Home » Tree-Grown Foods: Imported Fruits Are More Sustainable Than We Think

Tree-Grown Foods: Imported Fruits Are More Sustainable Than We Think

Imported tropical fruits are perceived as notoriously “bad for the planet". Especially purchasing air-imported fruits is seen as a mini "eco crime". But here is the article that you can use to put an end to the guilt-tripping! Eating a high-fruit diet with loads of tropical fruits is not only healthy for you but also healthier for the environment than most other diets. Here's why...

Eating tropical fruits is not eco-unfriendly

Adopting a fruit-based diet can be frustrating when living outside the tropics. We just need those ripe, nutritious tropical fruits for health, but they come from such a distance that they arrive unripe and unsavory if not transported by air. But then, we don’t want to damage our planet… now here comes the unexpected good news: they are not bad for the environment!

While we all know that trees will save the world, tree-grown foods need to gain the deserved eco-friendly reputation they should get! More fruits, more trees, right? But let’s elaborate on why a fruit diet (even if based on imported fruits) is highly likely more sustainable than a standard diet.

Indian sapodilla

I have asked an environmental and sustainability scientist: how eco-friendly are tropical fruits and air-imported fruits? Here is what she has found:

Why imported fruits are an environmental-friendly food

Tree-grown foods do not receive the eco-friendly reputation they deserve! Especially if you buy tropical fruits from small farmers (note that small farmers often do not have the financial possibilities to get themselves certified as organic farmers, even if they produce organically), or even better wildly grown fruits. We just love good News!

But let’s see why imported fruits are no eco-unfriendly:

9 Ways Eating Imported Tropical Fruit Helps the Planet

1. Land Use

Tropical fruits are primarily tree-grown fruits. Trees grow vertically, which means producing tropical fruit requires less land than the production of many other foods. 

2. Biodiversity

Tropical fruits grown through agroforestry promote biodiversity by reducing habitat loss for native species, creating habitat for pollinators, and maintaining ecological connectivity. (Jansen et al., 2020)

3. Carbon-Fixing

Trees have vast carbon sequestration potential! Compared to shrubs and other smaller perennial plants, trees have a significantly greater carbon storage potential that increases with their growth. This means that planting the right species in their optimal habitat can help mitigate negative environmental impacts from global emissions and improve air quality. (Jansen et al., 2020

4. Water Usage

Imported fruits and veggies use less water than production methods for standard animal-based foods. Since plants grow most efficiently in their native habitats, it is likely that imported fruits are more water-efficient than domestically grown versions.  Using less water helps aquifers recharge and conserves energy. 

5. Chemical Pollution

Imported fruits need fewer synthetic compounds (pesticides, herbicides, hormones, etc.) to grow well. Since those compounds persist in the environment and wreak havoc as they move through the ecosystem, less is so much more. 

6. Carbon Emissions

Air-freighting tropical fruit does cause some of the highest carbon emissions compared to other production and shipping options, but it does not cause the greatest net emissions. 

Comparing air-imported tropical fruit to domestically grown tropical fruits shipping by road, the net emissions of growing in ideal climate and shipping by air are likely less than net emissions of growing in non-ideal climate and trucking across country (see this article at treehugger.com here).

This study breaks global emissions down into percentages by sector and provides comparison for air-freight and boat-shipping. Flying produced 1.9% of global emissions, and only 19% of that was air-freight (as opposed to passenger). So, air-freight emissions would be 0.361% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. In contrast, shipping by boat produced 1.7% of global emissions. Generally, the carbon dioxide emitted by burning jet fuel has an increased negative impact due to its location in the atmosphere, but the impact of pollution from ocean liners is similarly compounded by direct emission to the ocean (see here).

7. Energy Use

Food production uses energy at each stage of the process. For livestock operations, energy is used to build and maintain infrastructure, cultivate forage, transport animals to market, process and package meat, ship to the consumer market, keep refrigerated, transport to consumer’s home or business, and to cook.

For fruits, energy is used to prepare fields, build and maintain any infrastructure, tend during growth, the process after growth, package, ship, ripen (if applicable), transport to the consumer market, and transport to the consumer’s home. Since the fruit process is simpler, there are fewer stages that require energy. 

8. Water Cycling

Trees and forests are important vectors for the terrestrial transport and ground storage of water, and consequently, they influence precipitation patterns in the water cycle. Through this role, tropical fruit trees provide invaluable ecosystem services for water security and quality. (Jansen et al., 2020)

9. Soil Health

Tropical fruits grown in agroforest systems improve and maintain soil health, which negates one of the primary negative impacts of monoculture tropical fruit production: deforestation to plant in viable, non-degraded soil. (Jansen et al., 2020)

Understanding sustainability better

Sustainability is multi-faceted

The environmental goodness of something is a function of the total resource use and net impact of each stage of the process of creating, preparing, delivering, and using that thing. Sustainability is a multi-faceted trait that depends on water, land, synthetic compound, energy use, nutrient loading, pollution, emissions, and waste. 

