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

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

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Teresa Mersereau

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Figs are an unusual fruit that is popular in Italian cuisine. They are also becoming increasingly popular in the US, with the fresh fig market valued at around $1.5 billion. But as profitable and delicious as they are, figs can also negatively impact the climate. Factors from how they’re grown to how they’re distributed can all accrue carbon emissions. So we had to ask: What is the carbon footprint of figs?

Figs have a moderate carbon footprint of 0.3kg (0.68lb) of CO2e per pound of figs. This is mainly because of their high irrigation requirements, mechanized harvesting processes, refrigerated trucking, and plastic packaging. 

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

Here’s How We Assessed the Carbon Footprint of Figs

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 figs:

To understand the carbon footprint of figs, 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 Figs

Figs have a moderate overall carbon footprint of 0.3kg (0.68lb) of CO2e per pound of figs. The main factors that contribute to this are their mechanized harvesting, high irrigation requirements, low land yield, refrigerated trucking, low composting rates, and the use of plastic packaging. 

There are a lot of things figs do right when it comes to their carbon footprint. They don’t use many pesticides, they are produced domestically, and they sequester their own carbon. However, there are still many things that contribute greatly to their carbon footprint. 

The carbon footprint of figs0.3kg (0.68lb) of CO2e per pound of figs

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

The life-cycle stages of figsEach stage’s carbon footprint
Growing of figsThe carbon footprint of growing figs is moderate. This is mainly because they have a low land yield and require a significant amount of irrigation. 
Harvesting, processing, and packaging of figsThe carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging figs is high. This is caused by their reliance on mechanization during the harvesting and processing stages, as well as their use of plastic packaging.
Transporting of figsThe carbon footprint of transporting figs is moderate. This is mainly because of their need for refrigerated trucks, despite being produced domestically. Refrigerated trucks give off more carbon emissions than standard trucks.
End-of-life of figsThe carbon footprint of the end-of-life of figs is high. This is because of low composting rates among food waste and low recycling rates among plastic packaging. 

The stage that contributes the most to figs’ carbon footprint is harvesting, processing, and packaging. This is because almost every step of this process requires energy, from harvesting machines to refrigerators. End-of-life also has a high footprint, mainly due to the difficulty in disposing of plastic packaging. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Growing Figs

The carbon footprint of growing figs is moderate. This is mainly because they have a low land yield and require a significant amount of irrigation. 

The process of growing figs 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 figs?

  • How do figs grow: Figs grow on trees. Trees in general have carbon-sequestering properties, meaning that they offset a lot of their own emissions. Fig trees in particular have been found to be very helpful to biodiversity restoration. Consequently, this stage does not contribute significantly to figs’ carbon footprint. 
  • What is the growth duration of figs: The longer the growth frame, the higher the carbon footprint because more resources are required to sustain the plants. Fig trees take 2–3 years to reach maturity. Individual figs fruit twice a year, meaning they have very fast turnaround times. These growing timeframes are very short, especially for tree fruits. Therefore, this stage has a very low carbon footprint. 
  • What is the land usage of figs: When fruits use less land, they require less deforestation and resources to sustain them. Figs yield around 12 tons per hectare. This is on the lower side for fruits. For example, blackberries produce around 22 tons per hectare. So, this stage contributes significantly to figs carbon footprint. 
  • What is the water usage of figs: Figs need around 50-75 inches of water per year. Most figs in the US are grown in California and Texas. California only gets around 23 inches of rain per year and Texas only about 27 inches. Thus, figs grown in both states will need significant amounts of irrigation to grow. Since irrigation has a high carbon footprint, this stage contributes to figs’ carbon footprint in a major way. 
  • What is the pesticide and fertilizer usage of figs: Figs have generally low pesticide rates. Thus, they generally avoid the high emissions that pesticides cause. As a result, this stage contributes minimally to figs’ carbon footprint. 

Figs have a lot going for them in the growing stage, such as quick growth times and low pesticide use. However, unfortunately, they have a fairly low yield per hectare and require significant irrigation to thrive. 

In short, the irrigation rates among fig production raise its carbon footprint considerably. It is mitigated by fig trees’ carbon sequestering properties and short growth duration. So, the overall carbon footprint of this stage comes out as moderate.

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

The carbon footprint of harvesting, processing, and packaging figs is high. This is caused by their reliance on mechanization during the harvesting and processing stages, as well as their use of plastic packaging.

The next major stage in the life-cycle of figs’ 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 figs?

