In 2003, global fruit production reached 379.15 million metric tons with China, the European Union, and India being the top producers. Fresh fruit exports have risen in recent years due to increased consumption—in 2003 it was valued at $11 billion, more than double its value in 1996. Although the United States is the fifth most active producer of fruit, it stands as the top exporter of fresh fruit with a value of $2.2 billion. The most heavily exported fruits are apples, oranges, and grapes.[1] America's most popular fruit, bananas, must be imported.[2] From 1997 to 1999, 43 percent of fruit was consumed as juice, orange juice representing 63 percent of total juice consumption.[3]

The chief environmental concerns of fruit production and trade revolve around two vital queries. First, how many miles did it travel from grower to grocer and how exactly did it get there? And secondly, were chemical pesticides and fertilizers and unsustainable farming practices used to grow it?

Eat local

Because different fruits thrive in different climates and terrains, fruit-growing is often regional. For example, table grapes are associated with California, Red Delicious apples with Washington, and so on. Although regionally produced, most fruit is subsequently traded on a national (and international) scale, making "food miles" an issue to consider. Researchers at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture have developed a "Transport Environmental Impact" (TEI) rating that considers both the total mileage traveled by produce from grower to grocer, as well as the mode of transportation. They are also exploring the idea of creating an eco-label to help consumers select produce grown and shipped with the least environmental impact.

In some cases, locally-grown produce isn't the most eco-friendly choice. For example, a pineapple transported by ship from Costa Rica to Florida and then trucked to Iowa has a lower TEI rating than grapes trucked from California to Iowa. Even though the pineapple traveled a greater overall distance than the grapes, transport by sea is more fuel-efficient than trucking, a major contributor to global warming though carbon dioxide emissions.[4]

However, in the United States, where 90 percent of domestic produce is transported by truck, it's reasonable to disregard TEI ratings and buy produce grown as close to home as possible. Leopold Center researchers found that conventionally grown US produce travels up to 27 times the distance of its locally-grown counterparts. Thus an apple grown and sold in Iowa is transported an average of 61 miles to reach its buyer compared to 1,726 miles for a conventionally grown and distributed apple.[4] In cases where produce is grown out of state (e.g. a consumer in Bend, Oregon, must choose between California-grown and Texas-grown oranges), opting for the geographically closer California oranges contributes fewer greenhouse gases than those from Texas.[5]

Eat organic

The organic food industry—worth $23 billion in 2002—is a growing one with annual consumer demand rising an estimated 20 percent each year. Although organic food, including produce, can be found in 73 percent of traditional grocery stores and supermarkets it accounts for only one to two percent of overall food sales in the United States.[6][7]

Like other food products, fruit must meet criteria set forth by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to be officially certified as organic: it must be grown in soil free of toxic pesticides and fertilizers and cannot be genetically modified or irradiated.[8] Chemical pesticides and fertilizers are not only believed to be harmful to human (see Related health issues below) and animal health, but they also pollute ecosystems and waterways.[9] It is estimated approximately 670 million birds are exposed to pesticides used in farming annually. Ten percent of them die as a result.[10]

Below are conventionally grown fruits containing both the highest and lowest amounts of pesticide residues.

  • Heavy pesticide residues: Apples, apricots, cantaloupe (Mexico), cherries (US), grapes (Chile), strawberries, peaches, pears, winter squash.
  • Low pesticide residues: Avocado, bananas, grapes (US and Mexico), plums, watermelon.[11]


The move toward organic farming has also received a fair amount of criticism. Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, believes organic farming techniques are detrimental to the environment. In a December 2006 issue of The Economist he claims that low crop yields from organic farming result in the destruction of more land, while using synthetic fertilizers allows farmers to harvest vast amounts of, for example, avocado trees, in a small area of cultivated land.[12] Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on high-input crops that have increased world food supply, but has been criticized because of the resultant increase in reliance on monoculture cropping and inorganic fertilizer use.[13]

A 2007 study conducted by researchers at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, revealed that organic produce often travels farther than its conventional counterparts to reach kitchen tables. Due to the harmful CO2 emissions associated with long-distance transportation, the environmental benefits of buying organic are essentially canceled out. For example, to reach Edmonton, organic mangoes had to travel from Ecuador or Peru, while conventional mangoes would have shipped from geographically closer Mexico.[14]

Other critics charge that retailers often sell organic-certified products to target consumers for whom price is no object, regardless of whether the product carries environmental and/or economic benefits.[12]

The politics behind the USDA's term "Organic" complicates matters further. The National Organic Program (NOP) was developed to enable large, conventional farms to more easily transition into organic production, and therefore develop the industry.[15] Initially, small farmers feared that the standardization of the term organic would push them out of the market, as the logistics and cost of applying for the certification often exceeds their means. Since then, small farmers have been able to secure their niche in direct markets, though for those who sell to retailers, the label "organic" helps their sales. Additionally, in her book Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California[16], Julie Guthman notes that organic practices fall notably short of the agro-ecological ideals that were originally established during the 1960s and 70s. Despite its drawbacks, monoculture is still the primary model of growing on large-scale "industrialized" organic farms. Finally, labor rights and migrant worker health and safety is not included as a criteria in organic certification, so may still be of concern on large, industrialized farms.

