crop has been negatively impacted as wide-scale, global production has increased.

All crops 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 vegetables 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 crops have left a path of destruction. Let’s see how onions have fared throughout history.

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

  • Has labor been exploited because of onion production: Historically, many agricultural laborers have been exploited, forced to work in dangerous conditions for little pay. From modern day child laborers in Paraguay and Mexico, to migrant workers trafficked in the American South, exploitation has been rife in this industry.
  • How much land has been lost because of onion production: Onions were first cultivated in Central Asia over 5,000 years ago, however wild onions are thought to have been eaten in the prehistoric diet. In the industrialization of onions, over 2.7 million hectares of land are used to grow this crop around the world.
  • Which wildlife species have been negatively impacted or displaced because of onion production: In the cultivation and harvest of any crop, many small animals like mice, rabbits, and insects will be displaced or killed by the harvesting equipment. Onion plants are not known to have a negative impact on wildlife but the pesticides used on them can affect surrounding ecosystems.
  • Have water sources and soil been contaminated because of onion production: Onions have been known to contaminate water supplies with nitrate fertilizers. However, because onions use fewer pesticides and fertilizers than most other vegetables, there is little degradation of water and soil.
  • Other known historical issues: The farming industry is vulnerable to modern day slavery and child labor, and unfortunately onion production is no different. Across the globe, the people growing and picking our food are some of society’s most impoverished and abused. Although many people are speaking out against the use of forced labor in farming practice, more has to be done to ensure the safety and wellbeing of farmers around the world.

In short, the global consumption of onions can have a negative impact on the environment. No crop is free from ethical and environmental issues, however the low carbon footprint and overall low environmental impact of onions makes them one of the more sustainable food choices.

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

There are a few things you can do to ensure the onions you purchase are as ethical and sustainable as possible. You can also consider offsetting your personal and onion-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 Onions More Ethically & Sustainably

In this section, we give you a short list of ways you can consume onions in the most ethical and sustainable ways possible:

  1. Shop locally and seasonally: Onions are in prime season from summer to fall. Buying from local farms reduces the carbon emissions produced and makes it a much more sustainable choice. If you are near a local, small-scale farm, which harvests by hand, your purchase will be even better for the environment.
  2. Choose organic: Organic onions produce a much lower carbon footprint than non-organic vegetables, due to the lack of pesticide production, distribution, and the overall higher health of soil for crops, insects, and animals.
  3. Buy plastic-free: Avoid pre-processed and packaged onions, and instead opt for whole, loose produce. This will significantly decrease the overall environmental impact of your purchase.
  4. Store your onions correctly: Onions can actually last for up to a year in the correct storage conditions, but moisture and light can lead to premature spoilage. Store them in a cool dark place, and freeze chopped onions to lead to a longer shelf-life and less food waste. To create even less waste, you could even use the skin of onions to create your own onion powder, or make a natural dye.

Following some of these methods can really help you to cut down on your environmental impact of eating onions. None of these will completely eradicate these 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 onions can be the cause of a wide range of environmental damage and ethical issues, there are also some organizations that help you reduce parts of your impact that would otherwise be outside of your control. These organizations are working hard to prevent and reverse ethical and sustainable problems caused by industries like agriculture.

In the table below are some of the best charities that work in the areas where onion production has affected the environment—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 reduce the environmental impact of your personal onion 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 onions!

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 onions:

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 onions. 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 onions – 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 onions, 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 onions.

Final Thoughts

Onions have a low environmental impact when compared with other vegetables and a very low carbon footprint when compared with other foods, making them a relatively sustainable choice. However, you can try to reduce your carbon footprint even further by eating organic, reducing food and plastic waste, and purchasing seasonal produce. Ethically, there are always issues of labor exploitation in the global production of food, but trying to purchase locally and from trusted sources will help to make your onions as ethical as possible. When you do enjoy onions, think about whether you can offset the carbon emissions created, to make this healthy snack an even more sustainable option!

Stay impactful,

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