The Environmental Impact of Plums: From Farm to Table

The Environmental Impact of Plums: From Farm to Table

By
Teresa Mersereau

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With over 200 varieties cultivated in the US, the plum is one of the most popular and diverse native North American fruits. They are also an excellent source of vitamins A, C, and K, with relatively few calories per unit! However, plums can also have a significant negative impact on the environment through their cultivation practices. So, we had to ask: What is the environmental impact of plums?

Plums have a moderately negative environmental impact. This is mainly because they have high rates of irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizers, as well as a high carbon footprint. Some upsides of plums, though, are their minor contribution to desertification and the little waste they generate due to recyclable packaging. 

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

Here’s How We Assessed the Environmental Impact of Plums

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

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

Here’s the Overall Environmental Impact of Plums

The overall environmental impact of plums is moderately negative. The main factors that contribute to this are their high use of pesticides, significant irrigation requirements, low land yield, use of nitrogen fertilizer, and high carbon footprint. 

Plums do have some positive qualities, still. They don’t use exclusively monoculture farming and don’t contribute too significantly to land loss and desertification. However, they still have some considerable environmental damages beyond this. 

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

Key Assessment FactorsEnvironmental Impact
Land requirements for plumsPlums’ land requirements are very high. However, they don’t contribute significantly to land or wildlife loss, which means their environmental impact is very small in this area. 
Water footprint of plumsPlums have a moderate water requirement of 50 inches of water per year. However, because of where they grow, they require a significant amount of irrigation, which means that their environmental impact on water is high. 
Agrochemical usage for plumsPlums’ agrochemical impact is high, primarily because they use a significant amount of pesticides and primarily use harmful nitrogen fertilizer. 
Carbon footprint of plumsPlums have a carbon footprint of 0.4 kg (0.88 lbs) CO2e per pound of plums, making them one of the highest carbon-emitting fruits on the carbon footprint scale. This footprint is mainly due to their high rates of land use, irrigation, pesticides, harvesting methods, packaging, and transportation times.
Waste generation of plumsPlums’ waste generation is fairly low. This is because they use easily-recycled cardboard packaging, though their composting rates are low. 

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 plums’ environmental impact.

What Are the Land Requirements for Plums

Plums’ land requirements are very high. However, they don’t contribute significantly to land or wildlife loss, which means their environmental impact is very small in this area. 

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

Growing plums 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 plums impact their environmental footprint?

  • What is the land usage of plums: Plums yield around 4–5 tons per hectare. This is a very low yield compared to other fruits. For example, strawberries yield up to 25 tons per hectare, and bananas up to 100. Therefore, plums’ land yield contributes significantly to their environmental impact. 
  • Where and how are plums grown: On a global scale, most plums are produced in China. Plums grow on trees in orchards, and these trees have been found to sequester carbon extremely well. This means that they are able to capture carbon from the air and store it in the ground. Storing carbon lowers their carbon footprint and thus their environmental impact
  • Are plums grown in monocultures or polycultures: Plums are grown in a hybrid of mono and polyculture farming. Monoculture farming can be harmful to the environment, but because plum orchards aren’t always monocultures, they don’t cause the same amount of damage as exclusively monoculture plants. 
  • How does the growing of plums affect soil fertility and erosion: Plum farming has actually been found to have a positive impact on soil fertility. In one study from China, plum orchards were found to improve soil better than simply barren land. Therefore, plums do not have a majorly negative impact on soil fertility, and can even have a positive one. 
  • How does the plums industry affect the loss of habitable land: While some plum farming may cause deforestation, wild plum trees have actually been the victims of deforestation in some cases. This means that while agriculture plays a role in deforestation, plums have also been on the other side of this. 
  • How does the plums industry affect wildlife and biodiversity: The plum tree actually provides an excellent habitat for wildlife and biodiversity. This means that they can help to prevent habitat loss or at least aren’t directly the cause of it in many cases. In instances when plums are using monoculture farming, they can harm biodiversity, but not in polyculture farms. 

In short, plums don’t make use of very many harmful agricultural practices, besides their very low land yield and occasional monoculture farming. 

What Is the Water Footprint of Plums

Plums have a moderate water requirement of 50 inches of water per year. However, because of where they grow, they require a significant amount of irrigation, which means that their environmental impact on water is high. 

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 plums’ water impact.

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

In short, plums’ use of significant irrigation, as well as pesticides, means that their water usage and environmental impact are high. 

What Is the Agrochemical Usage for Plums

Plums’ agrochemical impact is high, primarily because they use a significant amount of pesticides and primarily use harmful nitrogen fertilizer. 

