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Comparing Apples and Oranges (and Pears) – The Environmental Footprint of Fruit from Europe & South America compared7 min read

We should never compare apples and oranges. Or should we? What's the environmental impact of different fruits - and how does it differ when they come from different places?

Saro Campisano

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Recently, we compared the environmental footprint of plastic and glass bottles. A comparison of two comparable products – after all, you wouldn’t want to compare apples and oranges, right?

What was intended as a pun for our newsletter actually sparked an interesting question: How do different fruits compare in terms of environmental impact? How much water do they use? How do they impact the agricultural land, the toxicity?

Many countries use the pun in a different combination though; in Dutch and German, we don’t want to compare apples and pears. Different cultures, hu?

So our environmental specialist Saro went to work, and what he found out was quite interesting. He took a look at apples, oranges, and pears, each from a European and from a South American production site. He analyzed

  • the transportation distance of the fruits to the Netherlands
  • the freshwater consumption of the fruits
  • the CO₂ footprint of the fruits
  • the impact on land use of the fruits

South America, where exactly? The pears for this comparison come from Argentina, the apples from Chile, the oranges from Brazil.

And last but not least he aggregated the values into the Environmental Cost Indicator, a monetary value that sums up 11 different impact categories into one comparable value.

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How did we calculate the environmental impact of the fruits?

The environmental impact of the different fruits was compared based on the methodology of a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). Life Cycle Assessments are an ISO-normed framework for measuring the environmental impact of products and services.

For this analysis we specifically focused on the production of the fruit, taking into consideration the land and resources used to grow them; as well as the transportation to their destination – in our case a super market in the Netherlands.

The data for the fruits is based on numbers from the leading Life Cycle Inventory Database, Ecoinvent, and calculated in Ecochain.

What we did not include

We did not include packaging the fruit or disposing of it afterward (also called end-of-life or waste phase). We also didn’t include the impact that fruit has on the supermarket shelf, like the cooling.

Comparison #1: Fresh water use

How much freshwater is used to produce your fruit? This of course depends largely on the location of your growing operation, as well as the crop’s need for water. But the numbers differ quite strongly: Where oranges have much lower use of freshwater in South America, pears require significantly more water than in Belgium. Belgium has a lot of natural rainfall, too.

The fresh water use in this graphic is depicted in m3. You can find the whole table of indicators, including liter, on the bottom of this article.

Freshwater Consumption of Fruits
Freshwater Consumption of Fruits

Comparison #2: Transport distance

Of course, the transport distance for fruit from South Africa is significantly higher than for European fruit. But the method plays a big role, too.

Cargo ships have an exponentially bigger volume than trucks crossing Europe. This also means that the usage of diesel for a cargo ship is divided in between many more fruits. Just picture this (fictitious) scenario: A cargo ship uses 10.000 liters of Diesel to transport 1.000.000 apples. The truck might only use 100 liters but can only carry 10.000 apples. Despite the ship using 100 times as much Diesel, the use of Diesel per apple (0,01 liters) would be the same.

In fact, a truck ride from France to the Netherlands can have a higher carbon footprint than shipping goods from South America via ocean freight, right to the port in Rotterdam. Of course, there is also some transport involved to get the South American fruit to the ship. We have included 150 km of truck transportation for all the South American products.

Transport Distances of Fruits
Transport Distances of Fruits

This reflects nicely in this comparison: Notice how the impact of CO₂ in the transport phase (grey) is much higher for Italian apples than South American apples! The same applies for oranges. Only the pears have a lower transportation footprint when sourced in Europe – given they also come from a neighboring country. They could probably be delivered by bike! 😉

Comparison #3: Carbon Footprint (CO₂)

Talking about carbon footprint – how do apples, oranges and pears compare here?

CO₂ footprint of fruits, including transport
CO₂ footprint of fruits, including transport

Why do Italian apples score higher than their South American counterparts? This is based on the difference in land-use change (-12% contribution to the Environmental Cost Indicator). The same applies for pears from Belgium (19% better land-use change than from South America, calculated in contribution to the Environmental Cost Indicator). But how does the expert explain this?

In order to grow fruit, land cover changes. This can go two ways. One way is that natural land (rainforest) is turned into agricultural land. This leads to a soil that sequesters carbon, being turned into land that releases carbon (in the case of soy from amazon or pears from Argentina 20%).

However, the opposite can also happen. In this case, soil that previously doesn’t sequester carbon (or hardly) now is turned into soil/land that sequesters carbon, by making an apple tree production site. This leads to a negative (so good) score on global warming potential since carbon is stored in the trees. This is the case for Belgium pears (19%), and Chilean apples (12%). So you see that land-use change has a huge impacton the carbon footprint.

Saro Campisano, Environmental Specialist at Ecochain

And this is why the pear from Belgium scores a great CO₂ footprint. By the way, let’s use the Carbon Translator to see how much CO₂ that actually is. 1 kg of Oranges from Spain emits 0.457 kg CO₂-eq. And that translates to 22 cups of coffee, 1 avocado, 65 Google searches, or 0,08 steaks. Interesting! 🙂

So, let’s look at that land use more in detail.

Comparison #4: Land use

What you can see here is that most fruits use between 0,125 to 0,25 m2a crop eq. An outlier are pears from South America with almost 0,5!

Land use is expressed in m2a crop eq. This means the amount of m2 of 1. change of land cover and 2. land-use intensification due to crops, annually. The change of land cover leads to loss of habitat (and thus potential loss of species) and land-use intensification leads to soil disturbance.

Saro Campisano, Environmental Specialist at Ecochain
Land Use of Fruits
Land Use of Fruits

Conclusion: Environmental Cost Indicator

Now that we’ve looked at the different indicators, what does the aggregated indicator tell us?

The fruit with the lowest overall impact is the pear from Belgium, followed by the apple from Italy! Oranges from South America score slightly better than their European counterpart.

The product with the biggest overall environmental impact is the pear from South America. Its impact is almost twice as high as the impact of the second worst scorer, the orange from Spain!

Environmental Cost Indicator of Fruits
Environmental Cost Indicator of Fruits

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Overview of the comparison results

MKICO2unitLand Use*unitUse of net fresh waterunitlitersTransport to NL (km)method
AppleItaly0.0180.303kg0,22m2a crop eq.0.05m3501600truck
AppleSouth America0.0370.217kg0,18m2a crop eq.0.07m37013806ocean shipplus 150 km truck
OrangesSpain0.0460.457kg0,25m2a crop eq.0.10m31001700truck
OrangesSouth America0.0390.191kg0,23m2a crop eq.0.02m3207437ocean shipplus 150 km truck
PearBelgium0.0150.085kg0,17m2a crop eq.0.03m330150truck
PearSouth America0.0860.432kg0,48m2a crop eq.0.13m313011743ocean shipplus 150 km truck

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