Is Eating Potatoes Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

Is Eating Potatoes Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

By
Grace Howarth

Read Time:25 Minutes

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Potatoes are one of the most versatile vegetables because they can be prepared in many ways from roasted and fried to boiled or mashed. Americans, on average, eat a potato every day, making them the second most consumed food in the US. Potatoes were even the first vegetable to be grown in space! Since potatoes 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 potatoes?

Eating potatoes can be unethical due to the mistreatment of farmers and use of forced labor. This issue is prevalent across the agricultural industry, and more must be done to spread awareness about the unfair treatment of fruit and vegetable farmers around the globe.

Eating potatoes is sustainable because they have one of the lowest carbon footprints of any vegetable. For every cubic meter of water used, potatoes produce more food energy than any other major crop. As well as this, they use few pesticides and can be stored effectively to last many months.

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

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

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

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

Here’s How Ethical & Sustainable Eating Potatoes 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, potatoes 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, issues of child and forced labor are unfortunately common across all agricultural sectors, but purchasing locally grown or Fairtrade potatoes can make it a more ethical option.

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

Key Assessment FactorsEthics & Sustainability
Social and economic conditions of potatoesThe social and economic conditions around farming potatoes are complex. Like all agriculture, farming potatoes can be dangerous work and is often underpaid. As well as this, troubling forced labor and child labor concerns have been discovered in the potato industry.
Seasonality of potatoesThe seasonality of potatoes is fairly sustainable, as potatoes can be stored extremely well over many months, making them available to purchase year-round. Unlike warm-season crops, such as tomatoes, potatoes can be sustainably eaten throughout both warm and cool seasons and do not have to be imported from warmer climates.
Land requirements for potatoesPotatoes, like all crops, have an impact on wildlife, habitable land, biodiversity, and soil erosion. However, potatoes are some of the most land-efficient crops, using less land per kilogram of produce than most other foods. This means that the environmental impact of the land usage of potatoes is very low compared to other vegetables.
Water footprint of potatoesPotatoes produce more food energy per cubic meter of water used than any other major crop, making them a sustainable choice. However, the starch-filled wastewater produced when processing potatoes can cause water pollution.
Agrochemical usage for potatoesThe agrochemical use of potatoes is lower than that of other crops, due to a low usage of pesticides. However, the industry-wide reliance on nitrogen fertilizers creates water, land, and air pollution. The industry is trying to move away from these harmful fertilizers to make the growing of potatoes have less of an impact on the environment.
Carbon footprint of potatoesPotatoes have a carbon footprint of 0.12 kg (0.28 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce, which is very low for crops. Over 60% of the carbon footprint is due to the resources used while growing potatoes, such as water and land use, as well as packaging. Choosing organic, fresh, unpackaged potatoes is the most sustainable way to purchase this produce.
Waste generation of potatoesThe waste generated by potatoes is unsubstantial, as unfortunately potatoes are one of the most wasted foods, with 3 billion pounds of potatoes thrown away every year. This increases the carbon footprint. Any packaging used is bad for the environment, but lengthens the shelf-life, leading to less food waste. This can be offset by proper storing methods to increase shelf-life without the need for plastic packaging.

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 potatoes’ ethics & sustainability.

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

The social and economic conditions around farming potatoes are complex. Like all agriculture, farming potatoes can be dangerous work and is often underpaid. As well as this, troubling forced labor and child labor concerns have been discovered in the potato 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 potato industry fares in relation to these ethical questions.

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

  • Are farmers paid fair wages to grow potatoes: The wages of farmers vary greatly across the US, with many factors that can impact salaries. On average, the hourly wage of a potato farmer falls between $15-$17. However, 20% of farmers live below the poverty line. Migrant workers, in particular, are vulnerable to exploitation, and some workers have been threatened with deportation if they refused to accept a lower wage. Purchasing Fairtrade potatoes ensures that your vegetables have been grown as ethically as possible.
  • How safe are the working conditions to grow potatoes: All farmwork poses a hazard, and agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries to work in in the US. Farmers work long hours in direct sunlight, putting themselves at risk of heat stroke or exhaustion. Working with heavy machinery, pesticides, doing repetitive movements, and carrying heavy loads of produce are all activities that could put a potato farmer at risk of injury. However, potato farming, and vegetable farming on the whole, is safer than working with livestock.
  • Are there reports of child or forced labor to grow potatoes: There have been reports of child labor used to grow potatoes in Lebanon, most of whom are Syrian refugees. As well as this, in the US, there have been reports of farm owners exploiting migrant workers on H-2A visas. Some farms have been said to withhold wages, force their workers to work for up to 22 hours a day, and charge unlawful visa fees. Another ethical issue when it comes to potato farming, is the use of prison labor. Incarcerated individuals often work dangerous jobs for very little or no money, with their labor supplying enormous brands like McDonald’s and Walmart. When shopping for potatoes, try to purchase locally to ensure that the farmers working to produce your food are being treated fairly.

In short, while potatoes 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 potato farmers.

