What Is the Carbon Footprint of Dates? A Life-Cycle Analysis

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Dates? A Life-Cycle Analysis

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Teresa Mersereau

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Dates are a sweet, often dried delicacy that’s popular in Middle Eastern desserts. They also have an ever-increasing global market, reaching over a million tons in volume in 2021. In terms of health benefits, dates pack a good amount of protein, potassium, and fiber. However, there are a lot of components to their production that can rack up significant carbon emissions. So, we had to ask: What is the carbon footprint of dates?

Dates have a moderate carbon footprint of 0.27kg (0.6lb) of CO2e per pound of dates. This is mainly because they use plastic packaging, have high irrigation requirements, and use mechanized harvesting techniques.

In this article, we will look at the full life-cycle of dates, investigating how each stage contributes to their carbon footprint. We will go through all of the main stages of dates’ production—starting with growth and then going through harvesting, processing, transportation, and ending at waste disposal—and will evaluate how each stage contributes to dates’ carbon footprint. So, let’s get into the carbon footprint of dates!

Here’s How We Assessed the Carbon Footprint of Dates

The carbon footprint is one of the ways we measure the effects of our human-induced global climate change. It primarily focuses on the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with consumption, but also includes other emissions such as methane (CH4), nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons, and is generally expressed in carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e).

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 dates:

To understand the carbon footprint of dates, we must assess their life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials.

Here’s the Overall Carbon Footprint of Dates

The overall carbon footprint of dates is fairly high at 0.27kg (0.6lb) of CO2e per pound of dates. The main factors that contribute to this are mechanization during the harvesting process, irrigation requirements, plastic packaging, the distance they travel from Tunisia (in the case of dried dates), and low composting rates. 

There’s a lot that dates do right during their life cycle. For example, they are a relatively dense crop and don’t use a lot of pesticides. They also often don’t require refrigerated transport, which cuts down on their footprint. However, there are still plenty of components to the date creation process that have a high carbon footprint. 

The carbon footprint of dates0.27kg (0.6lb) of CO2e per pound of dates

So, let’s have a look at each stage of the LCA of dates!

The life-cycle stages of datesEach stage’s carbon footprint
Growing of datesThe carbon footprint of growing dates is moderate. Their long growth duration and significant irrigation requirements are the main contributors to this. 
Harvesting, processing, and packaging of datesThe carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging dates is high, depending on the type of dates. The main causes of this are the mechanization during the harvesting and processing stages, as well as their use of plastic packaging. 
Transporting of datesThe carbon footprint of transporting dates is moderate, whether they are dried or fresh. This is because of the distance traveled for dry dates and refrigeration requirements for fresh dates. 
End-of-life of datesThe carbon footprint of the end-of-life of dates is high. This is mainly because of low recycling rates of plastic packaging and low composting rates amongst food waste.

The stage that contributes the most to dates’ overall carbon footprint is harvesting, processing, and packaging. This is because of the amount of mechanization required in harvesting and processing—especially for dried dates—and the use of plastic packaging. End-of-life is also a significant stage, mainly also because of plastic packaging. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Growing Dates

The carbon footprint of growing dates is moderate. Their long growth duration and significant irrigation requirements are the main contributors to this. 

The process of growing dates generally has a moderate carbon footprint, depending on the methods used. Factors like the amount of irrigation, deforestation, and pesticide use can all contribute to the overall impact of the growth stage.

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of growing dates?

  • How do dates grow: Dates are grown on trees known as date palms. Date palms are particularly good at absorbing carbon, which means that they actually offset a portion of their emissions. For this reason, the growth method of dates has a very low carbon footprint. 
  • What is the growth duration of dates: The longer the growth frame, the higher the carbon footprint because more resources are required to sustain the plants. Dates don’t start to bear fruit until 4–5 years after planting, and don’t reach their full yield potential until 10–15 years after planting. This is a very long timeframe, considering some fruits like strawberries can yield in their first season. Therefore, this stage is a major contributor to dates’ carbon footprint. 
  • What is the land usage of dates: When fruits use less land, they require less deforestation and resources to sustain them. Dates yield around 10–15 tons per hectare. This is on the lower end of the average among fruits. For example, bananas can yield up to 100 tons per hectare, whereas watermelons only yield around 2–3 tons per hectare. Therefore, this stage contributes moderately to dates’ carbon footprint. 
  • What is the water usage of dates: Dates need between 64–83 inches of water per year. Most dates consumed in the US are grown in Mexico and Tunisia. Mexico only gets around 28 inches of rain per year and Tunisia only gets an average of 6 inches of rainfall per year. Since both of these regions fall far short of the water requirements for date growth, dates grown in these regions will need high amounts of irrigation to keep them hydrated. Irrigation has a significant carbon footprint, resulting in this stage of the growth process having a high carbon footprint as well.
  • What is the pesticide and fertilizer usage of dates: Dates are considered a low-pesticide fruit. This means that they are able to avoid the high carbon footprint of pesticides. Thus, pesticides don’t contribute significantly to the overall carbon footprint of dates. 

