What's the carbon footprint of tomatoes?
Fruit or vegetable? Whichever side you're on, we can all agree that tomatoes are one of the UK’s most loved ingredients. But how much do you know about the carbon footprint of tomatoes and their impact on the planet?
Carbon Footprint of a Tomato
One medium tomato (80g) produces 230g CO₂e*
228% more than an apple
20% more than a half an avocado
8% less than an orange
87% less than a tuna fillet
equivalent to charging 28 smartphones
*CO₂e means carbon dioxide equivalent and measures total greenhouse gases
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Where do tomatoes come from?
In Britain, people eat around 500,000 tonnes of fresh tomatoes every year. That's roughly two classic tomatoes per person every week.
During spring and summer, tomatoes easily grow around the UK. Many green-fingered enthusiasts love growing tomatoes in their garden or on their balconies and window sills.
But when it comes to tomatoes we buy from the supermarket, large-scale farms do the work to help stock shelves and indulge our taste for tomatoes. For example, the largest tomato facility in the UK, Cornerways Nursery, currently produces around 140 million tomatoes every year!
Despite the impressive number of tomatoes produced annually by British farmers, the demand is so high that the UK still relies on imports from other countries.
The majority of imported tomatoes come from countries like Morocco, the Netherlands, and Spain. And it's big business, too. Statista valued these tomato imports into the UK at 451.3 million (GBP) in 2021.
Greenhouse gas emissions from tomato production
Most of the tomatoes eaten in the UK are grown in large greenhouses, either locally on British soil or abroad. These greenhouses require a lot of energy for heating to produce the number of tomatoes needed to meet everyday demand.
Other stages in the production of tomatoes also cause greenhouse gases to be released into the atmosphere. We use an analysis methodology called life cycle assessments (LCAs) to determine which greenhouse gases and how much gas is released.
Life cycle assessments of tomatoes show us the overall carbon footprint of tomatoes. They also show us which stages of tomato production emit the most greenhouse gases.
Tomatoes' carbon footprint from heating, transport and packaging
Commercially-farmed tomatoes are grown in greenhouses, which are usually heated to maintain a stable temperature. If the energy used to heat these greenhouses isn't renewable (i.e. comes from the sun, water or wind), greenhouse emissions (CO₂e) will be high.
Tomato packaging also contributes to the carbon footprint of tomatoes, although a lot less than farming and transportation. For example, when you buy canned tomatoes, they have been processed in a factory. The sorting, separating, heating, and storing processes for tomatoes all require energy and produce greenhouse gases.
As most tomatoes in British supermarkets are grown outside of the UK, they travel long distances to get to your home. As a result, supermarkets often transport tomatoes by temperature-controlled trucks to keep the produce cold. Cold-chain transportation trucks not only need fuel to run the engine for long distances but also to power the refrigerators.
Can you grow tomatoes in the UK?
Tomatoes grow readily in the UK. The British tomato season runs from June to October. This time is when tomatoes are naturally ripe and ready to harvest.
Some varieties of tomatoes can be grown outdoors. However, most tomatoes benefit from growing in a greenhouse or a warm conservatory. You can easily try growing tomato plants in your garden or home.
Tomatoes can be grown in the UK outside of the natural tomato season inside heated greenhouses. However, these tomatoes have a higher carbon footprint than in-season tomatoes. This is because heated greenhouses need lots of energy and produce significantly more greenhouse gases (CO₂e), even compared to the carbon footprint of transporting tomatoes from another country.
Are there other ways tomatoes impact the environment?
Although the carbon footprint of tomatoes is lower than many other ingredients, tomato production still impacts the environment in other ways.
Food waste. Food waste is a significant sustainability issue. Food standards for tomatoes mean that the supply chain throws a lot away before they even reach the supermarket. It's important to use what you buy and try to source locally or grow your own when possible.
Water use. A kilogram of fresh tomatoes needs 4 litres of water. Water stress is a problem in Almeria, Spain, where many of our tomatoes come from. The area relies on an underground water supply, a supply that is being used up fast for crop irrigation. There are ideas to use local seawater, but this takes time and planning.
Fertilisers. Farmers use pesticides and fertilisers to keep tomatoes pest-free and help them grow fast. But fertilisers harm the environment and climate by polluting waterways and degrading soil. There is a lot of talk in the industry about how they can solve this, but finding a solution that meets everyone's needs is challenging.
Land use. We often think of animal agriculture using lots of land. But the greenhouses used to grow tomatoes also take up a lot of space! In Spain, for example, the greenhouses used to grow tomatoes (and a few other fruits and vegetables) take up 26,000 hectares. That's roughly 10,000 football fields!
Tips for choosing more environmentally-friendly tomatoes
You can still enjoy tomatoes as part of a sustainable diet. Our main tip for eating tomatoes sustainably is to:
Grow your own. Enjoy fresh, perfectly ripe tomatoes from your own tomato plant. Caring for your tomato plant helps you appreciate the energy and resources that go into growing this delicious ingredient. A great way to raise awareness of, and reduce, food waste!
Choose fertiliser-free. Organic tomatoes are free from fertilisers. You can often pick up organic produce in your local supermarket or farm shops, but they come with a higher price tag. If you can afford to try organic, give it a go to reduce tomatoes' environmental impact from fertilisers and pesticides.
Sustainable recipes and substitutes for tomatoes
Enjoy the UK's tomato season with our Summer Tomato & Fennel Soup Recipe.