The Environmental Impact of Apples: From Farm to Table

The Environmental Impact of Apples: From Farm to Table

By
Teresa Mersereau

Read Time:18 Minutes

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Apples are an incredibly popular fruit, with over 4.6 million tons being produced every year in the US alone. They are common in many different baked goods, such as pies and tarts, as well as salads and even roasts. In terms of nutrients, they pack a strong punch of protein and fiber, making them a perfect breakfast or snack. But apple production can also have some seriously detrimental impacts on the environment. So, we had to ask: What is the environmental impact of apples?

Apples have a moderately negative environmental impact. This is mainly because they use a high amount of pesticides, plastic packaging, and nitrogen fertilizers. However, they also sequester carbon well and don’t require irrigation. 

In this article, we will examine the environmental impact of apples from several different angles. We will go through the life-cycle of apples, detailing their impact on the environment from growth to distribution to your plate to waste management. We will then compare the environmental impact of apples to that of other fruits. And, finally, we’ll share some tips with you on how you can reduce your own environmental impact and offset your own carbon emissions—both for your personal life and apple-related.

Here’s How We Assessed the Environmental Impact of Apples

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is one of the ways we measure the potential environmental effects of our actions, like the consumption of apples. It is a holistic assessment based on the environmental changes associated with our consumption. Those are changes in our environment that can have adverse effects on the air, land, water, fish, and wildlife or the inhabitants of the ecosystem.

Environmental Impact: the effect that the activities of people and businesses have on the environment”

Cambridge Dictionary

Basically, all goods and services you buy—including apples—leave an impact on our environment. When it comes to food in general, and apples specifically, the following are key factors:

To understand the overall environmental impact of apples, we must assess each of their key factors. This Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is a tool originally developed to identify the environmental impacts of a project prior to decision-making and also helps us to evaluate the environmental impacts of apples, from farm to table.

Here’s the Overall Environmental Impact of Apples

The overall environmental impact of apples is moderately negative. The main factors that contribute to this are their use of monoculture farming, high pesticide rates, nitrogen fertilizers, and plastic packaging. 

Apples have some positive qualities in relation to their environmental impact, however. They have very economical land yields and low irrigation requirements. However, there are still many aspects of their production that have considerably negative environmental impacts. 

So, let’s have a look at the environmental impact of each key factor of apples!

Key Assessment FactorsEnvironmental Impact
Land requirements for applesApples’ land requirements are fairly low. However, their use of monoculture farming means that their environmental impact is still moderately negative. 
Water footprint of applesApples have a moderate water requirement of 52 inches per year. Because of where they grow, they don’t need irrigation, meaning that their environmental impact is moderate at this stage. 
Agrochemical usage for applesApples’ agrochemical usage is high. They use a significant amount of pesticides, as well as nitrogen fertilizer, which is very harmful to the environment.
Carbon footprint of applesApples have a moderate carbon footprint of 0.24kg (0.53lb) of CO2e per pound of apples. This is mainly because they use mechanized processing, plastic packaging, and refrigerated transportation.
Waste generation of applesApples’ waste generation is high. This is mainly because they use plastic packaging, which contributes to environmentally-harmful landfills. 

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 apples’ environmental impact.

What Are the Land Requirements for Apples

Apples’ land requirements are fairly low. However, their use of monoculture farming means that their environmental impact is still moderately negative. 

Illustration of global land use for food production
Our World in Data: Global land use for food production

Growing apples has a lot of variables that contribute to their environmental impact. The amount of land they use, the way in which they grow, and the amount of time they take to grow will all contribute to their environmental impact.

How do the land requirements of apples impact their environmental footprint?

In short, some of apples’ agricultural practices, such as monoculture farming, have a damaging effect on the environment, leaving them with a moderately negative environmental impact. 

What Is the Water Footprint of Apples

Apples have a moderate water requirement of 52 inches per year. Because of where they grow, they don’t need irrigation, meaning that their environmental impact is moderate at this stage. 

Water usage is one of the most important factors in the environmental impact of a fruit. The amount of water used, as well as the way they affect the water sources around them, are all major contributing factors. Here, we will look at these different angles of apples’ water impact.

How does the water footprint of apples impact their environmental footprint?

In short, apples don’t need a significant amount of irrigation, but their pesticide usage means that their water environmental impact is moderately negative. 

What Is the Agrochemical Usage for Apples

Apples’ agrochemical usage is high. They use a significant amount of pesticides, as well as nitrogen fertilizer, which is very harmful to the environment. 

Pesticides and fertilizers are agrochemicals that can have a significant impact on the environment. They both require resources to create as well as have effects on the life around them. Here, we will look at how apples’ pesticide and fertilizer rates affect their environmental impact.

How does the agrochemical usage of apples impact their environmental footprint?

In short, apples’ use of both excessive pesticides as well as nitrogen fertilizer means that they have a very negative impact on the environment at this stage. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Apples

Apples have a moderate carbon footprint of 0.24kg (0.53lb) of CO2e per pound of apples. This is mainly because they use mechanized processing, plastic packaging, and refrigerated transportation.

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 environmental impact of a fruit. It essentially measures how much carbon or other greenhouse gasses the production of strawberries 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 apples breaks down and contributes to their environmental impact.

How does the carbon footprint of apples impact their environmental footprint?

