Almonds, California’s Frenemy

Photo by Colin Bedson

Like something out of a horror movie, water conservationists, nut aficionados and people everywhere were shocked to learn the truth about our beloved almond. They use a mind boggling amount of water to produce. Most recent estimates find that almonds use not one, or two, but three gallons of water to produce a single almond.

The almond originally hailed from the deserts and lower mountain regions of South West Asia where they adapted to mildly wet winters, arid summers and thus, able to thrive in droughts and poor soils. It ventured across Europe and eventually found its place in the United States, specifically California’s Central Valley, whose climate was perfect match for a blossoming almond business.

The almond that came to the golden coast and debuted in the 1850s was still the original drought-tolerant tree. So, it was grown on hillsides without irrigation following the ways of European growers.

From the 1920s to1950s, growers found that they could double almond yields by irrigating their orchards and planting their trees in deeper, nutrient rich soil. Almond growing was further revolutionized by attaching the roots (through a process called grafting) of a different, more water absorbent plant so that the trees could take up more water to produce more almonds.

Coming back to present day, California is now an exporter of 80% of the world’s almonds, accounting for a quarter of California’s farm exports and bringing in $21.5 Billion to California’s economy in 2015 alone.

Photo: WikiMedia Commons

But it’s not all profits and bottomless almond milk: the growth of this agricultural sector has recently been put under scrutiny as California faces droughts and land scarcity. As more acreage is converted for agricultural land use, water use increases in proportion, adding further stress to limited resources. A study of land use in California that started out as an unsuspecting inquiry into bees, reported a shocking discovery: in a seven year period (from 2007-2014) 650 thousand acres of wetlands, grasslands, forests and pre existing crops were being converted to almond orchards. It was estimated that these land transitions would result in a water increase of 270 billion gallons of water per growing season. In combination with California’s notorious drought plaguing the state from 2011-2017, discussion over the controversial almond became heated as many began to turn a wary eye in light of this new study.

Almond growers defended their orchards by asserting their industry’s improvements in technology and water efficiency, and also by naming other crops as the more villainous, thirsty culprit, like alfalfa (which is used to feed cattle).

Conservationists hit back with devastating comparative statistics about how almonds use more water in a year than the entire city of Los Angeles does in three years.

Amidst all this finger-pointing, how can we make sense of this almond predicament? A new study suggests looking at water usage in the context of nutrition and economic value.

“Water-Indexed Benefits and Impacts of California Almonds.” Ecological Indicators, Elsevier, 9 Apr. 2018

According to their findings, almonds have the highest water footprint of all California crops but is the second highest ranked in nutrition, just behind Pistachios.

The study also finds that while almonds have the highest water footprint, it is the most economically valuable of all the crops.

Despite these intriguing findings, the study notes a lack of sustainability implications or environmental and social impacts. This includes an absence of analysis on long term water use effects and a need for further study of agricultural methods and its impact on climate, ecology, and communities that may be vulnerable to water stress. Some may question the ethics of exploiting limited water resources for profitability and others may argue that almonds are the more nutritionally productive food, but what is becoming more clear is that water conservation is a dynamic issue which requires dynamic solutions from diverse perspectives.

Given all this nutty information, it is important to note that plant based diets still have less of an environmental impact as well as less water and energy use.

Remember to stay informed, stay curious, and keep conserving water. Also, don’t drive yourself crazy doing mental math to figure out how much water was used for your serving of almonds… it’s 69 gallons by the way.

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