One of the most intriguing trade-offs I’ve encountered of late relates to almonds, and almond milk in particular. First and foremost, almonds are a very healthy food. If you could only eat one thing, almonds would perhaps be your best choice. And like so many of us, I’ve uncovered the upside of almond milk, a great dairy substitute that really tastes good. But it’s one with huge water implications. Can we drink almond milk without guilt?
Technically, almonds are the seed of a fruit of an almond tree. They are referred to as nuts. They’re loaded with nutrients that combat respiratory disorders, constipation, coughs, and heart problems. They’re also loaded with minerals including manganese and copper, Vitamin E and fiber, phosphorous, and riboflavin. Almonds are high in mono-saturated fat, low in saturated fat, and have no cholesterol. Their healthy fats help you lose weight and they taste great.
As a result, almond production is booming. We’re eating ten times as many almonds as we did in the 1960s. “Almonds are the new peanuts.” Almonds grew from a $1.2 billion market in 2002 to a $4.8 billion market in 2012. The average American now eats about two pounds of almonds per year, twice the amount consumed a decade ago, while the vast majority of almond production is exported. Growth of exports to Hong Kong and China more than quadrupled between 2007 and 2013.
Today, almond production is the king of California agriculture. It’s one of the highest-value crops from a rancher’s perspective. Its acreage has doubled since 2005. According to the Pacific Institute, almonds generate $1,200 of value per acre foot of water each year. Alfalfa production – California’s number one absolute use of water — on the other hand, is both intensive and unproductive, generating only $175 for every acre foot of water used. Rice generates $374/acre foot.
But there is a downside: Almond production consumes more water than all exterior landscape watering in the Golden State. Similarly, almond production uses more water than all indoor water use in California. Almond production makes up 13% of California’s 7.9 million acres of irrigated farmland. This production requires 9% of the State’s water for agriculture, 3.30 million acre feet of water per year, or 3.5 billion cubic meters. Remarkably, about the same amount of water is used to grow almonds in California as is used by the Los Angeles and San Francisco metro areas combined.
California is in its fourth year of drought and with supplies dwindling, every form of water use is on the table for conservation and efficiency. The biggest use by far, is agriculture. It requires 80% of the State’s water supplies. While a massive proportion, California is the nation’s vegetable garden. The Golden State produces major percentages of the nation’s produce. Pre-drought, California grew 99% of the nation’s almonds and walnuts, 98% of all pistachios, 95% of all broccoli, 92% strawberries, 91% grapes, 90% tomatoes, and 74% of all lettuce.In a time of drought, almonds and other agricultural products have been in the spotlight, even vilified. It takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow an almond. Almonds’ defendants claim that their trees are no more thirsty than other fruit and nut trees. It takes 4.6 gallons to grow a walnut. And farmers have replaced annual crops like tomatoes and melons in favor of perennial almond orchards that can’t lay fallow in drought years.
The crop that uses the most water in California is alfalfa, largely grown as feed for cattle and dairy cows, irrigating pastures. There’s a lot of embedded water in beef and hamburgers, in California that’s 2.7 trillion gallons a year. In terms of acre-feet water, alfalfa to feed cattle tops the list consuming 5.2 million acre feet per year.