Is Eating Plums Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

Is Eating Plums Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

By
Teresa Mersereau

Read Time:21 Minutes

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With over 200 varieties cultivated in the US, the plum is one of the most popular and diverse native North American fruits. They are an excellent source of vitamins A, C, and K, with relatively few calories per unit! But there can also be many unethical and unsustainable components to the plum industry. So we had to ask: Is eating plums ethical and sustainable?

Eating plums is fairly ethical. Plum workers make decent wages and there aren’t any significant reports of child or forced labor. However, climate change is creating increasingly hostile heat for harvesters. 

Eating plums is very unsustainable. They require significant amounts of irrigation, use high amounts of pesticides, and have a high carbon footprint. However, they don’t use plastic packaging or contribute to soil erosion. 

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

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

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

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

Here’s How Ethical & Sustainable Eating Plums Is

The overall ethics & sustainability of plums is moderate. Though they are relatively ethical, they have some seriously unsustainable qualities during their production like high pesticide usage, high irrigation requirements, and high carbon footprint.

Plums do have some good qualities when it comes to ethics and sustainability. For example, plum workers are generally paid higher than minimum wage. Plum farming also doesn’t contribute to things like soil erosion, which makes them a relatively sustainable fruit to grow. 

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

Key Assessment FactorsEthics & Sustainability
Social and economic conditions of plumsPlums’ social and economic conditions are fairly good in California, where most US-consumed plums are grown. Plum workers make more than the minimum wage and aren’t exposed to many hazards, besides environmental heat. 
Seasonality of plumsPlums’ seasonality is from June to September. Outside of this season, they are imported from Chile, which means they are much more sustainable to buy in-season. 
Land requirements for plumsPlums’ land requirements are very high. However, they don’t contribute significantly to land or wildlife loss, which means they are still relatively sustainable at this stage. 
Water footprint of plumsPlums have a moderate water requirement of 50 inches of water per year. However, because of where they grow, they require a significant amount of irrigation.
Agrochemical usage for plumsPlums’ agrochemical usage is unsustainable, primarily because they use a significant amount of pesticides and primarily use harmful nitrogen fertilizer. 
Carbon footprint of plumsPlums have a carbon footprint of 0.4 kg (0.88 lbs) CO2e per pound of plums, making them one of the highest carbon-emitting fruits on the carbon footprint scale. This footprint is mainly due to their high rates of land use, irrigation, pesticides, harvesting methods, packaging, and transportation times. 
Waste generation of plumsPlums’ waste generation is fairly low. This is because they use easily-recycled cardboard packaging, though their composting rates are low. 

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 plums’ ethics & sustainability.

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

Plums’ social and economic conditions are fairly good in California, where most US-consumed plums are grown. Plum workers make more than the minimum wage and aren’t exposed to many hazards, besides environmental heat. 

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 plum industry fares in relation to these ethical questions.

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

  • Are farmers paid fair wages to grow plums: Plum pickers and other agricultural workers in California actually make a good hourly wage, around $10–15 per hour. However, hours can be scarce and so many workers make much less money year-round than someone earning those same wages on full-time hours.
  • How safe are the working conditions to grow plums: Agricultural workers in California typically work 8 hour shifts, which is good for their health. However, the increasing heat in California due to climate change means they are having to work in more and more hostile conditions, which can be dangerous. This is a country-wide issue that affects many fruit farms, not just the plum industry. 
  • Are there reports of child or forced labor to grow plums: There are no major reports of child labor within the plum industry. There are also no major reports of forced labor within the plum industry specifically. However, there have been considerable risks of forced labor found within the US fruit industry in general. 
  • What is the wider economic impact on the communities that grow plums: California is currently facing a labor shortage in the agricultural sector, which is driving up the price of labor. This means that in the case of California, workers have significantly higher bargaining power. 

In short, the plum industry’s relatively high wages, as well as their lack of ties to majorly unethical practices like forced labor mean they are a relatively ethical fruit. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Seasonality for Plums

Plums’ seasonality is from June to September. Outside of this season, they are imported from Chile, which means they are much more sustainable to buy in-season. 

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 plum industry accommodates year-round demand.

