The Environmental Impact of Lemons: From Farm to Table

The Environmental Impact of Lemons: From Farm to Table

By
Teresa Mersereau

Read Time:18 Minutes

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Lemons are a fantastic and diverse fruit, with over 40 different species existing globally. They have many health benefits, as an excellent source of vitamin C and fiber. They’re also very useful from a culinary perspective, being staples in drinks, baked goods, and even general-purpose cooking. But lemon production can also significantly harm the environment with many aspects of their cultivation. So, we had to ask: What is the environmental impact of lemons?

Lemons have a fairly negative environmental impact. This is because they use considerable pesticides and irrigation, as well as harmful fertilizers and farming practices like monocultures. However, both their land requirements and their carbon footprint are fairly low.

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

Here’s How We Assessed the Environmental Impact of Lemons

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

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

Here’s the Overall Environmental Impact of Lemons

The overall environmental impact of lemons is moderately high. The main factors that lead to this are their use of monoculture farming, high irrigation requirements, significant pesticide use, and the application of harmful fertilizers like phosphorus and nitrogen. 

That being said, lemons have some good qualities in terms of their environmental impact. For example, they have a very low carbon footprint and don’t use plastic packaging. However, they still have many other factors that raise their negative environmental impact considerably. 

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

Key Assessment FactorsEnvironmental Impact
Land requirements for lemonsLemons’ land requirements are fairly low. However, they have been identified as participating in deforestation, desertification, and monoculture farming, which means that their land footprint is moderately high.
Water footprint of lemonsLemons have a moderately high water footprint of 60 inches of water per year. Because of where they are grown, they require a high amount of irrigation, meaning their environmental impact is high at this stage. 
Agrochemical usage for lemonsLemons’ agrochemical usage is high. The specific agrochemicals they use, such as nitrogen fertilizer and fungicides, are particularly harmful. 
Carbon footprint of lemonsThe carbon footprint of lemons is 0.09kg (0.19lbs) CO2e per pound of lemons, which is fairly low compared to other fruits. The main contributing factors to their carbon footprint are the pesticides used in production, long transportation distances, and the lack of proper waste management.
Waste generation of lemonsLemons’ waste generation is moderate. They use cardboard packaging, which is easily recycled but has low composting 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 lemons’ environmental impact.

What Are the Land Requirements for Lemons

Lemons’ land requirements are fairly low. However, they have been identified as participating in deforestation, desertification, and monoculture farming, which means that their land footprint is moderately high. 

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

Growing lemons 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 lemons impact their environmental footprint?

In short, lemons’ tendency to use monoculture farming and participate in soil erosion and deforestation means that their environmental impact is very negative in terms of land. 

What Is the Water Footprint of Lemons

Lemons have a moderately high water footprint of 60 inches of water per year. Because of where they are grown, they require a high amount of irrigation, meaning their environmental impact is high 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 lemons’ water impact.

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

In short, lemons’ high rates of irrigation and pesticides mean that their water consumption is higher than other fruits. 

What Is the Agrochemical Usage for Lemons

Lemons’ agrochemical usage is high. The specific agrochemicals they use, such as nitrogen fertilizer and fungicides, are particularly harmful. 

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

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

In short, the fact that lemons use both a high amount of pesticides, as well as particularly harmful agrochemicals like fungicides and phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizer, means that they have a harmful agrochemical impact. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Lemons

The carbon footprint of lemons is 0.09kg (0.19lbs) CO2e per pound of lemons, which is fairly low compared to other fruits. The main contributing factors to their carbon footprint are the pesticides used in production, long transportation distances, and the lack of proper waste management.

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 lemons breaks down and contributes to their environmental impact.

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

In short, though lemons cause some emissions through things like refrigerated shipping and pesticides, they still have one of the lowest carbon footprints among fruits. 

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

What Is the Waste Generation of Lemons

Lemons’ waste generation is moderate. They use cardboard packaging, which is easily recycled but has low composting rates. 

When fruit waste in the form of either packaging or organic materials, is disposed of, it can have a major negative 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 lemons’ waste affects the environment.

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

In short, the fact that lemons use easily-recycled cardboard packaging helps lessen their negative environmental impact, but their low composting rates mean they still contribute to unnecessary waste in landfills. 

What Have Been Historical Environmental Issues Connected to the Lemon Industry

The lemon industry has had a history of causing damage to waters and forests through land clearing and leaking harmful fertilizers. 

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 lemons have fared throughout history. 

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

  • How much land has been lost because of lemon production: Lemon production has been linked to some major deforestation cases. One in particular concerns an Argentinian farm that has been infringing on national park land, sometimes illegally. Cases like this show how dangerous and damaging large-scale lemon farming has been to the environment. 
  • Which wildlife species have been negatively impacted or displaced because of lemon production: Deforestation cases like the Argentinian national park incidences, have major impacts on wildlife. Deforestation causes habitat loss, which is the leading cause of wildlife population decline, contributing heavily to endangerment and extinction. Because of their involvement in deforestation cases, lemon agriculture has contributed to species population decline, especially in South America. 
  • Have water sources and soil been contaminated because of lemon production: Nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers have both been linked to invasive algae growth, which is particularly harmful to waterways and aquatic life. Their continued use of these fertilizers means that their environmental impact has been harmful to waterways through the years. 

In short, lemon agriculture has participated in some very harmful practices over the years, mainly in the deforestation and leaking fertilizer department. 

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 lemons, while still enjoying them. You can also consider offsetting your personal and lemon-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 Lemons

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 lemons that would otherwise most negatively impact the environment:

  1. Purchase organic lemons: Pesticide and fertilizer usage is a major issue in lemon farming. 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. Making the effort to buy organic lemons can greatly lessen your lemons’ impact on waterways and soil. 
  2. Properly dispose of waste: One of the biggest contributors to lemons’ environmental impact is the improper disposal of waste. So, by making sure you compost all lemon peels and recycle any cardboard packaging, you can reduce the impact of cardboard and organic waste in lemons’ life cycle. 
  3. Use the whole lemon: Lemon peels are actually very useful for a variety of things. For one, the zest is a common ingredient in recipes like lemon cakes and salad dressings. But it can also be used in other things like cleaning products and soaps. Challenge yourself to come up with unique uses for the lemon peels instead of throwing them away!

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

In the table below are some of the best environmental charities that work in the areas where lemons 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 lemon 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 lemons!

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 lemons:

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 lemons. 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 lemons—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 lemons, 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 with, e.g., eating lemons.

Final Thoughts

Lemons may have a very low carbon footprint, but their environmental impact is anything but low. Their use of harmful farming practices like land clearing and monocultures, as well as their use of pesticides, fungicides, and damaging fertilizers like nitrogen and phosphorus mean that they cause a lot of damage to the environment. Thankfully, there are several steps you can take yourself, as well as organizations you can support to help you lessen lemons’ impact so you can consume them with a more positive relationship to the environment!

Stay impactful,

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