The Environmental Impact of Dates: From Farm to Table
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Dates are a sweet, often dried delicacy that’s popular in Middle Eastern desserts. They also have an ever-increasing global market, reaching over a million tons in volume in 2021. In terms of health benefits, dates pack a good amount of protein, potassium, and fiber. However, there are many components to the date production process that can have a very negative impact on the environment. So we had to ask: What is the environmental impact of dates?
Dates have a moderately negative environmental impact. Their main impacts come from high requirements for irrigation and land, as well as their use of nitrogen fertilizers and plastic packaging.
In this article, we will examine the environmental impact of dates from several different angles. We will go through the life-cycle of dates, detailing their impact on the environment from growth to distribution to your plate to waste management. We will then compare the environmental impact of dates 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 date-related.
Here’s How We Assessed the Environmental Impact of Dates
The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is one of the ways we measure the potential environmental effects of our actions, like the consumption of dates. 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 dates – leave an impact on our environment. When it comes to food in general, and dates in specific, the following are key factors:
- Land requirements: Large parts of the world that were once covered by forests and wildlands are now used for agriculture. 10 million hectares of forest are destroyed annually and 50% of the world’s habitable land is now used for agriculture. This loss of natural habitat has been the main driver for reducing the world’s biodiversity.
- Water footprint: 70% of global freshwater is now used for agricultural purposes. By assessing the water footprint of a particular food, we can determine how our limited freshwater resources are being consumed and polluted.
- Pesticide and fertilizer usage: Pesticides and fertilizers provide a range of agricultural benefits. However, numerous studies link pesticides and fertilizers to serious effects on human health, along with disruptions to vital ecosystems and the spread of aquatic dead zones.
- Carbon footprint: The carbon footprint is one of the ways we measure the effects of our human-induced global climate change. Today, food production accounts for over a quarter (26%) of global greenhouse gas emissions.
- Waste generation: Food and its packaging account for almost 45% of the materials landfilled in the US alone. And packaging sent to landfills, especially when made from plastics, does not degrade quickly or, in some cases, at all.
To understand the overall environmental impact of dates, 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 dates, from farm to table.
Here’s the Overall Environmental Impact of Dates
Dates have a fairly negative environmental impact. This is mainly due to their high land requirements, high irrigation, use of nitrogen fertilizer, and plastic packaging. Their environmental impact is fairly average compared to other fruits.
Dates have a lot going for them when it comes to environmental impact. They are excellent at sequestering carbon in soil, as well as preserving moisture and fertility. In this sense, they can have some positive impacts on the environment. However, many of their farming practices are still harmful.
So, let’s have a look at the environmental impact of each key factor of dates!
|Key Assessment Factors||Environmental Impact|
|Land requirements for dates||Dates’ land requirements are fairly high. However, they also sequester carbon very well and preserve moisture and nutrients to maintain fertile soil. Therefore, their environmental impact is very small in this area.|
|Water footprint of dates||Dates have a high water requirement of 64–83 inches of water per year. Because of where they grow, they need significant irrigation to meet this need. Their use of plastic packaging is also harmful to oceans.|
|Agrochemical usage for dates||Dates’ agrochemical use is moderate. They have low pesticide rates, but they use harmful nitrogen fertilizers, which can be harmful to waterways and aquatic life.|
|Carbon footprint of dates||Dates have a moderate carbon footprint of 0.27kg (0.6lb) of CO2e per pound of dates. This is mainly because they use plastic packaging, have high irrigation requirements, and use mechanized harvesting techniques.|
|Waste generation of dates||Dates’ waste generation is high. This is primarily because of low composting rates and low recycling rates among their 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 dates’ environmental impact.
What Are the Land Requirements for Dates
Dates’ land requirements are fairly high. However, they also sequester carbon very well and preserve moisture and nutrients to maintain fertile soil. Therefore, their environmental impact is very small in this area.
Growing dates 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 dates impact their environmental footprint?
- What is the land usage of dates: Dates yield around 10–15 tons per hectare. This is a fairly low land yield amongst fruits. For example, strawberries and mangoes both yield up to 20–25 tons per hectare and bananas and pineapples both yield up to 100 tons per hectare. Therefore, each pound of dates is going to need more space than a pound of strawberries and significantly more than a pound of bananas. This can increase the land used for their cultivation and potentially resources allocated to them, which raises their environmental impact.
- Where and how are dates grown: Most dates are grown in Egypt, followed by Iran and Algeria. Dates are grown on trees known as date palms. Date palms are particularly good at absorbing carbon. Carbon sequestering helps to capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the ground, reducing dates’ emissions and thereby their environmental impact. However, date palms are almost always planted in monocultures, which are generally bad for the environment. Therefore, despite their carbon sequestering, dates’ growth method can still have a significant impact on the environment.
- How does the growing of dates affect soil fertility and erosion: Date palms have actually been found to be very beneficial to soil. They prevent soil from eroding and becoming depleted through their moisture-absorbing roots. In this way, dates actually have a positive impact on the environment.
