I was speaking with a friend of mine the other night and we came across a topic that has been planted in all of our minds for a couple of years now: Almonds are sucking up the precious water in California. According to some Californian college students, almonds are hella bad for the environment — an opinion voiced by The Atlantic’s “The Dark Side of Almond Use.” Almonds are running our rivers dry and forcing wildlife to compete for water. Even The Stanford Daily has brought a taste of almond shaming to campus. If demand for almonds, especially considering the trend of increasing preferences for almond milk, continues to rise, we might as well rename the state Arrakis.
What if, although larger farms may consume an almond a leg in their share of water usage, these nuts are not as insidious as they seem? What if, despite it being used for nut milk, almonds are not the smoking gun of water shortage in California?
Some context: It takes a gallon of water to produce one almond. Eighty-two percent of the world’s almonds are grown in California due to the state’s amicable climate. Almond growers use about 10 percent of the state’s water supply every year (given plus/minus 2 to 3 percent depending on rain and snowfall). Additionally, an almond tree (with a lifespan of 25 years) must continue to be watered, even if it is not producing almonds — which keeps farmers from growing other crops. California’s mountain snowpack, the main source of the Central Valley’s water, is at 5 percent of its historical average for this time of year. Since 2013, almonds have become California’s second largest cash crop, which has soured grape farmers because grapes are no longer the second most fruitful cash crop. Lastly, according to the 2014 Almond Almanac, almonds are America’s favorite snack.
Here is the pitch: Almonds are not the enemy.
Almonds do use a large amount of water, but they use far less water than many other products California produces for the nation. (Here is an interactive tool where you can compare products’ water usage). Almonds use less water, for example, than the production of dairy or beef. Supplanting a glass of California’s happy cows’ milk with almond milk is a net gain for the environment.
If people were so concerned with saving water by watching what they eat, there ought to be more advocacy for sugar beets — a crop that requires relatively little water to grow. Almonds are grown in shells or hulls, but farmers use the outer covering of almonds as food rich in fiber for livestock — which actually alleviates the necessity to grow alfalfa and hay (the crop that consumes the most water in California). Also, almond farmers in the Central Valley have committed to finding new ways to decrease water waste and, in 2014, brought in $11 billion to California. Coupled with the composition of almond farmers (88 percent are family farmers), that money is legitimately being brought into California, where those families will spend what they make.
Almond farmers are working toward a sustainable California. As each acre is valued over $6,000, farmers would like to continue the success of California agriculture. Through innovative irrigation practices, including using recycled water and drip irrigation, growers have reduced the amount of water they use per pound of almonds by 33 percent in the past 20 years.
California can expect an additional 11 million residents in the next two decades, and the questions are and will be about how all of California can improve water usage and what we can do to preserve water. Given those two motivations, I say, go nuts! Let’s not use almonds as a scapegoat. Instead, let’s enjoy the snack that provides 20 grams of protein per cup while informing ourselves on irrigation techniques.
Contact James Stephens at james214 ‘at’ stanford.edu.