The Environmental Impact of Strawberries: From Farm to Table
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Strawberries are a tasty summer treat. Featured in everything from jams and smoothies to the iconic strawberry shortcake, these fruits are versatile. They are popular too, with the average American consuming around 8 pounds of strawberries every year. In terms of their health benefits, strawberries contain more vitamin C than oranges and significant protein and fiber. But strawberries can also significantly damage the environment throughout their production processes. So we had to ask: What is the environmental impact of strawberries?
Strawberries have a very negative environmental impact. This is because of their high irrigation requirements, excessive pesticide and nitrogen fertilizer application, use of plastic packaging, and high carbon footprint. Their environmental impact is high compared to other fruits.
In this article, we will examine the environmental impact of strawberries from several different angles. We will go through the life-cycle of strawberries, detailing their impact on the environment from growth to distribution to your plate to waste management. We will then compare the environmental impact of strawberries 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 strawberries-related.
Here’s How We Assessed the Environmental Impact of Strawberries
The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is one of the ways we measure the potential environmental effects of our actions, like the consumption of strawberries. 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 strawberries – leave an impact on our environment. When it comes to food in general, and strawberries 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 strawberries, 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 strawberries, from farm to table.
Here’s the Overall Environmental Impact of Strawberries
The overall environmental impact of strawberries is very negative. They use high amounts of irrigation and pesticides, harmful nitrogen fertilizers, plastic packaging, and have a high carbon footprint.
There are several things that strawberries do right in terms of environmental impact. For example, they have relatively economic land usage. However, there are many more things that strawberries need to significantly improve upon when it comes to their environmental impact.
So, let’s have a look at the environmental impact of each key factor of strawberries!
|Key Assessment Factors||Environmental Impact|
|Land requirements for strawberries||Strawberries’ land requirements are fairly average. However, they are planted in monocultures so they tend to contribute to habitat loss. Therefore, strawberries have a moderately negative environmental impact.|
|Water footprint of strawberries||Strawberries have a fairly high water footprint of 50–75 inches of water per year. In addition, most of this water comes from irrigation.|
|Agrochemical usage for strawberries||Strawberries have high pesticide and fertilizer usage. The environmental destruction caused by pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers means that their environmental impact is very negative at this stage.|
|Carbon footprint of strawberries||Strawberries have a fairly high carbon footprint of 0.39kg (0.88lb) of CO2e per pound of strawberries. This is mainly due to their irrigation requirements, high pesticide use, plastic packaging, and refrigeration during transportation from Mexico.|
|Waste generation of strawberries||Strawberries’ waste generation is high, both because of their plastic packaging and short shelf life. The fact that both of these things have low recycling and composting rates also contributes to their extremely negative environmental impact at this stage.|
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 all the important aspects of strawberries’ environmental impact.
What Are the Land Requirements for Strawberries
Strawberries’ land requirements are fairly average. However, they are planted in monocultures so they tend to contribute to habitat loss. Therefore, strawberries have a moderately negative environmental impact.
Growing strawberries 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 strawberries impact their environmental footprint?
- What is the land usage of strawberries: Strawberries have a fairly average land yield of around 15–25 tons per hectare. This is more than some of the lowest land yield fruits, such as watermelons at 2–3 tons per hectare, but not as much as the highest, such as bananas, at up to 100 tons per hectare.
- Where and how are strawberries grown: Most strawberries in the world grow in the USA, primarily in California. Strawberries grow on small plants. These plants actually sequester carbon in the ground, meaning they offset some of their carbon footprint. However, strawberries are also typically grown in monocultures, meaning that they are the only plant around. Monocultures lack biodiversity and thus are bad for wildlife and soil microbes. There have been some efforts to diversify strawberry farms to improve pollination and wildlife integration, but they are still growing. The use of monoculture cropping means that this stage of strawberry growth has a negative environmental impact.
- How does the strawberry industry affect the loss of habitable land: The surface area for strawberry production as of 2019 was around 400,000 hectares. This has been the result of land clearance of forests and other fragile lands. Because the global strawberry market is expected to rise, deforestation for strawberry farming is ongoing.
- How does the strawberry industry affect wildlife and biodiversity: Besides habitat loss from deforestation, strawberry farmers also frequently destroy habitats around the farms out of food safety concerns, particularly birds.
In short, strawberries’ use of monoculture farming and contribution to deforestation mean that their environmental impact is moderately negative at this stage.
What Is the Water Footprint of Strawberries
Strawberries have a fairly high water footprint of 50–75 inches of water per year. In addition, most of this water comes from irrigation.
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 strawberries’ water impact.
How does the water footprint of strawberries impact their environmental footprint?
- What is the overall water usage of strawberries: Strawberries require around 50–75 inches of water per year. This is on the higher end of water requirements amongst fruits, alongside bananas.