- How does the dates industry affect the loss of habitable land: Date farms are much less productive per hectare than other farms, such as apples and oranges. This means that to produce the same amount of dates, they will have to use more land. However, dates have also been used to prevent land depletion and so can actually make land more habitable if used right.
- How does the date industry affect wildlife and biodiversity: Monocultures are terrible for biodiversity as they limit pollination, soil microbes, and other wildlife. Because dates are generally planted in monocultures, they have a negative impact on the environment at this stage.
In short, dates take part in several environmentally-damaging agricultural practices. However, their natural abilities to sequester carbon and maintain fertile soil means their impact is very minimally negative.
What Is the Water Footprint of Dates
Dates have a high water requirement of 64–83 inches of water per year. Because of where they grow, they need significant irrigation to meet this need. Their use of plastic packaging is also harmful to oceans.
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 to dates’ water impact.
How does the water footprint of dates impact their environmental footprint?
- What is the overall water usage of dates: Dates need between 64–83 inches of water per year. This is a very high water requirement compared to other fruits. For example, pomegranates only need 50 inches of water per year and cherries only need 35 inches of water a year. Therefore, dates’ overall water footprint is fairly high.
- What is the green water footprint of dates: The green water footprint is the amount of water from precipitation stored in the soil and used by plants for growth. Most dates consumed in the US are grown in Mexico and Tunisia. Mexico only gets around 28 inches of rain per year and Tunisia only gets an average of 6 inches of rainfall per year. Therefore, in both of these regions, all of the rainfall in the area will be going towards dates. In this way, dates have a very high green water footprint.
- What is the blue water footprint of dates: The blue water footprint is the amount of water sourced from surface (such as rivers or lakes) or groundwater resources. Because neither Mexico nor Tunisia gets enough rainfall to fulfill dates’ water requirements, dates grown there will need significant irrigation. For this reason, dates’ blue water footprint is very high.
- What is the gray water footprint of dates: 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. Dates use very few pesticides and so their gray water footprint is very small.
- How does the dates industry affect freshwater and ocean pollution: Dates are typically packaged in plastic clamshells. Plastic is terrible for the oceans, being the primary form of ocean debris. It is estimated that 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year.
In short, dates have a fairly high impact when it comes to water use. They require a significant amount of irrigation and their use of plastic packaging is harmful to oceans.
What Is the Agrochemical Usage for Dates
Dates’ agrochemical use is moderate. They have low pesticide rates, but they use harmful nitrogen fertilizers, which can be harmful to waterways and aquatic life.
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 dates’ pesticide and fertilizer rates affect their environmental impact.
How does the agrochemical usage of dates impact their environmental footprint?
- What is the pesticide usage of dates: Dates have very low pesticide rates. This means that they avoid many of the negative environmental consequences caused by pesticides.
- What is the fertilizer usage of dates: Dates typically use a mixed fertilizer consisting of nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, and magnesium. Nitrogen in particular is a very harmful fertilizer that has many adverse environmental effects, including the emission of nitrous oxide.
- Are there any known issues connected to the agrochemical usage for dates: Nitrogen fertilizer has been known to promote invasive algae growth. This is very harmful to waterways, as well as aquatic life.
In short, though dates’ pesticide usage is low, their use of nitrogen fertilizer means that their environmental impact from agrochemicals is still fairly negative.
What Is the Carbon Footprint of Dates
Dates have a moderate carbon footprint of 0.27kg (0.6lb) of CO2e per pound of dates. This is mainly because they use plastic packaging, have high irrigation requirements, and use mechanized harvesting techniques.
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 dates 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 dates breaks down and contributes to their environmental impact.
How does the carbon footprint of dates impact their environmental footprint?
- What is the overall carbon footprint of dates: The overall carbon footprint of dates is 0.27kg (0.6lb) of CO2e per pound of dates. This means that for every pound of dates produced, 0.27kg of carbon is emitted into the atmosphere. This is an average carbon footprint compared to other fruits.
- What are the main contributors to the carbon footprint of dates: The main factors that contribute to the carbon footprint of dates are mechanization during the harvesting process, irrigation requirements, plastic packaging, and low composting rates.
- Which life-cycle stage of dates has the highest carbon footprint: The life cycle stage that contributes the most to dates’ carbon footprint is harvesting, processing, and packaging. This is because of the amount of mechanization required in harvesting and processing—especially for dried dates—and the use of plastic packaging.
In short, dates’ carbon footprint is moderate amongst fruits. Their carbon footprint is mainly caused by their packaging rates, high irrigation requirements, and waste disposal practices.
What Is the Waste Generation of Dates
Dates’ waste generation is high. This is primarily because of low composting rates and low recycling rates among their plastic packaging.
When fruit waste, 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 dates’ waste affects the environment.
How does the waste generation of dates impact their environmental footprint?
- What is the packaging of dates: Dates are primarily packaged in plastic clamshells. Plastic has a very negative environmental impact during its production process, polluting the environment, creating harmful chemical emissions, and using fossil fuels.