Since each step in the life cycle of a food uses resources and creates impacts, determining the sustainability of any given food is complicated. Considering so many variables can make it difficult to determine which choices are the best for our personal and global health, but having many variables to consider can enable us to budget positive and negative impacts. 

Sustainability Is a Spectrum

Since sustainability is multi-faceted, there are varying degrees of sustainability or unsustainability. The most sustainable food would be produced by doing everything right, and the least sustainable food would be produced by doing everything wrong. 

It is much more likely that food production methods will include some sustainable and some unsustainable factors. 

Sustainability Is Available

The sustainability of our food is less determined by what and more determined by how. Anyone food group or type can be produced through eco-friendly or eco-hostile methods. Even animal-based protein and dairy can be more sustainable than vegan diets when livestock is raised through sustainable methods, and plant-based foods are not. Conversely, a plant-based diet that includes air-imported tropical fruit can be more eco-friendly than a local omnivore diet. 

In life sciences, optimal conditions tend to favor heterogeneity. It’s better to have a mix of a variety of animals in a community, a mix of genes in a population, and a mix of energy sources. Agriculture is no exception. Raising a single type of animal or plant will create a draw on the resources in that location, concentrate waste products, and increase the likelihood of problematic diseases/pests. That is why permacultures and food forests start to gain more attention.

In market situations, profitability tends to drive decision making, and profitability tends to lead to mass-production and resource/impact imbalance. Mass-produced anything—be it fruit, vegetable, or animal—is going to be unsustainable one way or another.

Environmental scientists have been studying “best practices” for producing food that optimize efficiency and minimize negative impacts, and the number of farming operations using those methods is increasing. More sustainable farms = more sustainable produce options.

Tropical Fruit Can Be Sustainable

Once you understand that sustainability is a multi-variable function dependent on the activity’s balance of resource use and impact, a spectrum of many degrees, and is dependent on “how” not “what”, you are equipped to identify your most eco-friendly options.

Keeping these principles in mind, here are 9 ways choosing sustainable imported tropical fruit can also mean choosing the environment.  

Conclusion: Tree-grown foods are good for the planet!

Tree-based food production using tropical fruit species has the potential to be transformative and integral in the restoration of tropical landscapes that are vital for the health of the global environment. (Jansen et al., 2020)

The factors that determine how eco-friendly, wasteful, harmful, or helpful a food is are variable and sometimes complex. Consumer-willingness to purchase more sustainable food is critical to encouraging and facilitating the increase of sustainable small-scale operations. When you understand and purchase responsibly sourced, produce, choosing imported tropical fruit can even increase the sustainability of your diet. 

You can choose produce that has been raised, processed, and delivered through “best practice” methods. Research the sourcing of your tropical produce, and buy from small-scale, agroforestry, eco-friendly farmers.

If you want to know more about a high-fruit diet for your health and nature check out this article:

Read More About Fruit-Based Diets Here


  1. P. Paster, Ask Pablo: What’s the impact of imported tropical fruit? Treehugger (2018) (available at https://www.treehugger.com/ask-pablo-whats-the-impact-of-imported-tropical-fruit-4856815). (link)
  2. K. Dopelt, P. Radon, N. Davidovitch, Environmental effects of the livestock industry: The relationship between knowledge, attitudes, and behavior among students in Israel. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health16, 1359 (2019).  (link)
  3. O. Young, Environmental impact: Boat vs. Plane Emissions. Treehugger (2021) (available at https://www.treehugger.com/what-is-greener-boat-vs-plane-emissions-5185547). (link)
  4. Foodrevolutionnetwork, What you eat can impact climate change! see 9 foods that harm the planet and 11 foods that can help save it. Food Revolution Network (2022) (available at https://foodrevolution.org/blog/food-and-climate-change/). (link)
  5. M. Jansen et al., Food for thought: The underutilized potential of tropical tree‐sourced foods for 21st Century Sustainable Food Systems. People and Nature2, 1006–1020 (2020), doi:10.1002/pan3.10159. (link)
  6. H. Ritchie, Sector by sector: Where do global greenhouse gas emissions come from? Our World in Data (2020) (available at https://ourworldindata.org/ghg-emissions-by-sector#licence). (Link)
  7. Food’s big water footprint. Water Footprint Calculator (2022) (available at https://www.watercalculator.org/footprint/foods-big-water-footprint/). (link)
  8. K. Ackers, K. Hanson, H. de Gruchy, H. Thomas, S. Worsley, What does food sustainability really mean? Eco & Beyond (2021) (link)
  9. G. Vaidyanathan, What humanity should eat to stay healthy and save the planet. Nature News (2021) (available at https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-03565-5). (link)
  10. 8 Sustainable Tropical Fruits & 3 to avoid – organic authority (available at https://www.organicauthority.com/buzz-news/sustainable-tropical-fruits). (link)

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"We are frugivores - specialized fruit-eaters!" It was passion at first sight when I came across the intriguing concept that humans are adapted to a high-fruit diet, similar to chimpanzees...

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