- What is the green water footprint of strawberries: The green water footprint is the amount of water from precipitation stored in the soil and used by plants for growth. Most strawberries consumed in the US are grown in Mexico. Mexico gets roughly 28 inches of rain per year, which is far below the water requirements of strawberries. Therefore, the majority of rain above strawberry farms in Mexico is going towards the fruits.
- What is the blue water footprint of strawberries: The blue water footprint is the amount of water sourced from surface (such as rivers or lakes) or groundwater resources. Because Mexico’s annual rainfall does not begin to cover strawberries’ water requirements, strawberries need high amounts of irrigation. Irrigation has a negative environmental impact, due mainly to its high carbon footprint and modification of groundwater balance. This means strawberries’ blue water footprint is very high.
- What is the gray water footprint of strawberries: 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. Strawberries have been rated the worst offender fruit for pesticides. Pesticides pollute the groundwater, meaning that excess water is required to clean them up, leading to a higher water footprint.
- How does the strawberry industry affect freshwater and ocean pollution: Strawberries have incredibly high pesticide use and so their runoffs can greatly pollute groundwater. Their use of nitrogen fertilizer also has a considerably negative impact on groundwater and surface waters. This includes stimulating invasive algae growth in water supplies, which can be harmful to ocean life.
In short, strawberries’ intense irrigation requirements and high pesticide/fertilizer use mean their water footprint is significant.
What Is the Agrochemical Usage for Strawberries
Strawberries have high pesticide and fertilizer usage. The environmental destruction caused by pesticides and nitrogen fertilizers means that their environmental impact is very negative at this stage.
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 strawberries’ pesticide and fertilizer rates affect their environmental impact.
How does the pesticide and fertilizer usage of strawberries impact their environmental footprint?
- What is the pesticide usage of strawberries: A 2020 study ranked strawberries as having the highest pesticide use amongst fruits. In the same study, they found that over 90% of strawberries contained pesticide residue. This is both harmful to those eating strawberries, as well as the environment. Pesticides pollute groundwater, have a high carbon footprint, and can even harm wildlife. Because of their high use of pesticides, strawberries have a very negative environmental impact at this stage.
- What is the fertilizer usage of strawberries: Strawberries are typically fertilized with nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Though potassium has a minimal environmental impact, nitrogen is very harmful to the environment.
- Are there any known issues connected to the agrochemical usage for strawberries: Nitrogen fertilizer has many known environmental issues. Besides stimulating invasive algae, it can also cause air pollution, plant growth problems, and damage to water and soil.
In short, strawberries’ incredibly high pesticide use and their need for nitrogen fertilizer make their environmental impact very negative at this stage.
What Is the Carbon Footprint of Strawberries
Strawberries have a fairly high carbon footprint of 0.39kg (0.88lb) of CO2e per pound of strawberries. This is mainly due to their irrigation requirements, high pesticide use, plastic packaging, and refrigeration during transportation from Mexico.
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 strawberries breaks down and contributes to their environmental impact.
How does the carbon footprint of strawberries impact their environmental footprint?
- What is the overall carbon footprint of strawberries: The overall carbon footprint of strawberries is 0.39kg (0.88lb) of CO2e per pound of strawberries. This means that for every pound of strawberries consumed, strawberries emit 0.39kg of carbon. Given that the average American consumes 8 pounds of strawberries per year, that means Americans are emitting approximately 3.12kg of carbon a year each, just from strawberries. This is an above-average carbon footprint among fruits.
- What are the main contributors to the carbon footprint of strawberries: The main factors that contribute to strawberries’ carbon footprint are their high irrigation and pesticide use, the need for refrigerated trucks during transport, and their use of plastic packaging.
- Which life-cycle stage of strawberries has the highest carbon footprint: The stage that contributes to strawberries’ carbon footprint the most is their growth phase because of the high carbon footprints of both irrigation and pesticides.
In short, the carbon footprint of strawberries is high, mainly due to high irrigation and pesticide requirements, plastic packaging, and refrigeration.
What Is the Waste Generation of Strawberries
Strawberries’ waste generation is high, both because of their plastic packaging and short shelf life. The fact that both of these things have low recycling and composting rates also contributes to their extremely negative environmental impact at this stage.
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 strawberry waste affects the environment.
How does the waste generation of strawberries impact their environmental footprint?
- What is the packaging of strawberries: Strawberries are typically packaged in plastic clamshells. Plastic has devastating consequences on the environment, such as affecting ocean life, emitting greenhouse gasses in its creation, and creating toxic microplastics that get into groundwater and food.
