The Environmental Impact of Watermelons: From Farm to Table

The Environmental Impact of Watermelons: From Farm to Table

By
Teresa Mersereau

Read Time:16 Minutes

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A summer picnic isn’t complete without some watermelon slices. They are a hydrating fruit, containing over 90% water, as well as protein and fiber. Watermelons are a quintessential American crop, as one of the top three agricultural products produced in the country. But the production of watermelons can also have a severe impact on the environment. So we had to ask: What is the environmental impact of watermelons?

Watermelons have a very negative environmental impact. This is largely due to their low land yields, high pesticide and irrigation use, and low composting rates. Their environmental impact is high compared to other fruits. 

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

Here’s How We Assessed the Environmental Impact of Watermelons

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

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

Here’s the Overall Environmental Impact of Watermelons

The overall environmental impact of watermelons is negative. Though they have a low carbon footprint, their heavy use of pesticides, high irrigation requirements, and low land yield mean that they impact the environment very negatively. 

Watermelons have some less negative environmental impacts. For one thing, they don’t use the worst types of packaging, opting for cardboard instead of plastic or styrofoam, and they have a very low carbon footprint. However, these things aren’t the whole story, and watermelons still have plenty of negative qualities when it comes to their environmental impact.

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

Key Assessment FactorsEnvironmental Impact
Land requirements for watermelonsWatermelons’ land requirements are very high. This, mixed with their tendency to be farmed in monocultures means their environmental impact is very negative at this stage.
Water footprint of watermelonsWatermelons have a high water footprint of 50–100 inches of water per year.Their high irrigation needs contribute negatively to their environmental impact. 
Agrochemical usage for watermelonsThe pesticide and fertilizer usage for watermelons is very high. The particular fertilizers they use are also harmful to soil and local wildlife. 
Carbon footprint of watermelonsWatermelons have a low carbon footprint of 0.05kg (0.11 lb) of CO2e per pound of watermelon. They are produced domestically in the US and have a minimal harvesting, processing, and packaging footprint; despite their high pesticide usage and low composting rates.
Waste generation of watermelonsWatermelons’ waste generation is moderate. They use cardboard, which is easy to recycle, but have low composting rates for their food waste. 

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 watermelons’ environmental impact.

What Are the Land Requirements for Watermelons

Watermelons’ land requirements are very high. This, mixed with their tendency to be farmed in monocultures means their environmental impact is very negative at this stage. 

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

Growing watermelons 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 watermelons impact their environmental footprint?

In short, watermelons’ extremely low land yield and monoculture farming means that this stage in their life cycle has a considerably negative environmental impact. 

What Is the Water Footprint of Watermelons

Watermelons have a high water footprint of 50–100 inches of water per year. So, they have high irrigation needs which contribute negatively to their environmental impact. 

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 watermelons’ water impact. 

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

In short, watermelons’ high irrigation requirements and high pesticide use means that they have a significant water footprint. 

What Is the Agrochemical Usage for Watermelons

The pesticide and fertilizer usage for watermelon is very high. The particular fertilizers they use are also harmful to soil and local wildlife. 

Pesticides and fertilizers 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 watermelons’ pesticide and fertilizer rates affect their environmental impact. 

How does the pesticide and fertilizer usage of watermelons impact their environmental footprint?

In short, watermelons’ high pesticide use as well as their use of harmful nitrogen fertilizer means their environmental impact is very negative at this stage. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Watermelons

Watermelons have a low carbon footprint of 0.05kg (0.11 lb) of CO2e per pound of watermelon. They are produced domestically in the US and have a minimal harvesting, processing, and packaging footprint; despite their high pesticide usage and low composting rates.

Illustration of 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 watermelons 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 watermelons breaks down and contributes to their environmental impact. 

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

In short, watermelons have certain high-carbon components to their life cycle, such as low-density farming, but overall they have one of the lowest carbon footprints amongst fruits. 

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

What Is the Waste Generation of Watermelons

Watermelons’ waste generation is moderate. They use cardboard, which is easy to recycle, but have low composting rates for their food waste. 

When fruit waste, either packaging or organic materials, is disposed of, they 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 watermelon waste affects the environment. 

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

  • What is the packaging of watermelons: Watermelons typically use cardboard during the transportation stage. Cardboard has a negative environmental impact, mainly through their contribution to deforestation
  • How is the packaging of watermelons disposed of: Cardboard recycling has a fairly high recycling rate of around 89%. However, this still means that some cardboard is ending up in landfills. Landfills have a negative environmental impact because they emit carbon, pollute the soil, and harm wildlife. So if even a small amount of cardboard is going into landfills, it is still harming the environment. 
  • How are watermelons disposed of: Watermelons have rinds that can theoretically be composted. However, composting rates amongst food waste are very low, at around 4%. This means that the vast majority of watermelon waste is ending up in the landfills. On top of the general negative qualities of landfills, food waste is particularly bad, since it releases methane

In short, watermelons’ low composting rate and use of cardboard packaging contribute to a moderately negative environmental impact at this stage.

What Have Been Historical Environmental Issues Connected to the Watermelon Industry

Watermelons have partaken in some farming practices that have harmed the environment a lot over the years. These include deforestation, desertification, and use of contaminating fertilizers 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 watermelons have fared throughout history.

What have been the key historical environmental issues of the watermelon industry?

In short, watermelons have caused some significant damage to the environment. Their use of nitrogen fertilizer, and pesticides, as well as their high land requirements have all contributed to this. 

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 watermelons, while still enjoying them. You can also consider offsetting your personal and watermelon-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 Watermelons

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

  1. Buy Florida watermelons: One of the biggest contributors to watermelons’ environmental impact is their high irrigation requirements. Florida gets considerably more rainfall than Arizona and California, around 54 inches a year. This means that watermelons grown in Florida need considerably less irrigation than those grown in Arizona or California. Buying watermelons from Florida will help you reduce your water footprint. 
  2. Compost and recycle: Waste disposal and landfills are big negative contributors to watermelons’ environmental impact. If you make sure that you recycle any packaging and compost any food waste, then you will be greatly reducing your impact in this area. 
  3. Buy organic watermelons: Watermelons’ high pesticide use is a major contributor to their environmental impact. Organic farms commit to not using chemicals like pesticides. If you support organic watermelon farming then you will be able to reduce your environmental impact in this area. 

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

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 watermelons:

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 watermelons. 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 watermelons – 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 watermelons, 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 watermelons.

Final Thoughts

Watermelons may be low in carbon footprint, but that’s not all there is to environmental impact. Given the other factors at play, such as use of monoculture planting, nitrogen fertilizers, and higher-than-average pesticides, watermelons create a lot of environmental damage. But there are plenty of things you can still do to reduce this impact. Buying organic or local and making sure to dispose of waste properly are some of the best ways to make sure that you are consuming watermelons responsibly!

Stay impactful,

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