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

  • When is the natural season for growing and harvesting plums: Plum season usually falls between June and September. For those looking to buy plums locally, this is the best time to shop for them. 
  • How are plums naturally grown in-season: Plums grow on trees and have a relatively short growth period, taking only about two to three months to ripen from the blossom. Most in-season plums from the US will be coming from California
  • How are plums grown out-of-season: Most out-of-season plums bought in the US during the winter come from Chile. These have to travel further and so eating plums outside of their season is less sustainable. 

In short, the seasonality of plums has a significant effect on their sustainability, with in-season plums coming from the US and out-of-season plums being imported from Chile. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Land Requirements for Plums

Plums’ land requirements are very high. However, they don’t contribute significantly to land or wildlife loss, which means they are still relatively sustainable 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 plums’ land usage affects their sustainability.

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

  • What is the land usage of plums: Plums yield around 4–5 tons per hectare. This is a very low yield compared to other fruits. For example, strawberries yield up to 25 tons per hectare, and bananas up to 100
  • Where and how are plums grown: On a global scale, most plums are produced in China. Plums grow on trees in orchards, and these trees have been found to sequester carbon extremely well. This means that they are able to capture carbon from the air and store it in the ground. Storing carbon lowers the carbon footprint, making plums more sustainable
  • Are plums grown in monocultures or polycultures: Plums are grown in a hybrid of mono and polyculture farming. Monoculture farming can be unsustainable, but because plum orchards aren’t always monocultures, they don’t cause the same amount of damage as exclusively monoculture plants, such as mangoes
  • How does the growing of plums affect soil fertility and erosion: Plum farming has been found to have a positive impact on soil fertility. For example, in one study from China, plum orchards were found to improve soil better than barren land. Therefore, plums do not have a majorly negative impact on soil fertility, and can even have a positive one. 
  • How does the plums industry affect the loss of habitable land: While some plum farming may cause deforestation, wild plum trees have actually been the victims of deforestation in some cases. This means that while agriculture plays a role in deforestation, plums have also been on the other side of this. 
  • How does the plums industry affect wildlife and biodiversity: Plum trees can provide an excellent habitat for wildlife and biodiversity. This means that they can help to prevent habitat loss. At the very least, they aren’t the direct cause of it in many cases. In instances when plums are using monoculture farming, they can harm biodiversity, but not in polyculture farms. 

In short, plums don’t make use of many harmful agricultural practices, besides their very low land yield and occasional use of monoculture farming methods. Therefore, they are somewhat sustainable at this stage. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Water Footprint of Plums

Plums have a moderate water requirement of 50 inches of water per year. However, because of where they grow, they require a significant 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 plums’ water footprint.

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

  • What is the overall water usage of plums: Plums need around 50 inches of water per year. This is a very typical water requirement among fruits, which means that their water footprint is moderate. 
  • What is the green water footprint of plums: The green water footprint is the amount of water from precipitation stored in the soil and used by plants for growth. Most plums grown in the US are grown in California, which only gets about 22 inches of water per year. Therefore, the majority of rainfall will be going toward plum growth, making their green water footprint fairly high. 
  • What is the blue water footprint of plums: The blue water footprint is the amount of water sourced from surface (such as rivers or lakes) or groundwater resources. Since California doesn’t get enough rain to cover plums’ water requirements, they will need significant irrigation. This means that their blue water footprint is fairly high as well. 
  • What is the gray water footprint of plums: The gray water footprint is the amount of freshwater required to clean up water pollution to meet certain quality standards. Essentially, it’s the amount of water needed to make polluted water clean enough to be safe and healthy for humans and the environment. Plums tend to use a lot of pesticides, being in the top 20 worst pesticide offenders. Therefore, a significant amount of water will be needed in order to clean up plums’ chemical waste, meaning their gray water footprint is high. 
  • How does the plums industry affect freshwater and ocean pollution: Pesticides are some of the worst polluters to waterways. They can run off into rivers and lakes and even poison aquatic life. Likewise, irrigation can cause huge problems for water, creating groundwater imbalances and over-salination. The fact that plums are heavy users of both of these things means that they can cause serious damage to natural water sources. 

In short, plums’ use of significant irrigation, as well as pesticides, means that their water usage is not very sustainable. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Agrochemical Usage for Plums

Plums’ agrochemical usage is unsustainable, primarily because they use a significant amount of pesticides and primarily use harmful nitrogen fertilizer. 

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 plums’ pesticide and fertilizer rates really are.

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

In short, the fact that plums require nitrogen fertilizer and use a significant amount of pesticides means that they can harm many ecosystems through agrochemical runoff, and are thus very unsustainable.

