Is Eating Pomegranates Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

Is Eating Pomegranates Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

By
Teresa Mersereau

Read Time:22 Minutes

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Pomegranates are a booming global business, valued at around $24 billion. They are especially popular as juices. Pomegranates are also a great source of antioxidants, fiber, and essential vitamins. However, there are many components of the pomegranate industry that can be very unethical and unsustainable. So, we had to ask: Is eating pomegranates ethical and sustainable?

Eating pomegranates is somewhat unethical. This is mainly because of general labor violations in the California agricultural industry, as well as reports of specific labor violations in Israel’s pomegranate industry. However, child labor is not a significant issue in the industry.

Eating pomegranates is very unsustainable. They use high amounts of pesticides, nitrogen fertilizers, and irrigation. They also occasionally require plastic packaging and have a low land yield compared to other fruits.

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

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

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

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

Here’s How Ethical & Sustainable Eating Pomegranates Is

The overall ethics & sustainability of pomegranates is very low. The main factors that contribute to this are repeated labor rights violations, high pesticide use, irrigation requirements, use of nitrogen fertilizers, low land yield, and occasional use of plastic packaging.

There are some positives when it comes to the ethics and sustainability of pomegranates. For example, there are relatively few reports of labor rights violations within the US pomegranate industry. Whole pomegranates also typically don’t use plastic packaging. However, the majority of the pomegranate production process is fairly unethical and unsustainable. 

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

Key Assessment FactorsEthics & Sustainability
Social and economic conditions of pomegranatesPomegranates’ social and economic conditions are moderately bad. This is mainly because of the low agricultural salaries in California and reports of poor working conditions in Israel’s pomegranate industry.
Seasonality of pomegranatesPomegranates’ seasonality is between September and November, when they are available domestically. Outside of this season, they are imported from India and are thus less sustainable. 
Land requirements for pomegranatesPomegranates’ land requirements are high. They also use harmful agricultural techniques like multiple crop sequencing and monoculture farming, which are very unsustainable. 
Water footprint of pomegranatesPomegranates have a moderate water requirement of 50 inches of water per year. However, because they don’t get enough rainfall in their area, they require significant amounts of irrigation. 
Agrochemical usage for pomegranatesPomegranates’ agrochemical use is very high. Their particular use of harmful nitrogen fertilizer means they are very unsustainable at this stage.
Carbon footprint of pomegranatesPomegranates have a moderately high carbon footprint of 0.39kg (0.87lb) of CO2e per pound of pomegranates. This is mainly because of their high need for growth resources, pesticide use, refrigerated transportation requirements, and low composting rates. 
Waste generation of pomegranatesPomegranate waste generation can be very high, depending on whether pomegranates are bought whole or shelled. Both types require either cardboard or plastic packaging so their waste disposal is fairly unsustainable. 

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 pomegranates’ ethics & sustainability.

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

Pomegranates’ social and economic conditions are moderately bad. This is mainly because of the low agricultural salaries in California and reports of poor working conditions in Israel’s pomegranate 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 pomegranate industry fares in relation to these ethical questions.

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

In short, there are some very unethical aspects to pomegranate agriculture, particularly wage theft and poor working conditions for staff.

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Seasonality for Pomegranates

Pomegranates’ seasonality is between September and November, when they are available domestically. Outside of this season, they are imported from India and are thus less sustainable. 

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 pomegranate industry accommodates year-round demand.

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

  • When is the natural season for growing and harvesting pomegranates: Pomegranates are in season between September and November. This means that domestic pomegranates will be available during this season, making them more sustainable. 
  • How are pomegranates naturally grown in-season: Pomegranates grow on trees. In their season, they are typically grown in California. This means that they will only have to be transported fairly short distances to other places in the US and are thus considered to be sustainable at this stage. 
  • How are pomegranates grown out-of-season: Out-of-season pomegranates are typically imported from India. This means they have to travel great distances to the US and are thus very unsustainable during this time. 

In short, pomegranates’ seasonality is very important to their sustainability. Pomegranates are imported from India out-of-season and are thus far less sustainable than in-season pomegranates that are produced domestically. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Land Requirements for Pomegranates

Pomegranates’ land requirements are high. They also use harmful agricultural techniques like multiple crop sequencing and monoculture farming, which are 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 pomegranates’ land usage affects their sustainability.

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

  • What is the land usage of pomegranates: Pomegranates yield around 8 tons per hectare. This is one of the lowest land yields among fruits. For example, pears can yield 40-50 tons per hectare, and pineapples can yield up to 100 tons per hectare. Therefore, each pound of pomegranates will take up significantly more space than other fruits. 
  • Where and how are pomegranates grown: Pomegranates are mainly grown in the Mediterranean and Middle East, as well as Southeast Asia. Pomegranates grow on trees in orchards which sequester carbon. This can help them to offset some of their emissions and thus make them more sustainable. However, their ability to sequester carbon only lasts the first five years of growth. Once they reach maximum producing capacity, their carbon sequestering abilities tend to plateau. Therefore, though they do sequester some carbon early in life, it is not enough to make them significantly more sustainable. 
  • How does the growing of pomegranates affect soil fertility and erosion: The particular method of farming that pomegranate farms often use is called multiple crop sequencing. This farming technique has been found to have negative effects on soil fertility, depleting nutrients. Pomegranates are also mainly grown in monocultures. Monocultures are terrible for biodiversity as they limit pollination, soil microbes, and other wildlife. Therefore, between multiple crop sequence growing and monoculture farming, pomegranates can have a very negative effect on soil. 
  • How does the pomegranates industry affect the loss of habitable land: Pomegranates have a very low land yield, so they will require more land to grow than other fruits. However, pomegranates are currently less popular than other fruits, producing 1.5 million tons annually, although their popularity is rising. In comparison, apples and oranges are evaluated at 76 million and 50 million tons per year, respectively. Therefore, while pomegranates are less efficient, their lower production rates mean they still take up less space in the world than more popular fruits. 
  • How does the pomegranates industry affect wildlife and biodiversity: Monoculture farming is very harmful to wildlife and biodiversity. This is mainly because monocultures produce a very short flowering season, as opposed to the more balanced flowering season of polycultures. As a result, pollinators are starved for most of the year, which affects the whole food chain. 