- How is the packaging of dates disposed of: Much of plastic packaging can be recycled. However, the actual packaging rates of plastic are very low at around 9%. Therefore, most date packaging is ending up in landfills. Landfills are very damaging to the environment. Likewise, plastic in landfills is particularly bad for the creation of microplastics, tiny plastic particles which get into groundwater.
- How are dates disposed of: Dates have pits which aren’t generally consumed. This means that they create some food waste, which can theoretically be composted. However, in practice, only 4% of food waste is successfully composted. Furthermore, food waste that ends up in landfills produces methane, which is very harmful to the environment.
In short, the waste management of dates contributes fairly significantly to their environmental impact, mainly because of their use of plastic packaging.
What Have Been Historical Environmental Issues Connected to the Dates Industry
The date industry has historically caused some significant damage to the environment. This has mainly been because of monoculture farming and use of nitrogen fertilizer
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 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 dates have fared throughout history.
What have been the key environmental issues of the date industry?
- How much land has been lost because of date production: Dates have a lower land yield than many other types of fruit. However, date production is significantly smaller than the production of other fruits like apples or oranges. Therefore, they have used less total land over the years, thus having a smaller impact on land loss. However, date production is steadily rising, so it could be that dates will have a larger impact on land loss in the coming years.
- Which wildlife species have been negatively impacted or displaced because of date production: Dates use monoculture farming, which can have significant impacts on wildlife and biodiversity. In Mexico, where many US-consumed dates grow, monocultures are an increasing threat. Many Mexican pollinators in particular have been threatened by monoculture agriculture.
- Have water sources and soil been contaminated because of date production: Dates’ use of nitrogen fertilizers has been devastating to ecosystems, contaminating soils and water systems. In Mexico, nitrogen fertilizer has been identified as one of the driving forces of climate change in the country.
In short, dates have had a major impact on the environment over the years. The steadily-growing date industry will likely continue to cause these damages.
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.
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 dates, while still enjoying them. You can also consider offsetting your personal and date-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 Dates
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 dates that would otherwise most negatively impact the environment:
- Buy organic dates: Though dates have low pesticide rates, their use of nitrogen fertilizer is one of the leading contributors to their negative environmental impact. Organic farms generally avoid nitrogen fertilizers and so they are good to support if you want to reduce your fertilizer impact.
- Buy low-packaging dates: Plastic packaging is a huge problem in the date industry and beyond. If you want to reduce your environmental impact when buying dates, then you should make sure to avoid plastic packaging as much as possible. Buying dates in cardboard packaging has a much smaller environmental impact, since it is more easily recycled. No packaging at all, of course, is best.
- Compost your date pits: Low composting rates represent trends, but you can change that. Making the effort to compost the pits from your dates will make sure that you are not contributing to the landfill. If your city doesn’t offer a composting program, then you can try creating your own.
Following some of these methods can really help you to cut down on your environmental impact of eating dates. 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 Alleviate Your Environmental Impact
While dates 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 agricultural industries like dates.
In the table below are some of the best environmental charities that work in the areas where dates production has affected the environment – and beyond:
Though it is helpful to reduce the environmental impact of your personal date 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 dates!
“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 dates:
- This includes GHG emissions from producing the products that we use and foods that we eat (e.g., power plants, factories or farms, and landfills)
- GHG emissions from fuel that we burn directly or indirectly (e.g., logistics and transportation, cooling or heating facilities),
- as well as the GHG emissions attributed to how we consume these products and foods.
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 dates. 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 dates – 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 dates, 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.
Dates have a lot to answer for in the environmental impact department. They use significant amounts of irrigation, implement nitrogen fertilizers, and are packaged in polluting plastic. However, they also have plenty of good qualities, like carbon storage, and with the right efforts on your part, can have a much less negative impact. Consider following some of the reduction methods or supporting an organization to help reduce your environmental impact while still consuming dates.
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- Impactful Ninja: What is the Carbon Footprint of Dates
- Agrifarming: Dates Farming Project Report
- Impactful Ninja: What is the Carbon Footprint of Strawberries
- Impactful Ninja: What is the Carbon Footprint of Mangoes
- Impactful Ninja: What is the Carbon Footprint of Bananas
- Impactful Ninja: What is the Carbon Footprint of Pineapples
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- Gardening Know How: How to Water a Cherry Tree
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- Climate Knowledge Portal: Tunisia Climate
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- Also Known As: 12 Interesting Facts About Packaging Waste
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- Impactful Ninja: Best charities that fight to protect our environment
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- Impactful Ninja: Best wildlife conservation charities
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- Impactful Ninja: Best charities for climate change
- Impactful Ninja: Best carbon offsets for individuals
- Impactful Ninja: Best charities that fight to reduce food waste
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- Our World in Data: Emissions from food alone would take us past 1.5°C or 2°C this century
- Impactful Ninja: Why Is a Carbon Footprint Bad for the Environment
- Impactful Ninja: Best Carbon Offsets for Individuals