Related health benefits and concerns

The daily intake of fruit is a proven way to maintain a healthy body and mind. Benefits include the reduction of risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, bone loss, and various cancers. Different fruits contain nutrients and vitamins that target specific bodily functions. For example, vitamin C-rich oranges aid in a properly functioning immune system and the potassium found in bananas regulates blood pressure.[17]

For many, the choice to eat organic produce is mainly about ensuring that such a beneficial food group offers the most health benefits possible - meaning not grown with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. Studies on the health benefits of organically-produced foods are beginning to confirm the upsides of these eco-choices. The QualityLowInputFood Project recently found that antioxidant levels (key in reducing the risk of heart disease and many cancers) were 40 percent higher in organic fruits and vegetables and 90 percent greater in milk from organically-fed herds.[18] A report by Pesticide Action Network North America found that American consumers are exposed to toxic chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) as many as 70 times a day. POP exposure has been associated with immune system suppression, nervous and hormonal system disorders, reproductive system damage, and various cancers, including breast cancer. Three fruits frequently contaminated by POPs are cantaloupe, winter squash, and summer squash. The two leading POPs found in food are dieldrin and DDE.[19]

Children are particularly susceptible to the health effects of pesticide ingestion due to their lower body weights and higher metabolisms. Every day, more than one million children between the ages of one and five eat an estimated 15 pesticides on contaminated fruits and vegetables. 600,000 of these children eat dosages of pesticides deemed unsafe by the government.[20]

On the other hand, supporters of pesticide use in farming believe the chemical levels in conventional foods are appropriately regulated by the government and so minor that they do not adversely effect human health.[8]


  • genetically modified organism: A GMO results from merging the genetic make-up of two organisms to create a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature. Engineering GMOs is a common practice in conventional farming, and studies have shown that GMOs pose significant environmental risks such as killing off living, natural organisms and becoming immune to pesticides.[21]
  • food irradiation: The use of radioactive waste to eliminate bacteria and extend the shelf life of various food products.[22]
  • persistent organic pollutants: POPs are toxic chemicals that were, and in some instances still are, used in agriculture for pest and disease control and crop production, as well as in manufacturing. Although many POPs have been banned, they remain in the environment and global food chain, easily traveling via wind and water.[23]
  • dieldrin: An insecticide, widely used on crops from 1950 to 1970. It was used to control termites until 1987, when the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned all uses. Exposure to dieldrin occurs through eating contaminated foods such as fish, root crops, and dairy products. Build up of dieldrin in the human body can lead to nervous system disorders.[24]
  • DDE: A breakdown product of once-common pesticide DDT which has been banned in the US since 1972 but still enters the environment through use in other countries where it isn't banned. Human exposure comes from eating contaminated leafy and root vegetables and fatty meat, poultry, and fish. Studies show that women with high amounts of DDE in their breast milk are unable to breast feed as long as women with low levels of DDE and are at increased risk of giving birth prematurely.[25]
  • monoculture: A method of farming in which one type of crop is planted over a large space. Although this method allows for the specialization of machinery to manage the crop, and large yields are often achieved, there are ecological drawbacks. Nutrients in the soil become depleted more quickly, prompting more chemical fertilizers to be added. Monocultures also are more susceptible to massive pest-caused damage because of the way they concentrate resources in a continuous space. Nutrient and water waste cycles also tend to be less enclosed in a monoculture, causing large amounts of runoff and pollution in natural ecosystems.[26]

External links


  1. United States Department of Agriculture - The World Fresh Fruit Market
  2. eSSORTMENT - Bananas: little known facts
  3. United States Department of Agriculture - Consumer Demand for Fruits and Vegetables: The US Example
  4. Science News Online - Local Foods Could Make for Greener Grocers
  5. UNCTAD - Citrus Fruit Market
  6. Organic Monitor - The Global Market for Organic Food & Drink
  7. Amber Waves - Organic Agriculture: Gaining Ground
  8. Seattle Post-Intelligencer - Are organic fruit, veggies worth the extra cost?
  9. Modern Brewery Age - Hops in beer often laced with pesticides, writer says
  10. Pesticides and Birds Campaign - The Problem
  11. Eartheasy - Pesticides and Produce
  12. The Economist - Food politics: Voting with your trolley
  13. - Norman Borlaug
  14. Medical News Today - Organic Food Miles Take Toll On Environment
  15. US Department of Agriculture - The National Organic Program: Organic Food Production Act of 1990
  16. Guthman, 70Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California71 (University of California Press, 2004)
  17. - Inside the Pyramid: Why is it important to eat fruit?
  18. Weil Lifestyle - Organic Foods Have More Antioxidants, Minerals
  19. Pesticide Action Network North America - Pesticide Action Network North America - "Nowhere to Hide" media release
  20. Environmental Defense - Challenge: Ensuring Public Health by Protecting Food and Drinking Water Supplies
  21. ProQuest CSA - Genetically Modfified Foods: Friend or Foe?
  22. Organic Consumers Association - Food Bytes: USDA Propaganda Event Will Accompany Release of the Controversial National Organic Food Standards
  23. US Environmental Protection Agency - Persistent Organic Pollutants: A Global Issue, A Global Response
  24. US Department of Health and Human Services - Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry: ToxFAQS
  25. US Department of Health and Human Services - Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry: ToxFAQS
  26. University of California, Berkley - Modern Agriculture: Ecological impacts and the possibilities for truly sustainable farming