In short, pomegranate farming takes part in some damaging practices, such as monoculture farming and multiple crop sequencing. This combined with their low land yield, means they are very unsustainable at this stage. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Water Footprint of Pomegranates

Pomegranates have a moderate water requirement of 50 inches of water per year. However, because they don’t get enough rainfall in their area, they require significant amounts 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 pomegranates’ water footprint.

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

In short, pomegranates are very demanding on water resources and pollute waterways significantly through their use of irrigation and pesticides. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Agrochemical Usage for Pomegranates

Pomegranates’ agrochemical use is very high. Their particular use of the harmful nitrogen fertilizer means they are very unsustainable at this stage.

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 pomegranates’ pesticide and fertilizer rates really are.

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

In short, pomegranates’ heavy use of pesticides and nitrogen fertilizer means that the industry causes a whole slew of damages to waterways, wildlife, soil, and even human health.

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Carbon Footprint of Pomegranates

Pomegranates have a moderately high carbon footprint of 0.39kg (0.87lb) of CO2e per pound of pomegranates. This is mainly because of their high need for growth resources, pesticide use, refrigerated transportation requirements, and low composting rates. 

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 pomegranates contributes to their overall sustainability.

How ethical & sustainable is the carbon footprint of pomegranates?

In short, pomegranates have a fairly high carbon footprint, mainly due to the high resources needed during their growing period. 

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

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Waste Generation of Pomegranates

Pomegranate waste generation can be very high, depending on whether pomegranates are bought whole or shelled. Both types require either cardboard or plastic packaging so their waste disposal is fairly unsustainable. 

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 pomegranates’ waste generation is.

How ethical & sustainable is the waste generation of pomegranates?

In short, pomegranate packaging and food waste is very unsustainable. This is mainly because of low composting rates and low plastic recycling rates. 

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

The pomegranate industry has historically been very unsustainable and potentially unethical. This has occurred through labor violations in the California agricultural industry, as well as the significant use of pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers. 

All fruits have had a complex road toward global distribution. They originate in one part of the world and often travel far to end up in your local supermarket. From farm to table, some of our favorite fruits have racked up some serious damage along the way. Whether it’s exploiting labor, deforestation to meet demand, water pollution, or disruption of wildlife, most fruits have left a path of destruction. Let’s see how pomegranates have fared throughout history.

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

  • Has labor been exploited because of pomegranate production: There have not been many high-profile cases in relation to worker exploitation in the pomegranate industry specifically. However, there have been significant cases of worker rights violations in California’s agricultural industry. One case involves a California farm having to pay almost $500,000 in damages for violations such as wage theft. Cases like these show that the Californian agricultural industry—which includes pomegranates—can have serious labor violations. 
  • How much land has been lost because of pomegranate production: Because pomegranate production is generally lower than other fruits, they haven’t had as big an impact on global deforestation. However, their industry is growing, which means that they are having an ever-increasing impact on land because they need to clear more land to make ways for new pomegranate orchards. 
  • Which wildlife species have been negatively impacted or displaced because of pomegranate production: Pomegranates have historically used a high amount of pesticides compared to other fruits. This means that they have had an adverse effect on wildlife over the years. Many wildlife species in California, where most pomegranates are grown, have been negatively affected by pesticides. These species include the bald eagle, great-horned owl, black bear, and the coyote
  • Have water sources and soil been contaminated because of pomegranate production: Pomegranates have historically used a significant amount of nitrogen fertilizer. In California, nitrogen fertilizer has had a particularly damaging effect on groundwater and other water sources

In short, pomegranates’ continued use of nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides, as well as their ever-increasing production, has caused significant environmental damage, especially in California. They are also potentially associated with labor violations in California. 

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

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

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

  1. Buy in-season pomegranates: When you buy your pomegranates outside of their US season, they are likely being shipped from India. This greatly adds to their carbon footprint, making them less sustainable. If you want to eat pomegranates that are as sustainable as possible, try buying them exclusively between September and November. 
  2. Buy organic pomegranates: In general terms, heavy pesticide use is unsustainable. Organic farms make the commitment to avoid using chemicals, including pesticides. Thus, making the effort to buy organic pomegranates will help you to reduce some of the more negative aspects of pesticides’ sustainability. 
  3. Compost your pomegranate waste: Pomegranate peels ending up in landfills is extremely unsustainable. If you make the effort to compost your pomegranate peels then you will be greatly reducing the space they take up in landfills, as well as the methane emitted from them. If you can’t compost through your city’s waste management system, then you can consider creating your own compost!

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

In the table below are some of the best charities that work in the areas where pomegranate 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 pomegranate 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 pomegranates!

“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 pomegranates:

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 pomegranates. 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 pomegranates – 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 pomegranates, 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 pomegranates.

Final Thoughts

Pomegranates have a long way to go before they can be considered truly ethical and sustainable. There are some serious ethical concerns to do with their working conditions, both in Israel and California. They also require large amounts of irrigation, use copious pesticides, and are fertilized using one of the most harmful chemicals. However, by trying your best to reduce aspects of your pomegranate consumption, and supporting charities which aim to combat some of the more damaging aspects of pomegranate agriculture and work towards a positive impact!

Stay impactful,

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