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Seasonality for Potatoes

The seasonality of potatoes is fairly sustainable, as potatoes can be stored extremely well over many months, making them available to purchase year-round. Unlike warm-season crops, such as tomatoes, potatoes can be sustainably eaten throughout both warm and cool seasons and do not have to be imported from warmer climates.

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 produce is year-round. This demand is often met by importing crops 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 potato industry accommodates year-round demand.

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

  • When is the natural season for growing and harvesting potatoes: Depending on where potatoes are grown, they are usually freshly in-season from mid-July to October. Because they store well, they can be eaten seasonally from mid-September until mid-May. This long period of seasonality makes potatoes a sustainable choice, in comparison to warm-season vegetables that usually are imported from warmer climates.
  • How are potatoes naturally grown in-season: Fresh potatoes are grown and harvested in summer and fall. They are sold immediately, meaning that less resources are used to store them. Eating seasonally is an easy way to make your diet more sustainable.
  • How are potatoes grown out-of-season: Unlike other crops that rely on overseas imports when out-of-season, potatoes are stored to ensure that they are available year-round. They are stored in the darkness, essentially put into hibernation, to prevent their further growth. This makes potatoes a more sustainable choice than importing warm-season crops in winter.

In short, potatoes are one of the more sustainable crops, as they can be stored and available at almost any time of the year, without relying on overseas imports.

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Land Requirements for Potatoes

Potatoes, like all crops, have an impact on wildlife, habitable land, biodiversity, and soil erosion. However, potatoes are some of the most land-efficient crops, using less land per kilogram of produce than most other foods. This means that the environmental impact of the land usage of potatoes is very low 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 vegetables’ 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 potatoes’ land usage affects their sustainability.

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

In short, potatoes are land-efficient and have a relatively small impact on wildlife, biodiversity, and loss of habitable land. Farming potatoes does cause some soil erosion, but this can be combated with proper soil management techniques. Overall, this makes potatoes an ethical and sustainable choice.

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Water Footprint of Potatoes

Potatoes produce more food energy per cubic meter of water used than any other major crop, making them a sustainable choice. However, the starch-filled wastewater produced when processing potatoes can cause water pollution.

Water usage is one of the most important factors in a crop’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 potatoes’ water footprint.

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

  • What is the overall water usage of potatoes: Potatoes were found to produce more food energy per cubic meter of water used, than any other major crop, in a study by the UN. They are also seven times more water efficient than cereals. This lowers the carbon footprint of potatoes.
  • What is the green water footprint of potatoes: The green water footprint is the amount of water from precipitation stored in the soil and used by plants for growth. The global average green water footprint of potatoes is 191 cubic meters per ton, one of the lowest out of the over 200 foods studied. This means their environmental impact is low.
  • What is the blue water footprint of potatoes: The blue water footprint is the amount of water sourced from surface (such as rivers or lakes) or groundwater resources. The global average blue water footprint of potatoes is 33 cubic meters per ton, one of the lowest out of the over 200 foods studied. This means they have a small impact on the environment.
  • What is the gray water footprint of potatoes: 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. The global average gray water footprint of potatoes is 63 cubic meters per ton, one of the lowest out of the over 200 foods studied, meaning potatoes have a low environmental impact.
  • How does the potato industry affect freshwater and ocean pollution: Potatoes are washed intensively after harvest, leading to an excess of starch-filled wastewater. This water pollution has a negative environmental impact. For every kilogram of potatoes, around 17 liters of wastewater is produced, making the water pollution of potatoes quite significant. 

In short, the water footprint of potatoes is low, but the water pollution created by processing potatoes makes the crop less ethical and sustainable.

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Agrochemical Usage for Potatoes

The agrochemical use of potatoes is lower than that of other crops, due to a low usage of pesticides. However, the industry-wide reliance on nitrogen fertilizers creates water, land, and air pollution. The industry is trying to move away from these harmful fertilizers to make the growing of potatoes have less of an impact on the environment.

Pesticides and fertilizers are agrochemicals that are very unsustainable and damaging to ecosystems. This is because they require resources to create and can easily run off into groundwater and soil systems. Here, we will look at how sustainable potatoes’ pesticide and fertilizer rates really are.

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

In short, a reliance on nitrogen fertilizers while growing potatoes have negative repercussions on the overall sustainability of this crop. However, potatoes are treated with fewer pesticides than a lot of other crops, and a shift away from pesticides and fertilizers will make potatoes more ethical and sustainable.

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Carbon Footprint of Potatoes

Potatoes have a carbon footprint of 0.12 kg (0.28 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce, which is very low for crops. Over 60% of the carbon footprint is due to the resources used while growing potatoes, such as water and land use, as well as packaging. Choosing organic, fresh, unpackaged potatoes is the most sustainable way to purchase this produce.

Illustration of global greenhouse gas emissions from food production
Our World in Data: Global greenhouse gas emissions from food production

How ethical & sustainable is the carbon footprint of potatoes?

