The Environmental Impact of Figs: From Farm to Table

The Environmental Impact of Figs: From Farm to Table

By
Teresa Mersereau

Read Time:19 Minutes

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Figs are a sweet, squishy fruit popular in Italian cuisine. They are also becoming increasingly popular in the US, with the fresh fig market valued at around $1.5 billion. But as profitable and delicious as they are, figs can also negatively impact the environment in a number of ways. So we had to ask: What is the environmental impact of figs?

Figs have a very minimally negative environmental impact. They require a significant amount of irrigation and have a moderate carbon footprint. However, overall, their impact is very low compared to other fruits because of their carbon sequestering properties and low pesticide use.

In this article, we will examine the environmental impact of figs from several different angles. We will go through the life-cycle of figs, detailing their impact on the environment from growth to distribution to your plate to waste management. We will then compare the environmental impact of figs 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 figs-related.

Here’s How We Assessed the Environmental Impact of Figs

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is one of the ways we measure the potential environmental effects of our actions, like the consumption of figs. 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 figs – leave an impact on our environment. When it comes to food in general, and figs in specific, the following are key factors:

To understand the overall environmental impact of figs, 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 figs, from farm to table.

Here’s the Overall Environmental Impact of Figs

The overall environmental impact of figs is very minimal. The only real negative impacts they have are because of high irrigation amongst US-grown figs and a moderately high carbon footprint. However, besides these things, their impact is very small, and even positive in some ways. 

Figs are very environmentally-conscious fruits. They sequester carbon very well, provide habitats and food for wildlife, and have even been used to restore rainforests. However, there are still a few things that they do that can harm the environment. 

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

Key Assessment FactorsEnvironmental Impact
Land requirements for figsFigs’ land requirements are somewhat high. However, their benefits for wildlife and biodiversity, such as habitat creation, mean that their impact on the environment is actually fairly positive at this stage.
Water footprint of figsFigs have a high water requirement of 50–75 inches of water per year. Considering that they grow in dry regions, figs require a significant amount of irrigation which can have a negative impact on the environment. 
Agrochemical usage for figsFigs’ agrochemical use is very low. This is true despite the fact that they use a small amount of harmful nitrogen fertilizer. 
Carbon footprint of figsFigs have a moderate carbon footprint of 0.3kg (0.68lb) of CO2e per pound of figs. This is mainly because of their high irrigation requirements, mechanized harvesting processes, refrigerated trucking, and plastic packaging. 
Waste generation of figsFigs’ waste generation is fairly high. This is exacerbated by the fact that their waste has low composting and recycling rates. 

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 figs’ environmental impact.

What Are the Land Requirements for Figs

Figs’ land requirements are somewhat high. However, their benefits for wildlife and biodiversity, such as habitat creation, mean that their impact on the environment is actually fairly positive at this stage.

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

Growing figs 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 figs impact their environmental footprint?

In short, figs actually have a moderately positive impact on the environment. Though they use a significant amount of land, they bring considerable benefits to it. 

What Is the Water Footprint of Figs

Figs have a high water requirement of 50–75 inches of water per year. Considering that they grow in dry regions, figs require a significant amount of irrigation which can have a negative impact on the environment. 

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 figs’ water impact.

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

In short, figs’ use of considerable irrigation raises their environmental impact. However, their low pesticide use reduces their potential for a larger impact. 

What Is the Agrochemical Usage for Figs

Figs’ agrochemical use is very low. This is true despite the fact that they use a small amount of harmful nitrogen fertilizer. 

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 figs’ pesticide and fertilizer rates affect their environmental impact.

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

In short, figs’ minimal pesticide and fertilizer use, despite the inclusion of nitrogen fertilizer, means their agrochemical footprint is low overall. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Figs

Figs have a moderate carbon footprint of 0.3kg (0.68lb) of CO2e per pound of figs. This is mainly because of their high irrigation requirements, mechanized harvesting processes, refrigerated trucking, and plastic packaging. 

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 figs 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 figs breaks down and contributes to their environmental impact.

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

In short, figs have a fairly average carbon footprint amongst fruits. Their emissions mainly come from their irrigation requirements, plastic packaging, and refrigeration needs.

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

What Is the Waste Generation of Figs

Figs’ waste generation is fairly high. This is exacerbated by the fact that their waste has low composting and recycling rates. 

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 figs’ waste affects the environment.

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

In short, the disposal of figs comes at a high environmental cost. The low composting rates of food waste and low recycling rates of plastic mean most fig waste is put in landfills. 

What Have Been Historical Environmental Issues Connected to the Fig Industry

The fig industry has historically had a minimal impact on the environment. They have not contributed majorly to land loss or water pollution. 

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 figs have fared throughout history. 

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

  • How much land has been lost because of figs production: Figs have a low land yield, so their land use is high. However, figs are not as popularly farmed as more common fruits like oranges and apples. Global fig farming only amounts to around 1 million tons a year, whereas oranges were evaluated at 50 million tons a year and apples at around 76 million tons. Therefore, they have not had as much of a historical burden on land use as other fruits. 
  • Which wildlife species have been negatively impacted or displaced because of fig production: Since fig trees make excellent habitats for wildlife, providing food sources and pollination, they have had some positive impacts over the years. They also have had historically low pesticide rates which has helped them to minimize their impact on wildlife. 
  • Have water sources and soil been contaminated because of fig production: The fact that fig trees have used small amounts of pesticides and fertilizer means that their impact on water sources has been low. However, their small amount of nitrogen fertilizer may have had some impacts on waterways

In short, figs have historically had very little impact on the environment. Their low land usage, pesticide and fertilizer rates, and positive relationship with wildlife have left a small negative impact 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 figs, while still enjoying them. You can also consider offsetting your personal and figs-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 Figs

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

  1. Avoid plastic packaging: Both at the manufacturing stage and the disposal stage, plastic packaging has a detrimental effect on the environment. Buy figs with alternative or biodegradable packaging, or no packaging at all, to greatly reduce your fig environmental impact. 
  2. Compost and recycle: If it isn’t possible to avoid plastic packaging altogether, then you should make the effort to recycle or reuse it as much as possible. Likewise, you should try to compost your fig waste. If your city doesn’t have a composting system, then you can consider building one yourself
  3. Grow your own figs: If you want to cut down on travel times and ensure that no dangerous pesticides are being used on your figs, the only surefire way is to grow them yourself. They grow mainly in hot climates, so if you live in the Southern US, then you will be able to grow your own figs! 

Following some of these methods can really help you to cut down on your environmental impact of eating figs. 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 figs 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 figs agriculture.

In the table below are some of the best environmental charities that work in the areas where figs 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
Best charities that promote recycling

Though it is helpful to reduce the environmental impact of your personal figs 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 figs!

“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 figs:

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 figs. 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 figs – 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 figs, 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 figs.

Final Thoughts

Figs are some of the most environmentally-conscious fruits out there. Their impacts on land and water sources are very low, mainly because of their lower land usage and their minimal pesticide and fertilizer rates. They do require higher amounts of irrigation when grown in the US, and their carbon footprint is moderate. But with some reduction methods, such as cutting down on packaging and even potentially growing your own figs, you can become a much more environmentally responsible fig consumer!

Stay impactful,

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