The Environmental Impact of Onions: From Farm to Table

The Environmental Impact of Onions: From Farm to Table

By
Grace Howarth

Read Time:21 Minutes

CLICK TO
SUBSCRIBE

follow follow
Impactful Ninja is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more Learn more .
Affiliate Disclosure

Hey fellow impactful ninja ?

You may have noticed that Impactful Ninja is all about providing helpful information to make a positive impact on the world and society. And that we love to link back to where we found all the information for each of our posts.

  • Most of these links are informational-based for you to check out their primary sources with one click.

  • But some of these links are so-called "affiliate links" to products that we recommend.

Why do we add these product links?

First and foremost, because we believe that they add value to you. For example, when we wrote a post about the environmental impact of long showers, we came across an EPA recommendation to use WaterSense showerheads. So we linked to where you can find them. Or, for many of our posts, we also link to our favorite books on that topic so that you can get a much more holistic overview than one single blog post could provide.

And when there is an affiliate program for these products, we sign up for it. For example, as Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases.

What do these affiliate links mean for you?
  1. First, and most importantly, we still only recommend products that we believe add value for you.

  2. When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission - but at no additional costs to you.

  3. And when you buy something through a link that is not an affiliate link, we won’t receive any commission but we’ll still be happy to have helped you.

What do these affiliate links mean for us?
  1. When we find products that we believe add value to you and the seller has an affiliate program, we sign up for it.

  2. When you buy something through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a small commission (at no extra costs to you).

  3. And at this point in time, all money is reinvested in sharing the most helpful content with you. This includes all operating costs for running this site and the content creation itself.

What does this mean for me personally?

You may have noticed by the way Impactful Ninja is operated that money is not the driving factor behind it. It is a passion project of mine and I love to share helpful information with you to make a positive impact on the world and society. However, it's a project in that I invest a lot of time and also quite some money.

Eventually, my dream is to one day turn this passion project into my full-time job and provide even more helpful information. But that's still a long time to go.

Stay impactful,

As the third largest fresh vegetable industry in the United States, onions are a staple ingredient in many households. In fact, onion consumption has risen by an enormous 79% over the last thirty years, and 93% of restaurants in America feature this root vegetable on their menus. However, much less is shared about the effects of onion production and wastage on our planet. So we had to ask: What is the environmental impact of onions?

Onions have a low impact on the environment. They have the fourth lowest carbon footprint out of the most popular vegetables. Onions also require relatively few resources to grow, such as land, water, and pesticides, and are often sold loose rather than in plastic packaging. 

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

Here’s How We Assessed the Environmental Impact of Onions

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

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

Here’s the Overall Environmental Impact of Onions

All crops have an impact on the environment, as a great many resources, like land and water, are needed to produce food on a mass scale. 

Onions, however, are some of the most land- and water-efficient crops, and are in the top ten list of vegetables with the lowest carbon footprint. This means that relative to other vegetables, onions are a sustainable, low-impact choice.

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

Key Assessment FactorsEnvironmental Impact
Land requirements for onionsOnions, like all crops, have an impact on wildlife, habitable land, biodiversity, and soil erosion. However, as a relatively land-efficient crop, with a yield of 18-40 tonnes per hectare, the environmental impact of the land usage of onions is low compared to other vegetables.
Water footprint of onionsOnions have a moderately low water footprint of 30 liters per 4-ounce serving. They often require additional irrigation due to their shallow root systems. This increases their blue water footprint, in particular. However, overall the environmental impact of the water used to grow onions is far smaller than other crops, such as asparagus or soybeans grown as animal feed.
Agrochemical usage for onionsOnions came fourth in the Environmental Working Group’s ‘Clean Fifteen’ list, making them one of the crops with the lowest use of pesticides and fertilizers. Since agrochemicals can have a negative impact on the environment, choosing onions is a sustainable option in this regard.
Carbon footprint of onionsOnions have a carbon footprint of 0.11 kg (0.25 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. This is a very low carbon footprint in comparison to other vegetables, and is largely because onions can be grown locally, have a long shelf life, and often require few resources to grow.
Waste generation of onionsAround 43,000 tonnes of avoidable onion waste is discarded every year. Choosing unpackaged onions is an easy way to reduce the environmental impact of your purchase, as well as storing your onions correctly.

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 onions’ environmental impact.