By all accounts, this stage of the fig production process has a high carbon footprint. If you want to reduce it, then you should try to buy figs without packaging or figs from local farms, which tend to have less mechanized harvesting and processing processes

In short, the fact that figs are harvested and processed mechanically and packaged in high-emitting plastic makes for a high carbon footprint. 

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Transporting Figs

The carbon footprint of transporting figs is moderate. This is mainly because of their need for refrigerated trucks, despite being produced domestically. Refrigerated trucks give off more carbon emissions than standard trucks.

Figs’ 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 figs?

The fact that figs are grown domestically is great for their carbon footprint. There is not much the consumer can do to reduce refrigeration emissions, besides buying their figs as local as possible to reduce travel times. 

In short, though figs grow in the US and thus don’t need to travel very far, their need for refrigerated trucking raises their footprint from low to moderate. 

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

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

Figs’ 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 figs is how their waste is disposed of. Here, we will look at how this stage in the process affects figs’ carbon footprint. 

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

  • How are figs disposed of: Figs have peels that generally aren’t eaten. Unfortunately, despite the fact that they can be composted, only 4% of food actually ends up in the compost. This means that a good portion of the figs are put in landfills. When food goes into landfills it creates methane, a greenhouse gas. Thus, this stage has a high carbon footprint. 
  • How is the packaging of figs disposed of: Figs use primarily plastic packaging, which is bad for their carbon footprint. Plastic has a very low recycling rate, at around 9%. Thus, most of their packaging is ending up in landfills as well, raising their carbon footprint significantly. 

Figs don’t fare too well in the end-of-life stage when it comes to their carbon footprint. To reduce your footprint at this stage, you should compost as much fig waste as you can and recycle or avoid plastic packaging. 

In short, there are ways in which the food waste and packaging of figs can avoid landfills. However, given the low rates of these things, it is likely that their carbon footprint is very high at this stage. 

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

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

Figs have a moderate carbon footprint compared to other foods, largely due to their denser kilocalories. 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 figs compare to other foods in terms of carbon footprint.

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

Figs have a moderately high carbon footprint compared to other 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 figs 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

Figs are in the top half of foods in terms of carbon footprint. Their emissions are significantly less than some of the top emitters, such as avocados and cantaloupe. However, they are also orders of magnitude higher than the lowest offenders. For example, they have six times the emissions of lower fruits on the list, such as watermelons and clementines. Therefore, while they are not the worst of fruits, they are certainly amongst the higher emitters. 

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

Figs have a lower carbon footprint when kilocalories are taken into account. This is because they are more calorie-dense than other fruit and thus are more efficient carbon-wise. 

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

Figs have around the same carbon footprint as oranges, however, figs are very dense calorie-wise:

  • They have around 330 calories per pound, whereas oranges only have around 210
  • Therefore, though they have the same emissions per pound, figs will have lower emissions per calorie because they are more calorie-dense. 
  • So, when kilocalories are taken into account, figs fall lower on the list. 

How Can You Reduce and Offset Your Personal Carbon Footprint

There are many things you can do to cut down on how your fig 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 fig without having a large negative impact on the earth. 

Some of the carbon risks of figs 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 figs. Purchasing organic or locally-grown figs 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 Figs

Before you start worrying about your offsets, you might be wondering how you can stop producing carbon in the first place through your fig consumption. One of the best ways to do this is to look at the parts of the fig 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 fig carbon footprint, so you can continue consuming figs without the high carbon price tag.

  1. Avoid plastic packaging: Both at the manufacturing stage and the disposal stage, plastic packaging has a high carbon footprint. Buy figs with alternative or biodegradable packaging, or no packaging at all, to greatly reduce your carbon footprint. 
  2. Buy figs from smaller farms: Mechanization can be a big contributor to figs’ carbon footprint. Since smaller farms tend to pick and process by hand more often, you can reduce your emissions in this area by supporting them.
  3. Buy local figs: Even though figs are primarily produced domestically, the US is a big country and so they may still have to travel great distances. The fact that they are transported in refrigerated containers means that every mile counts. So, try to buy your figs as locally as possible.

Following some of these methods can really help you to cut down on your fig 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 fig 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 figs. 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 figs – 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 figs, 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 figs.

Final Thoughts

Figs are a wonderful, tasty fruit, but as we have seen, they can have a high carbon footprint. Their mechanized harvesting process, refrigerated trucking, and plastic packaging all drive up their emissions. However, there are many things you can do to cut down on some of these higher-emitting areas. Buying local, avoiding packaging, and supporting smaller farms can all help you to consume figs as carbon-consciously as possible!

Stay impactful,

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