Dates have some issues when it comes to the growth stage. There is not much that the consumer can do, however, to reduce irrigation requirements or land yields. 

In short, the fact that dates take so long to grow combined with their average land usage and their high irrigation needs create a moderate growth carbon footprint. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Harvesting, Processing, and Packaging Dates

The carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging dates is high, depending on the type of dates. The main causes of this are the mechanization during the harvesting and processing stages, as well as their use of plastic packaging. 

The next major stage in the life-cycle of dates’ carbon emissions is harvesting, processing, and packaging. This involves picking the fruit, checking it for damage, sorting it, and getting it ready for distribution. This stage can contribute greatly to the carbon footprint of the fruit depending on the processes used.

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging dates?

  • How are dates harvested: Dates are primarily harvested by hand. The actual harvesting, then, has a minimal carbon footprint. However, agricultural workers are lifted up using mechanical lifters which require energy to run. So, date harvesting has a moderate carbon footprint as a result. 
  • How are dates processed: There are three types of date processing, all with wildly different carbon footprints. Dates sold on the vine are not processed and instead are packed in the field to save time. These have a negligible carbon footprint. Dates sold individually are typically washed and sorted, which uses more energy. As a result, these have a higher carbon footprint. Dried dates need to be dehydrated in very hot ovens, which require a lot of energy. These, then, have the highest carbon footprint. Therefore, the carbon footprint of this stage will be low, medium, or high, depending on the type of dates you buy.
  • How are dates packaged: Most dates are packaged in plastic clamshells. Plastic has a high carbon footprint at its production stage. Therefore, this component of the date-production process has a high carbon footprint. 

Dates could use improvement in a few areas of this stage. If you avoid plastic packaging as much as possible, you will be able to reduce some of these emissions. 

In short, the fact that dates use plastic packaging and need a significant amount of energy to harvest and process means their carbon footprint at this stage is high. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Transporting Dates

The carbon footprint of transporting dates is moderate, whether they are dried or fresh. This is because of the distance traveled for dry dates and refrigeration requirements for fresh dates. 

Dates’ journeys have just started when they are packaged. They then have to travel the distance between the farm and the grocery store. The distance, as well as the method through which they have to travel, are the two most important factors in determining the carbon footprint of their transportation.

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of transporting dates?

  • Where are dates grown: Most fresh dates consumed in the US come from Mexico, whereas most dried dates come from Tunisia. Mexican dates have a far smaller distance to travel than Tunisian dates. As a result, their carbon footprint at this stage will be moderate to high, depending on whether they are fresh or dried dates. 
  • How are dates transported: Dates are transported either via ship or truck. Dried dates do not need to be refrigerated and so they are put in dry goods containers without temperature control. Fresh dates, however, are sometimes refrigerated to prolong their shelf life. Both refrigerated trucks and refrigerated cargo containers use more carbon than those used for dry goods. Therefore, both dried and fresh dates have a significant transportation carbon footprint. 

Whether or not to buy fresh or dry dates is a difficult decision when considering transport. Dry dates have a lower refrigeration footprint, but fresh dates need to travel less. Buying fresh dates that have not been cold-stored is the best option. However, this information may be difficult to find out. Remember that dried dates go through more processing than fresh dates so their carbon footprint is still typically higher overall. 

In short, dry dates have to travel from Tunisia and fresh dates are sometimes refrigerated. This means that their carbon footprint is moderate at this stage. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of the End-of-Life of Dates

The carbon footprint of the end-of-life of dates is high. This is mainly because of low recycling rates of plastic packaging and low composting rates amongst food waste. 

Dates’ carbon footprint journey isn’t done after you consume them. In fact, one of the most important factors that will determine the overall carbon footprint of dates is how their waste is disposed of. Here, we will look at how this stage in the process affects dates’ carbon footprint. 

Which factors impact the carbon footprint of the end-of-life of dates?

  • How are dates disposed of: Dates have pits that aren’t generally consumed. This means that they create some food waste, which can theoretically be composted. However, in practice, only 4% of food waste is successfully composted. Furthermore, food waste that ends up in landfills produces methane, which ramps up the carbon footprint of this stage. 
  • How is the packaging of dates disposed of: Dates use plastic packaging, which is bad news for their carbon footprint. Plastic has a very low recycling rate of around 9%. This means that the majority of date packaging ends up in landfills. Thus, dates have a high carbon footprint at this stage. 