What Are the Land Requirements for Onions

Onions, like all crops, have an impact on wildlife, habitable land, biodiversity, and soil erosion. However, as a relatively land-efficient crop, with a yield of 18-40 tonnes per hectare, the environmental impact of the land usage of onions is low compared to other vegetables.

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

Growing onions 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 onions impact their environmental footprint?

In short, onions are land-efficient and have a relatively small impact on wildlife, biodiversity, and loss of habitable land. Farming onions does cause some soil erosion, but this can be combated with proper soil management techniques. Overall, the environmental impact of the land requirements of onions is very low.

What Is the Water Footprint of Onions

Onions have a moderately low water footprint of 30 liters per 4-ounce serving. They often require additional irrigation due to their shallow root systems. This increases their blue water footprint, in particular. However, overall the environmental impact of the water used to grow onions is far smaller than other crops, such as asparagus or soybeans grown as animal feed.

Water usage is one of the most important factors in the environmental impact of a vegetable. 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 onions’ water impact.

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

In short, the water footprint of onions is relatively low, despite them requiring more water than other vegetables, especially considering their ability to absorb toxins from water.

What Is the Agrochemical Usage for Onions

Onions came fourth in the Environmental Working Group’s ‘Clean Fifteen’ list, making them one of the crops with the lowest use of pesticides and fertilizers. Since agrochemicals can have a negative impact on the environment, choosing onions is a sustainable option in this regard.

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 onions’ pesticide and fertilizer rates affect their environmental impact.

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

  • What is the pesticide usage of onions: The Environmental Working Group found onions to be the fourth ‘cleanest’ crop, which made it part of their ‘Clean Fifteen’ list of foods that contained the least amount of pesticides. Pesticide usage produces carbon emissions through manufacturing, transportation, and application to crops, as well as contaminating soil and causing potential harm to wildlife and ecosystems. Because onions use few pesticides, their environmental impact is small.
  • What is the fertilizer usage of onions: Onions require a high source of nitrogen. Unfortunately, nitrogen fertilizer is particularly bad for the environment, as it can cause nature loss and even be damaging to human health. Therefore, the use of fertilizers when growing onions can have a negative impact on the environment.

In short, onions are found to be a vegetable with one of the lowest use of agrochemicals. This means that their environmental impact is far smaller than that of crops, such as strawberries, spinach, or kale, which use far more pesticides and fertilizers.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Onions

Onions have a carbon footprint of 0.11 kg (0.25 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce. This is a very low carbon footprint in comparison to other vegetables, and is largely because onions can be grown locally, have a long shelf life, and often require few resources to grow.

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 crop. It essentially measures how much carbon or other greenhouse gasses the production of onions emits into the atmosphere. Emissions from product manufacturing, irrigation, transportation fuel, and landfills all add up to create the overall carbon footprint of a vegetable. Let’s see how the carbon footprint of onions breaks down and contributes to their environmental impact.

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

  • What is the overall carbon footprint of onions: The overall carbon footprint of onions is 0.11 kg (0.25 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce, which is very low. Onions produce less than half of the carbon emissions of lettuce and about a tenth of the carbon emissions of cucumber. They have the fourth lowest carbon emissions out of the most popular vegetables. This low carbon footprint means that the environmental impact of onions is relatively small.
  • What are the main contributors to the carbon footprint of onions: Though the overall carbon footprint of onions is low, the fact that they require land, water, pesticides, and fertilizers to grow creates carbon emissions. The use of tractors and drip-water irrigation contribute negatively to the overall environmental impact of onions. Though, in comparison to other vegetables, they are a low-impact choice.
  • Which life-cycle stage of onions has the highest carbon footprint: The growing stage of onion production creates 0.05 kg (0.11 lb) of CO2e per pound of produce, which makes up 42.65% of the overall carbon footprint of this vegetable. This number is low mainly because of their efficient growth times and lack of pesticide use. Negative factors that contribute to this footprint include fertilizers and the use of tractors to plant onion seeds.

In short, the carbon footprint of onions is relatively low compared to other vegetables, and extremely low when compared to non-plant-based products. Choosing locally grown, loose produce is a way to ensure the carbon footprint of your onions is as low as possible.

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

What Is the Waste Generation of Onions

Around 43,000 tonnes of avoidable onion waste is discarded every year. Choosing unpackaged onions is an easy way to reduce the environmental impact of your purchase, as well as storing your onions correctly.

When vegetable 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 onions’ waste affects the environment.