- How is the packaging of strawberries disposed of: Plastic packaging can technically be recycled. However, their historical recycling rates have been low, at around 9%. This means that the majority of strawberry packaging is ending up in landfills. Landfills emit carbon, pollute the soil, and harm wildlife. Because of their use of plastic packaging, strawberries have a very negative environmental impact at this stage.
- How are strawberries disposed of: Strawberries have stems that many people don’t eat. These can theoretically be composted. However, food composting rates are even lower than plastic recycling rates, at around 4%. As a result, most strawberry waste ends up in landfills. On top of that, strawberries also have a shorter shelf life than other fruits. They last about a week refrigerated, whereas oranges can be kept for a month in the fridge. Therefore, strawberries are more likely to go bad before they can be eaten and thrown out whole, meaning even more strawberry waste ends up in landfills. Besides the general environmental harm that landfills cause, food waste causes additional harm when put in landfills through methane production. Strawberries’ food waste has a very negative environmental impact.
In short, strawberries’ use of plastic packaging, as well as their short shelf life make for a very negative environmental impact at this stage.
What Have Been Historical Environmental Issues Connected to the Strawberry Industry
Strawberries have partaken in some farming practices that have harmed the environment a lot over the years. These include destruction of habitats, use of monoculture farming, and pollution from nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides.
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 strawberries have fared throughout history.
What have been the key historical environmental issues of the strawberry industry?
- How much land has been lost because of strawberry production: Strawberry farming has caused significant deforestation and habitat loss due to land clearance. For example, the Doñana wetlands in Spain have been greatly affected by strawberry farming. They have been protected since 1969, but in 2022 were threatened by strawberry farmers pumping their water for irrigation purposes. These kinds of threats have given the strawberry industry a negative historical track record.
- Which wildlife species have been negatively impacted or displaced because of strawberry production: Strawberries have historically partaken in some of the most harmful practices to wildlife: Pesticides, deforestation, and monoculture farming. These practices reduce biodiversity, create habitat loss, and pollute soils and groundwater.
- Have water sources and soil been contaminated because of strawberry production: Nitrogen fertilizer is one of the worst aspects of strawberry farming. In particular, water sources and soil microbes are seriously impacted by the fertilizer’s presence in farming.
In short, strawberries don’t have the best track record when it comes to historical environmental practices. Their threats to protected wetlands, contribution to deforestation, and pollution of soil and water have all been harmful to 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.
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 strawberries, while still enjoying them. You can also consider offsetting your personal and strawberries-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 Strawberries
In this section, we give you a short list of ways you can reduce the negative environmental effects of strawberries, based on those parts of the life-cycle of strawberries that would otherwise most negatively impact the environment:
- Buy strawberries without plastic packaging: Plastic packaging is one of the biggest contributors to strawberries’ environmental impact. A good way to reduce this is by buying strawberries from local farmer’s markets or low-waste supermarkets, which tend to use less packaging.
- Buy strawberries from ecological farms: To combat monoculture farming, consider buying strawberries from ecological farms. A growing movement in the farming community called ecological farming is rejecting monocultures in favor of more diverse planting. This can help with preserving wildlife, promoting pollination, and protecting groundwater, which are some of the worst consequences of monocultures.
- Buy local strawberries: One of the major contributors to strawberries’ carbon footprint, and thus environmental impact, is their transportation from Mexico. While most strawberries consumed in the US are grown in Mexico, there are still a lot of domestic strawberry farms, especially in California. If you make a point of buying American-grown strawberries, you will be greatly reducing the emissions from transportation, which are very harmful to the environment.
- Compost and recycle: If you do buy strawberries with packaging, then make sure that you dispose of it properly. Recycling all plastic packaging and composting all food waste will help you to reduce the waste disposal side of strawberries’ environmental impact. If you don’t have a city-wide composting service, consider creating your own in your backyard!
- Eat strawberries as soon as you buy them: The low shelf life of strawberries means that there’s no time to waste once you’ve bought them. If you are planning to eat strawberries, consider buying them as-needed, rather than including them in your weekly shop. This way, you will reduce the risk of forgetting about them at the back of the fridge and make sure that you eat them before they go bad.
Following some of these methods can really help you to cut down on your environmental impact of eating strawberries. 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!
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 strawberries!
“Carbon footprint: the amount of greenhouse gases 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 strawberries:
- 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 strawberries. 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 strawberries – 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 strawberries, 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.
Strawberries might be a delicious and common fruit, but they are also big offenders when it comes to environmental impact. They use a lot of resources, such as fertilizers, irrigation, and pesticides to create, are planted in monocultures, and use plastic packaging, to name a few factors. But, luckily, there are efforts being made to improve strawberry agriculture’s effect on the environment. You as the consumer can also take part in composting, recycling, and other waste reduction initiatives to help reduce strawberries’ environmental impact!
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