Dates could do a lot better when it comes to waste management. Buying dates without plastic packaging and composting pits will help you to reduce your carbon footprint in this area. 

In short, dates’ use of plastic packaging and the tendency for their food waste to end up in landfills means that they have a high carbon footprint at this stage.

How Does the Carbon Footprint of Dates Compare to Other Types of Food

Dates have a moderate carbon footprint compared to other fruits, but a much lower footprint when compared to foods in general. This is mainly because, when kilocalories are taken into account, dates are much more calorie-dense and therefore more carbon efficient. 

Dates have a low carbon footprint compared to other foods, largely due to their high calorie content. When assessing the carbon footprint of a particular food, it is always important to place it in the context of other foods. This can help you to see the relative impact they have and assist you in making decisions between different foods based on their carbon footprint. In this next part of the article, we will show you how dates compare to other foods in terms of carbon footprint.

How Does the Carbon Footprint of Dates Compare to Other Types of Fruits

Dates have an average carbon footprint among fruits. Fruits in general tend to have lower carbon footprints than many other foods, like dairy products. However, there is still a lot of variation between them. Different transportation distances, the density of orchards, variations in growing methods, and pesticide use can all add up to contribute to their carbon footprints. Here, we will look at how dates compare specifically to other fruits in terms of carbon footprint. 

FruitsCarbon Footprint per lbsCalories per lbsCarbon Footprint per Calories
Avocados0.85 kg (1.9 lb) of CO2e per pound of avocados725 calories per pound1.17kg (2.57lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of avocados 
Grapes0.64 kg (1.42 lbs) of CO2e per pound of grapes300 calories per pound2.13kg (4.7lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of grapes
Cantaloupe0.58kg (1.3lb) of CO2e per pound of cantaloupe154 calories per pound3.77kg (8.31lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of cantaloupes
Kiwis0.56kg (1.24lb) of CO2e per pound of kiwis277 calories per pound2.02kg (4.45lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of kiwis
Blueberries0.45kg (1lb) of CO2e per pound of blueberries256 calories per pound1.75kg (3.86lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of blueberries
Plums0.4 kg (0.88 lb) CO2e per pound of plums209 calories per pound1.91kg (4.21lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of plums
Strawberries0.39kg (0.88lb) of CO2e per pound of strawberries145 calories per pound2.69kg (5.93lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of strawberries
Pomegranates0.39kg (0.87lb) of CO2e per pound of pomegranates375 calories per pound1.04kg (2.29lb) of CO2e per pound of pomegranates
Figs0.3kg (0.68lb) of CO2e per pound of figs333 calories per pound0.9kg (1.98lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of figs
Papayas0.3kg (0.67lb) of CO2e per pound of papayas195 calories per pound1.54kg (3.4lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of papayas
Oranges0.3kg (0.66 lb) CO2e per pound of oranges213 calories per pound1.41kg (3.11lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of oranges
Dates0.27kg (0.6lb) of CO2e per pound of dates1,300 calories per pound0.21kg (0.46lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of dates
Apples0.24 kg (0.53 lb) of CO2e per pound of apples236 calories per pound1.02kg (2.25lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of apples
Pears0.23kg (0.52 lb) of CO2e per pound of pears259 calories per pound0.89kg (1.96lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of pears
Bananas0.21 kg (0.48 lb) of CO2e per pound of banana404 calories per pound0.52kg (1.15lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of bananas
Mangoes0.21 kg (0.46 lb) CO2e per pound of mangoes272 calories per pound0.77lb (1.7lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of mangoes
Cherries0.19kg (0.41 lb) of CO2e per pound of cherries227 calories per pound0.84kg (1.85lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of cherries
Limes0.18kg (0.39lb) of CO2e per pound of limes136 calories per pound1.32kg (2.91lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of limes
Peaches0.17kg (0.38lb) CO2e per pound of peaches176 calories per pound0.97kg (2.14lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of peaches
Apricots0.16kg (0.36lb) of CO2e per pound of apricots218 calories per pound0.73kg (1.61lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of apricots
Raspberries0.15kg (0.33lb) of CO2e per pound of raspberries240 calories per pound0.63kg (1.39lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of raspberries
Pineapples0.09 kg (0.20 lb) of CO2e per pound of pineapple227 calories per pound0.4kg (0.88lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of pineapples
Lemons0.09kg (0.19lb) CO2e per pound of lemons132 calories per pound0.68kg (1.5lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of lemons
Grapefruit0.08kg (0.18lb) of CO2e per pound of grapefruit191 calories per pound0.42kg (0.93lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of grapefruits
Blackberries0.07kg (0.15lb) of CO2e per pound of blackberries195 calories per pound0.36kg (0.79lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of blackberries
Clementines0.06 kg (0.13 lb) CO2e per pound of clementines213 calories per pound0.28kg (0.62kg) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of clementines
Watermelons0.05kg (0.11 lb) of CO2e per pound of watermelon136 calories per pound0.37kg (0.82lb) of CO2e per 1,000 calories of watermelons