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

In short, due to the long shelf-life of onions and the ability to sell them loose, there is far less plastic and food waste created in producing onions than there is in producing mixed salads, or cucumbers, for example. In this regard, their environmental impact is low.

What Have Been Historical Environmental Issues Connected to the Onions Industry

Onions are one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world, growing in India, China, and the Middle East before recorded history. First brought to Britain during the Roman Empire, and cultivated by indigenous Americans in the New World, the environmental impact of this crop has grown as wide-scale, global production has increased.

All vegetables 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 vegetables have racked up some serious environmental damage along the way. Whether it’s deforestation to meet demand, water pollution, or disruption of wildlife, most vegetables have left a path of destruction. Let’s see how onions have fared throughout history. 

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

  • How much land has been lost because of onion production: Onions were first cultivated in Central Asia over 5,000 years ago. However, wild onions are thought to have been eaten in the prehistoric diet. In the industrialization of onions, over 2.7 million hectares of land are used to grow this crop around the world.
  • Which wildlife species have been negatively impacted or displaced because of onion production: In the cultivation and harvest of any crop, many small animals like mice, rabbits, and insects will be displaced or killed by the harvesting equipment. Onion plants are not known to have a negative impact on wildlife but the pesticides used on them can affect surrounding ecosystems.
  • Have water sources and soil been contaminated because of onion production: Onions have been known to contaminate water supplies with nitrate fertilizers. However, because onions use fewer pesticides and fertilizers than most other vegetables, there is little degradation of water and soil.
  • Other known historical issues: The farming industry is vulnerable to modern day slavery and child labor, and unfortunately onion production is no different. Across the globe, the people growing and picking our food are some of society’s most impoverished and abused. Although many people are speaking out against the use of forced labor in farming practices, more has to be done to ensure the safety and well-being of farmers around the world.

In short, the global consumption of onions can have a negative impact on the environment. No crop is free from ethical and environmental issues, however, the low carbon footprint and overall low environmental impact of onions makes them one of the more sustainable food choices.

What Is the Overall Environmental Impact of Food and Agriculture

Food production in general has a significant impact on the environment. It is the cause of a great deal of pollution, loss of biodiversity, land and water use. The table below breaks down the overall environmental impact of the agriculture industry.

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 onions, while still enjoying them. You can also consider offsetting your personal and onions-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 Onions

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

  1. Shop locally and seasonally: Onions are in prime season from summer to fall. Buying from local farms reduces the carbon emissions produced and makes it a much more sustainable choice. If you are near a local, small-scale farm that harvests by hand, your purchase will be even better for the environment.
  2. Choose organic: Organic onions produce a much lower carbon footprint than non-organic vegetables, due to the lack of pesticide production, distribution, and the overall higher health of soil for crops, insects, and animals.
  3. Buy plastic-free: Avoid pre-processed and packaged onions, and instead opt for whole, loose produce. This will significantly decrease the overall environmental impact of your purchase.
  4. Store your onions correctly: Onions can actually last for up to a year in the correct storage conditions, but moisture and light can lead to premature spoilage. Store them in a cool dark place, and freeze chopped onions to lead to a longer shelf-life and less food waste. To create even less waste, you could even use the skin of onions to create your own onion powder or make a natural dye.

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

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

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 onions:

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 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 onions – 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 onions, 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 onions.

Final Thoughts

Onions have a low environmental impact when compared with other vegetables and a very low carbon footprint when compared with other foods. However, you can try to reduce your carbon footprint even further by eating organic, reducing food and plastic waste, and purchasing local, seasonal produce. When you do enjoy onions, think about whether you can offset the carbon emissions created, to make this healthy snack an even more sustainable option!

Sources

Photo of author
Did you like this article?

Get the 5-minute newsletter that makes reading impactful news enjoyable—packed with actionable insights to make a positive impact in your daily life.

Newsletter Form - After Content

Three Related Posts

One Unrelated Post

Illustration of our Impactful Ninja logo, holding up a newsletter with a green heart
Become more impactful, one email at a time
Get the 5-minute newsletter that makes reading impactful news enjoyable—packed with actionable insights to make a positive impact in your daily life.
Illustration of our Impactful Ninja logo, which is a ninja holding a green heart and has a light-green outline here
Become more impactful, one email at a time
Get the 5-minute newsletter that makes reading impactful news enjoyable—packed with actionable insights to make a positive impact in your daily life.