  • What is the overall carbon footprint of potatoes: The overall carbon footprint of potatoes is 0.12 kg (0.28 lb) of CO2e per pound of potatoes, which is very low. Potatoes produce less than half of the carbon emissions of lettuce, and almost a quarter less carbon emissions than cucumber.
  • What are the main contributors to the carbon footprint of potatoes: The main contributors to the carbon footprint of potatoes are the resources used in the growing stage, including land, water, and pesticide usage. As well as this, the plastic packaging used contributes significantly to the carbon footprint of potatoes. Around 70% of potatoes are produced in the US and processed goods like fries, chips, and tater tots are far more likely to have more packaging waste than fresh potatoes. 
  • Which life-cycle stage of potatoes has the highest carbon footprint: The growing stage of potatoes contributes to over 60% of the overall carbon emissions created by the production of potatoes. However, comparatively to other crops, relatively few resources are needed to grow potatoes.

In short, potatoes have a small carbon footprint. In fact, potatoes rank within the top 10 vegetables with the lowest carbon footprints. This is because they are a relatively easy crop to grow and use fewer resources than vegetables such as cucumbers or tomatoes.

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

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Waste Generation of Potatoes

The waste generated by potatoes is unsubstantial, as unfortunately potatoes are one of the most wasted foods, with 3 billion pounds of potatoes thrown away every year. This increases the carbon footprint. Any packaging used is bad for the environment, but lengthens the shelf-life, leading to less food waste. This can be offset by proper storing methods to increase shelf-life without the need of plastic packaging.

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 potatoes’ waste generation is.

How ethical & sustainable is the waste generation of potatoes?

In short, the excess waste of this crop has a significant impact on the sustainability of potatoes. While whole potatoes can be purchased loose, many of the potato products we buy are sold in plastic packaging, which can be difficult to dispose of in a way that does not have a negative impact on the planet.

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

The potato industry has historically been the source of both abundance and famine. In the 18th century, when potatoes began to be grown on a mass-scale across Europe, they contributed up to 40% of people’s diets, bringing many people out of abject hunger. However, potatoes are susceptible to blights, which was one of the factors that caused the Great Famine in Ireland, killing over one million people.

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 potatoes have fared throughout history.

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

  • Has labor been exploited because of potato production: Historically, many agricultural laborers have been exploited, forced to work in dangerous conditions for little pay. From modern day child laborers in Lebanon, to itinerant workers in America’s post-Great Depression dust bowl, to the starving Irish population during the Great Famine, exploitation has been rife in this industry.
  • How much land has been lost because of potato production: Potatoes were first cultivated over 8,000 years ago in the South American Andes, before spreading across Europe in the 1500s. The industry is now the world’s fourth most important crop, behind rice, wheat, and maize. In the industrialization of potatoes, it goes without saying that a great deal of land is used to grow this crop. However, potatoes use less land per kilogram of produce than most other foods, making them one of the more land-efficient crops despite their wide-scale production.
  • Which wildlife species have been negatively impacted or displaced because of potato 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. However, potato plants are not known to have a negative impact on wildlife.
  • Have water sources and soil been contaminated because of potato production: Potatoes have been known to contaminate water supplies with nitrate fertilizers, and the irrigation of potatoes with wastewater has led to an accumulation of heavy metals in the soil. The use of wastewater has been condemned but hopefully there will be a move toward irrigating crops with freshwater to reduce the nitrogen in the soil
  • Other known historical issues: A lack of genetic variation in potatoes makes them susceptible to blight. The most famous example of this is the phytophthora infestans pathogen, which caused the poor potato harvests in Ireland from 1845-1852. This devastating famine killed over one million people and caused a further one million people to emigrate. A quarter of the Irish population either died or left the country because of the Great Famine.

In short, historically, the production of potatoes has caused some water and soil contamination issues due to nitrate fertilizers and wastewater irrigation. As well as this, a blight of this largely monocultural crop caused immense famine in 19th century Ireland, which had a devastating impact on Ireland’s culture and history, as well as its environment.

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

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

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

  1. Shop locally and seasonally: Potatoes are in prime season from June to October. 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. Driving up demand for local produce reduces food miles and lessens greenhouse gas emissions. As well as this, it is more likely that local farmers will be working under more ethical conditions. Making sure to buy potatoes grown in the US, instead of imported from other countries, will have a positive impact.
  2. Choose organic: Organic potatoes 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 potatoes, and instead opt for whole, loose produce. This will make your purchase substantially more sustainable.

Following some of these methods can really help you to cut down on your environmental impact of eating potatoes. 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 potatoes 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 potato 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 potato 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 potatoes!

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 potatoes:

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 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 potatoes – 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 potatoes, 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 potatoes.

Final Thoughts

Overall, potatoes are one of the most ethical and sustainable food choices available. With their low carbon footprint, water footprint, and use of agrochemicals, they have a small impact on the environment. 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 potatoes as ethical as possible. Next time you are looking for an ethical and sustainable meal choice, you can’t go wrong with the humble potato!

Stay impactful,

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