Dates fall well within the moderate section of fruits. They are hovering around the average of 0.26. They have almost ¼ the emissions of the highest carbon offenders—avocados—and well below many others such as cantaloupes and kiwis. However, they also have more than five times the emissions of watermelons, so they are still not the most carbon-conscious fruits you can eat. 

How Does the Carbon Footprint of Dates Compare to Other Types of Food in General

Dates have a very low carbon footprint compared to other foods when kilocalories are taken into account. This is because they have a very high calorie density and thus are more carbon-conscious. 

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), foods are often compared in terms of emissions per 1,000 kilocalories (as opposed to their weight in lbs or kg).

Illustration of greenhouse gas emissions per 1000 kilocalories
Our World in Data: Greenhouse Gas Emissions per 1,000 kilocalories

Dates have a similar carbon footprint to oranges, however, dates actually have one of the highest calorie densities of any fruit at almost 1,300 calories per pound:

  • Compare this to the roughly 215 calories per pound of oranges, and it’s clear that these two fruits have a very different carbon footprint when kilocalories are taken into account. 
  • Because dates are so calorie-dense, their carbon footprint per kilocalorie will actually be lower than their carbon footprint per pound. 
  • This is because it takes less carbon to produce each calorie and so dates actually have a low carbon footprint compared to other foods when kilocalories are taken into account. 

How Can You Reduce and Offset Your Personal Carbon Footprint

There are many things you can do to cut down on how your date consumption impacts the planet. By carefully considering your consumption habits to reduce carbon emissions and offsetting your carbon through carbon-extraction schemes, you can consume dates without having a large negative impact on the earth. 

Some of the carbon risks of dates highlighted in this article may be somewhat concerning. However, the good news is that there are a lot of things you can do to lower your carbon emissions while still eating dates. Purchasing organic or locally-grown dates and disposing of the waste efficiently can help with this. Furthermore, you can consider emission offsets, which work to extract carbon from the atmosphere. Here, we will walk you through how to accomplish both of these things.

How Can You Reduce Your Carbon Footprint When Shopping for Dates

Before you start worrying about your offsets, you might be wondering how you can stop producing carbon in the first place through your date consumption. One of the best ways to do this is to look at the parts of the date process that have the highest carbon footprint and start there. In this section, we give you a short list of ways you can reduce your date carbon footprint, so you can continue consuming dates without the high carbon price tag.

  1. Buy local dates: A big contributor to dates’ carbon footprint is transportation from places like Tunisia. However, if you try to buy dates grown in the US, or at least Mexico, you will be greatly cutting down on their travel times. 
  2. Buy low-packaging dates: Plastic packaging is a huge problem in the date industry and beyond. If you want to reduce your carbon footprint when buying dates, then you should make sure to avoid plastic packaging as much as possible. Buying dates in cardboard packaging has a much smaller carbon footprint, since it is more easily recycled. No packaging at all, of course, is best. 
  3. Compost your date pits: Low composting rates represent trends, but you can change that. Making the effort to compost the pits from your dates will make sure that you are not contributing to the landfill. If your city doesn’t offer a composting program, then you can try creating your own

Following some of these methods can really help you to cut down on your date carbon emissions. None of these will bring your emissions down to zero, since there are always hidden carbon costs that may be outside of your control. But reduction is always better than nothing! However, if you do want to get your date emissions down to absolute zero, then you can look into carbon offsets.

How Can You Offset Your Personal Carbon Footprint

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 dates. 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 dates – 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 dates, 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 dates.

Final Thoughts

Dates are a fantastic calorie-dense snack or dessert ingredient, but there are also many ways in which they create serious carbon emissions. Using a lot of irrigation, creating plastic packaging waste, and being transported great distances are some of the most significant ways in which dates accrue carbon emissions. But, by making sure that you buy dates with less packaging, compost their food waste, and buy them as locally as possible, you can cut down on these emissions and become a more responsible date consumer!

Stay impactful,

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