Is Eating Watermelons Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

Is Eating Watermelons Ethical & Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

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Teresa Mersereau

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A summer picnic isn’t complete without some watermelon slices. They are a hydrating fruit, containing over 90% water, as well as protein and fiber. Watermelons are a quintessential American crop, as one of the top three agricultural products produced in the country. But watermelons can also participate in some unethical and unsustainable practices. So, we had to ask: Is eating watermelon ethical and sustainable?

Eating watermelons is fairly unethical. They have been linked to several unethical labor practices in the US, including wage theft, forced labor, and worker exploitation. Watermelons have also been linked to child labor in Mexico and Honduras.

Eating watermelons is fairly unsustainable. The watermelon industry has contributed to serious environmental damages such as desertification, pesticide pollution, and fertilizer pollution. However, they still maintain a low carbon footprint and avoid plastic packaging. 

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

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

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

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

Here’s How Ethical & Sustainable Eating Watermelons Is

The overall ethics & sustainability of watermelons is very low. The main factors that contribute to this are their associations with forced labor, wage theft, deforestation, pesticide pollution, and the use of harmful nitrogen fertilizers. 

Watermelons do have some sustainable qualities. For example, they have a very low carbon footprint and they don’t use plastic packaging. However, there are still many other aspects of their production that are unethical and unsustainable. 

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

Key Assessment FactorsEthics & Sustainability
Social and economic conditions of watermelonsWatermelons’ social and economic conditions are very bad. The watermelon industry engages in forced labor, as well as wage theft and exploitation of migrant workers in the US. 
Seasonality of watermelonsWatermelons’ seasonality is from May to September. During the other months, they are typically imported from South America, meaning that they are fairly unsustainable for most of the year. 
Land requirements for watermelonsWatermelons’ land requirements are very high. This, mixed with their tendency to be farmed in monocultures means they are very unsustainable at this stage. 
Water footprint of watermelonsWatermelons have a high water footprint of 50–100 inches of water per year. Because of where they grow, they require a very high amount of irrigation, which is very unsustainable. 
Agrochemical usage for watermelonsThe pesticide and fertilizer usage of watermelon is very high. The particular fertilizers they use are also harmful to soil and local wildlife, and thus are very unsustainable.
Carbon footprint of watermelonsWatermelons have a low carbon footprint of 0.05kg (0.11 lb) of CO2e per pound of watermelon. They are produced domestically in the US and have a minimal harvesting, processing, and packaging footprint; despite their high pesticide usage and low composting rates.
Waste generation of watermelonsWatermelons’ waste generation is moderate. They use cardboard, which is easy to recycle, but have low composting rates for their food waste. 

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 watermelons’ ethics & sustainability.

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

Watermelons’ social and economic conditions are very bad. The watermelon industry engages in forced labor, as well as wage theft and exploitation of migrant workers in the US. 

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 watermelons industry fares in relation to these ethical questions.

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

In short, the watermelon industry has many ethical issues, such as forced labor, discrimination against migrant workers, and wage theft. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Seasonality for Watermelons

Watermelons’ seasonality is from May to September. During the other months, they are typically imported from South America, meaning that they are fairly unsustainable for most of the year. 

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 watermelons industry accommodates year-round demand.

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

  • When is the natural season for growing and harvesting watermelons: Watermelons are in season during the summer, from around May to September. This is a moderately sized season, but it still means that watermelons grown from October to April are usually imported
  • How are watermelons naturally grown in-season: Watermelons grow on the ground on vines. They take up to three months to mature. This is quick compared to many other fruits such as pineapples, which take around a year to mature. During the in-season, most watermelons are grown in the US. This means that in-season watermelons are considerably more sustainable than out-of-season watermelons. 
  • How are watermelons grown out-of-season: Out-of-season watermelons are typically imported from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. This means that they are considerably less sustainable than in-season watermelons. The ethical conditions for workers in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras are also considered to be lower than those in the US.

In short, watermelons’ limited season for growth in the US means that they have to be imported for most of the year and thus are less sustainable during that time. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Are the Land Requirements for Watermelons

Watermelons’ land requirements are very high. This, mixed with their tendency to be farmed in monocultures means they are very unsustainable 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 watermelons’ land usage affects their sustainability.

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

In short, the watermelon industry’s contribution to desertification, habitat loss, and soil erosion means their sustainability is very low in this category. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Water Footprint of Watermelons

Watermelons have a high water footprint of 50–100 inches of water per year. Because of where they grow, they require a very high amount of irrigation, which is very unsustainable. 