  • What is the overall carbon footprint of apples: The overall carbon footprint of apples is 0.24kg (0.53lb) of CO2e per pound of apples. This means that for every pound of apples produced, 0.24kg of carbon is released into the atmosphere, which is around the same as driving a car for just over ½ a mile. This is an average carbon footprint among fruits. 
  • What are the main contributors to the carbon footprint of apples: The main factors that contribute to the overall carbon footprint of apples are high fertilizer and pesticide use during the growing process, energy-intensive cold storage, and fuel used by harvesting machines.
  • Which life-cycle stage of apples has the highest carbon footprint: The life cycle stage of apples that has the highest carbon footprint is harvesting, processing, and packaging. This is because they use mechanical harvesting, refrigeration, and plastic packaging. 

In short, apples may have an average carbon footprint, but there are still some significant aspects to their life cycle that emit a significant amount of carbon. 

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

What Is the Waste Generation of Apples

Apples’ waste generation is high. This is mainly because they use plastic packaging, which contributes to environmentally-harmful landfills. 

When fruit waste, in the form of either packaging or organic materials, is disposed of, it can have a major impact on the environment. 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. In this section, we will look at how apples’ waste affects the environment.

How does the waste generation of apples impact their environmental footprint?

In short, apples’ use of plastic packaging, as well as their lower composting rates, mean that they have a very negative environmental impact at this stage. 

What Have Been Historical Environmental Issues Connected to the Apple Industry

The apple industry has historically caused moderate damage to the environment. This is mainly because of their historical use of pesticides and nitrogen fertilizer. 

All fruits have had a complex journey 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 environmental damage along the way. Whether it’s deforestation to meet demand, water pollution, or disruption of wildlife, most fruits have left a path of destruction. Let’s see how apples have fared throughout history. 

What have been the key environmental issues of the apple industry?

  • How much land has been lost because of apple production: Apples use a significant amount of land in the US but have not particularly been associated with deforestation. In this sense, they don’t have as negative a track record as some other fruits. 
  • Which wildlife species have been negatively impacted or displaced because of apple production: Pesticides are incredibly damaging to wildlife and biodiversity. Apples have a long history of pesticide usage and so they have participated significantly in this damage. 
  • Have water sources and soil been contaminated because of apple production: Nitrogen fertilizer is particularly damaging to waterways. The widespread use of nitrogen fertilizer within the apple industry has damaged water sources for this reason.

In short, apples’ use of nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides has had a moderately negative effect on the environment. 

What Is the Overall Environmental Impact of Food and Agriculture

Food production in general has a high environmental impact. Everything from the amount of land used to the energy involved in irrigation to its effect on plant and animal biodiversity can be a factor in this. In the chart below, you can see how food production is one of the biggest influences on these areas of the environment. 

Illustration of the environmental impacts of food and agriculture
Our World in Data: The environmental impacts of food and agriculture

Agriculture alone accounts for over a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, while using half of the world’s habitable land and 70% of the global freshwater withdrawals. Agriculture also causes 78% of the global ocean and freshwater pollution

Livestock accounts for the vast majority of non-human mammal and bird biomass. Mammal livestock outweighs wild mammals by a factor of 15-to-1, and poultry livestock outweighs wild birds by a factor of more than 3-to-1.

These statistics highlight the need for sustainable and responsible practices in food production to reduce its impact on the environment. And the need for us to shift toward more environmentally-friendly foods.

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

There are a few things you can do to mitigate some of the negative environmental effects of consuming apples, while still enjoying them. You can also consider offsetting your personal and apple-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 Reduce Your Environmental Impact When Shopping for Apples

In this section, we give you a short list of ways you can reduce the negative environmental effects of oranges, based on those parts of the life-cycle of apples that would otherwise most negatively impact the environment:

  1. Avoid plastic packaging: Contribution to landfills is one of the worst aspects of apples’ environmental harm. If you buy loose apples at the supermarket instead of packaged ones, then you will be saving a lot of packaging ending up in landfills, thus mitigating those negative environmental impacts. 
  2. Compost your apple cores: Food waste in landfills is another one of the biggest contributors to apples’ negative environmental impact. If you make sure to compost all the apple cores that you use, you can reduce their impact. If your city doesn’t offer a composting system, then you can consider making your own!
  3. Buy organic apples: Pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers are significant contributors to apples’ environmental impact. 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 cut down on your environmental impact of eating apples. 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 Alleviate Your Environmental Impact

While apples can cause a wide range of environmental damage, 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 damage to the environment caused by industries like apple agriculture.

In the table below are some of the best environmental charities that work in the areas where apple production has affected the environment—and beyond:

Overall environmental impactBest charities that fight to protect our environment
Land requirementsBest charities for reforestation
Best wildlife conservation charities
Best charities for protecting the Amazon rainforest
Best charities that protect our national parks
Water footprintBest charities that fight for clean water
Best charities that help conserve our rivers
Best charities to save our oceans
Agrochemical usageBest charities that help farmers
Best 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

Though it is helpful to reduce the environmental impact of your personal apples 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 your environmental impact. And it is one of the ways we measure the effects of our human-induced global climate change. Yes, even from eating apples!

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 apples:

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 apples. 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 apples—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 apples, 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 2023 List” to find the best carbon offset providers for your personal carbon emissions and those associated to, e.g., eating apples.

Final Thoughts

There are many areas where apples could improve in terms of their environmental impact. They use monoculture farming, nitrogen fertilizers, and plastic packaging. However, if you make key decisions when buying apples, you can help to mitigate your impacts on apples’ environmental impact. Another important component is to support organizations that tackle the bigger environmental issues caused by agriculture. Through these methods, you can really help make apple farming more environmentally friendly!

Stay impactful,

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