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Carbon Footprint of Plums

Plums have a carbon footprint of 0.4 kg (0.88 lbs) CO2e per pound of plums, making them one of the highest carbon-emitting fruits on the carbon footprint scale. This footprint is mainly due to their high rates of land use, irrigation, pesticides, harvesting methods, packaging, and transportation times. 

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 plums contributes to their overall sustainability.

How ethical & sustainable is the carbon footprint of plums?

  • What is the overall carbon footprint of plums: The overall carbon footprint of plums is 0.4 kg (0.88 lbs) CO2e per pound of plums. This means that for every pound of plums produced, 0.4kg of carbon is released into the atmosphere. This is a fairly high carbon footprint compared to other fruits. 
  • What are the main contributors to the carbon footprint of plums: The main factors that contribute to plums’ carbon footprint are the amount of irrigation, land, and pesticides used, as well as the mechanized harvesting practices and the improper disposal of waste.
  • Which life-cycle stage of plums has the highest carbon footprint: The life cycle stage that contributes the most to plums’ carbon footprint is growth. This is because they use a high amount of irrigation and pesticides and have a very low land yield

In short, plums’ carbon footprint is higher than average. This is largely because they consume significant resources during their growth stage, such as irrigation, land, and pesticides. 

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

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Waste Generation of Plums

Plums’ waste generation is fairly low. This is because they use easily-recycled cardboard packaging, though their composting rates are low. 

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 plums’ waste generation is.

How ethical & sustainable is the waste generation of plums?

In short, despite the high recycling rates of cardboard, plums can still be somewhat unsustainable due to their low composting rates. 

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

The plum industry has historically been very damaging to the environment. This is mainly through pesticides’ harm to wildlife and nitrogen fertilizers’ harm to waterways. 

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 plums have fared throughout history.

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

  • Has labor been exploited because of plums production: Plums don’t have any major reports of labor exploitation over the years. However, considering that the fruit industry in general has a significant amount of exploitation, this does not necessarily mean it has never happened. 
  • How much land has been lost because of plum production: Plums have one of the lowest land yields among fruits, meaning that more land will need to be used per pound of plums than many other fruits. However, plums also have a much lower volume of production than other fruits, with around 12 million tons annually to apples’ 100 million. Therefore, the plum industry, while it has used significant land over the years to make up for its low yields, still hasn’t used as much land as more popular fruits. 
  • Which wildlife species have been negatively impacted or displaced because of plum production: Plums’ pesticide use has had a historical impact on wildlife populations. Pesticides get into soil and water, rising up the food chain and being consumed by many different species. This has caused wildlife to have limited or contaminated food sources, resulting in declining populations. 
  • Have water sources and soil been contaminated because of plum production: Nitrogen fertilizer is particularly damaging to waterways. The widespread use of nitrogen fertilizer by plum farms has damaged water sources for this reason. 

In short, plums have been considerably unsustainable historically, mainly through their pesticide and nitrogen fertilizer use. 

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

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

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

  1. Buy in-season plums: Plums are much more sustainable when they are bought in-season, because they will be much more likely to be domestic and will thus not have long transport times. If you want to buy more sustainable plums, try to limit your plum consumption to the summer months. 
  2. Buy organic plums: Some of the most unsustainable aspects of plums come from their high use of pesticide and nitrogen fertilizers. 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. Therefore, by choosing organic plums, you will be able to make them much more sustainable. 
  3. Compost and recycle: Another unsustainable quality of plums is improper waste disposal. Make sure that you compost all organic waste and recycle all cardboard waste to prevent them from ending up in landfills. If you don’t have a government-run composting or recycling program in your area, consider making your own compost and using the cardboard as roughage.

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

In the table below are some of the best charities that work in the areas where plum 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 plum 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 plums!

“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 plums:

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 plums. 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 plums – 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 plums, 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 plums.

Final Thoughts

Though they are somewhat ethical, plums have a long way to go before they can be considered sustainable. They cause significant damage to waterways through irrigation and fertilizer use, harm wildlife through pesticide usage, and cause air pollution through their high carbon footprint. But fortunately, there are still many ways in which you can improve your plum sustainability. Reducing pesticides by supporting organic farms, as well as supporting environmental charities can all help move toward more sustainable plum consumption!

Stay impactful,

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