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 watermelons’ water footprint.

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

In short, the watermelon industry’s use of extensive irrigation, as well as high amounts of pesticides means their water sustainability is very low. 

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Agrochemical Usage for Watermelons

The pesticide and fertilizer usage for watermelon is very high. The particular fertilizers they use are also harmful to soil and local wildlife, and thus are very unsustainable.

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

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

In short, watermelons’ extremely high pesticide usage, as well as their use of the harmful nitrogen fertilizer means that they are very unsustainable in the agrochemical department.

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Carbon Footprint of Watermelons

Watermelons have a low carbon footprint of 0.05kg (0.11 lb) of CO2e per pound of watermelon. They are produced domestically in the US and have a minimal harvesting, processing, and packaging footprint; despite their high pesticide usage 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 watermelons contributes to their overall sustainability.

How ethical & sustainable is the carbon footprint of watermelons?

In short, watermelons have certain high-carbon components to their life cycle, but overall they have one of the lowest carbon footprints amongst fruits, meaning they are actually relatively sustainable when it comes to their carbon footprint. 

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

How Ethical & Sustainable Is the Waste Generation of Watermelons

Watermelons’ waste generation is moderate. They use cardboard, which is easy to recycle, but have low composting rates for their food waste. 

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 watermelons’ waste generation is.

How ethical & sustainable is the waste generation of watermelons?

  • What is the packaging of watermelons: Watermelons typically use cardboard during the transportation stage. Cardboard is a fairly unsustainable material, mainly because of their contribution to deforestation
  • How is the packaging of watermelons disposed of: Cardboard recycling has a fairly high recycling rate of around 89%. However, this still means that some cardboard is ending up in landfills. Landfills are very unsustainable because they emit carbon, pollute the soil, and harm wildlife. So if even a small amount of cardboard is going into landfills, it is somewhat unsustainable. Saying that, cardboard is much more sustainable than less-recycled materials such as plastic and styrofoam.
  • How are watermelons disposed of: Watermelons have rinds that can theoretically be composted. However, composting rates amongst food waste are very low, at around 4%. This means that the vast majority of watermelon waste is ending up in the landfills. On top of the general negative qualities of landfills, food waste is particularly bad, since it releases methane.

In short, watermelons’ waste is somewhat sustainable, since all their materials can theoretically be recycled or composted, even though their food waste is not widely composted in practice. 

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

Watermelons have partaken in some farming or labor practices that have harmed the environment a lot over the years. These include wage theft, deforestation, desertification, and use of contaminating fertilizers and pesticides. 

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 watermelons have fared throughout history.

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

In short, watermelons have caused some significant damage to people and the environment. Their violations of minimum wage laws, as well as their use of nitrogen fertilizer, and pesticides have all contributed to their history of unethical and unsustainable conduct. 

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

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

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

  1. Buy watermelons in-season: Outside the months of May to September, watermelons are mainly imported from Mexico and Central America. When you make sure to buy them in-season, you are raising the likelihood that they are domestic watermelons considerably. Not only do domestic watermelons have shorter travel times, but also US watermelons do not have major reports of child labor like Mexico and Honduras. Therefore, making sure you buy domestic, in-season watermelons will help you be more ethical and sustainable in your watermelon consumption. 
  2. Compost and recycle: Waste disposal and landfills are big negative contributors to watermelons’ sustainability problems. If you make sure that you recycle any packaging and compost any food waste, then you will be making your watermelon consumption considerably more sustainable. 
  3. Buy organic watermelons: Watermelons’ high pesticide use is a major contributor to their ethical and sustainability issues, with pesticides being both damaging to the environment and dangerous for workers. 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.

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

In the table below are some of the best charities that work in the areas where watermelon 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 watermelon 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 watermelons!

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 watermelons:

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 watermelons. 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 watermelons – 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 watermelons, 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 watermelons.

Final Thoughts

Watermelons engage in some seriously unethical and unsustainable practices. They have been linked to forced labor, wage theft, deforestation, and pesticide and fertilizer pollution. These practices are worrying, but the good news is that there are plenty of ways to be a more ethical and sustainable watermelon consumer. For example, if you buy watermelons in-season, responsibly dispose of packaging, and support charities that aim to make a difference in big environmental issues, you can have a more positive impact. 

Stay impactful,

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