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 the life around them. Here, we will look at how plums’ pesticide and fertilizer rates affect their environmental impact.

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

In short, the fact that plums require nitrogen fertilizer and use a significant amount of pesticides means that they can harm many ecosystems through agrochemical runoff. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Plums

Plums have a carbon footprint of 0.4 kg (0.88 lbs) CO2e per pound of plums, making them one of the highest carbon-emitting fruits on the carbon footprint scale. This footprint is mainly due to their high rates of land use, irrigation, pesticides, harvesting methods, packaging, and transportation times. 

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 plums breaks down and contributes to their environmental impact.

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

  • What is the overall carbon footprint of plums: The overall carbon footprint of plums is 0.4 kg (0.88 lbs) CO2e per pound of plums. This means that for every pound of plums produced, 0.4kg of carbon is released into the atmosphere. This is a fairly high carbon footprint compared to other fruits. 
  • What are the main contributors to the carbon footprint of plums: The main factors that contribute to plums’ carbon footprint are the amount of irrigation, land, and pesticides used, as well as the mechanized harvesting practices and the improper disposal of waste.
  • Which life-cycle stage of plums has the highest carbon footprint: The life cycle stage that contributes the most to plums’ carbon footprint is growth. This is because they use a high amount of irrigation and pesticides and have a very low land yield

In short, plums’ carbon footprint is higher than average. This is largely because they consume significant resources during their growth stage, such as irrigation, land, and pesticides. 

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

What Is the Waste Generation of Plums

Plums’ waste generation is fairly low. This is because they use easily-recycled cardboard packaging, though their composting rates are low. 

When fruit waste is disposed of, either in the form of packaging or organic materials, 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 plums’ waste affects the environment.

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

In short, despite the high recycling rates of cardboard, plums can still have a small negative impact on the environment due to their low composting rates. 

What Have Been Historical Environmental Issues Connected to the Plums Industry

The plum industry has historically been very damaging to the environment. This is mainly through pesticides’ harm to wildlife and nitrogen fertilizers’ harm to waterways. 

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 plums have fared throughout history. 

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

  • How much land has been lost because of plum production: Plums have one of the lowest land yields among fruits, meaning that more land will need to be used per pound of plums than many other fruits. However, plums also have a much lower volume of production than other fruits, with around 12 million tons annually to apples’ 100 million. Therefore, the plum industry, while it has used significant land over the years to make up for its low yields, still hasn’t used as much land as more popular fruits. 
  • Which wildlife species have been negatively impacted or displaced because of plum production: Plums’ pesticide use has had a historical impact on wildlife populations. Pesticides get into soil and water, rising up the food chain and being consumed by many different species. This has caused wildlife to have limited or contaminated food sources, resulting in declining populations. 
  • Have water sources and soil been contaminated because of plum production: Nitrogen fertilizer is particularly damaging to waterways. The widespread use of nitrogen fertilizer by plum farms has damaged water sources for this reason. 

In short, plums have had a considerably negative impact on the environment historically, mainly through their pesticide and nitrogen fertilizer use. 

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 plums, while still enjoying them. You can also consider offsetting your personal and plum-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 Plums

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 plums that would otherwise most negatively impact the environment:

  1. Buy organic plums: Some of the worst aspects of plums’ environmental impact come from their high use of pesticide and nitrogen fertilizers. 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. Therefore, by choosing organic plums, you will be able to reduce many of these components of their impact. 
  2. Compost and recycle: Another major contributor to the plum’s environmental impact is improper waste disposal. Make sure that you compost all organic waste and recycle all paper waste to prevent them from ending up in landfills. If you don’t have a government-run composting or recycling program in your area, consider making your own compost and using the cardboard as roughage.
  3. Grow your own: If you live in North America, then you’re in luck, because plum trees grow very well in most regions of the continent. They will also grow in any other climates with similar temperature statistics to anywhere in North America, such as Europe and Asia. Plum trees produce about 40 pounds of plums a year. Growing your own means that you will have more control over the types of pesticides and fertilizers you use, won’t be growing in large monocultures, and won’t have any transportation impacts. As a result, this is one of the lowest impact ways you can eat plums!

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

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

“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 plums:

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 plums. 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 plums—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 plums, 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 plums.

Final Thoughts

Plums have a long way to go before they can be considered positive for the environment. They cause significant damage to waterways through irrigation and fertilizer use, harm wildlife through pesticide usage, and cause air pollution through their high carbon footprint. But fortunately, there are still many ways in which you can improve your impact on the environment through plums. Reducing pesticides through supporting organic farms, as well as supporting environmental charities can all help move toward a positive environmental impact for plums!

Stay impactful,

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