Do you know how many liters of water are used to produce the fruit we eat? When thinking about it, bear in mind not only the amount of water in the fruit you eat, but also how much water was needed to grow it.
The amount will vary widely depending on the type of fruit and the agricultural conditions under which it was produced. Crops planted and harvested in the right soil and climate and in their natural seasons consume much less water than out of season produce, which require large quantities of irrigation water. For example, according to Fábio Miranda, researcher at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA, acronym in Portuguese), 1 kg of off-season mango produced in Brazil’s semi-arid region in the country’s Northeast Region requires up to 450L of irrigation water, while other fruits, such as guava, papaya and water melon, require 400, 360, and 140L per kg respectively.
According to the specialist, in-season fruits generally don’t require irrigation, which means that buying seasonal fruits can help save water. So, on World Water Day (March 22), you now know that a simple change in attitudes towards food purchasing (i.e., buying fruits that are in-season in your region) can help reduce the hydrological impacts of food production, which is good for the environment and, consequently, good for us all.
Not only do fruits and vegetables grown out of season use more water, but also more inputs, such as pesticides and fertilizers. This makes production more expensive, explaining why in season fruit and vegetables are generally cheaper and more abundant than out of season produce. In fact, this is one way of identifying whether a product is in season or not, because availability will be greater and prices will be lower than usual.
Irrigation accounts for most of Brazil’s water consumption, given that agriculture is one of the country’s main economic activities. According to Brazil’s National Water Agency, agriculture used 969,000L of water per second in 2016, which is equivalent to 67.2% of the country’s total water consumption and double that of the second-placed activity (urban water supply), which used around 488,300L per second.
Apart from consuming large quantities of energy and resources, the maintenance and operation of irrigation systems requires major infrastructure and technology. According to Miranda, however, the performance efficiency of Brazil’s irrigation systems is generally low (around only 59%) and water losses can occur due to an array of factors, including the use of irrigation methods that are unsuitable for the type of crop, area or climate and poor time and irrigation period management.
These figures for agricultural water consumption may appear daunting to the consumer. Given such huge levels of consumption, we might ask ourselves: are we as individuals capable of making a difference? In this respect, it is important to realize that out of season fruit and vegetable production only exists because there is consumer demand for these products. This means that the use of water resources for irrigation can be reduced if consumers buy fruit and vegetables produced in their natural growing season, without the need for the intensive use of inputs and technology.
It is also important to remember that we influence the consumption behavior of our family members and friends, meaning that – without the slightest of effort – we can multiply the impact of our consumption practices. If we each make a conscious effort to tell our friends and family what we read in this article and encourage them to change their behavior, this will have a “multiplier effect” and the impact of our sustainable consumption practices will be even greater!
In a country as vast as Brazil, the growing season for different crops varies according to region. The natural growing season for mangos, for example, is October to December in the Southeast and year-round in the Northeast, while cashews are naturally abundant from August to December in states like Ceará, Piauí and Rio Grande do Norte. Also in the Northeast, hog plum is harvested between March and June, while figs are harvested in the South generally between December and April.
Not only does buying seasonal produce significantly reduce the demand for water, but it also leads to an automatic decline in the use of fossil fuels, as the distance travelled to transport products to the supermarket shelves is much shorter. This in turn leads to a reduction in GHG emissions – the main cause of global warming and climate change, which poses significant threats to the environment and human well-being – and thus the overall environmental impact of the product.
The transport of fruits and vegetables over long distances also requires refrigeration, which in turn consumes more energy, thus increasing their environmental impact and making the final product more expensive. The cherries that are part of our Christmas dinner for example are imported from temperate countries and are pricey for Brazilians. So, if you are a fan of cherries, you don’t need to stop eating them, but you could maybe eat less and combine dessert with fruits that are in-season in your region.
Fruits transported over shorter distances are not only cheaper, but also less vulnerable to damage during transportation, thus reducing waste and making them more attractive to customers on the supermarket shelves. Fresher fruit are also more tasty and nutritious. But how can you tell if fruits are in season? The lists made available to consumers can sometimes contain conflicting information, because natural growing seasons may vary from year to year (due to climate) and from region to region, and can end up confusing the consumer. It is best to keep an eye out for low prices and increased availability on the supermarket shelves, both of which are indicators of in-season produce.
If you are willing to always purchase seasonal fruits and vegetables, there is a good chance that you will find delicious in-season produce at a reasonable price and with a lower negative environmental impact. Change your attitudes – it’s simple and delicious!