tl;dr: Almonds are not as awesome as you think they are. Stop drinking almond milk.
There are now many different almond-related products. Years ago, almond butter would never have appeared on grocery store shelves. Almond flour was also not a commonly found item. Almond milk, the adored preferred creamer for the vast numbers of boutique cafes, only found popularity in the early 2000s here in the US. It is now so popular that it has surpassed soy milk as the top plant-based milk and is expected to be a $13 billion global market by 2025.
Since almonds are relatively small, in order to have a multi-billion-dollar market, lots of trees need to be planted. This is what happened in California, which now produces 57% of the entire world’s supply of this nut. In 1995, California only had 418,000 acres devoted to almond groves which produced 370 million pounds. In 2020, about 1,250,000 acres grow almonds and they produce 2.8 billion pounds of them. Almonds are now the third most valuable commodity in the state, behind only dairy and grapes.
There are several problems with the booming popularity of almonds. First is that while we can have a lot of pride that California produces so many almonds, it also means that if you live in other parts of the world, it takes energy to ship these products to you. Super-localized foods are not necessarily good options for consistent consumption. Of course, there are foods that cannot be grown everywhere. Blue crabs don’t do well in Kentucky for fairly obvious reasons. Oranges really struggle in Minnesota. However, we have much more diversity in producers of those goods than we do for almonds. If you want an almond, it’s pretty much coming from California, Spain, or Australia. This probably means that the almond travelled thousands of miles to get to your local store.
Most plant-based products are seasonal foods. Almonds are no exception. Harvest time for almonds in California is from August to October. Yet, almonds are available all year round. How is this possible? For other goods, retailers simply go to another part of the world where the produce is fresh. If almonds are mainly grown in California, then the only way to provide almonds all year long is to spend a lot of energy keeping those almonds fresh. Not a great use of electricity, is it?
Some of you are probably waiting for the elephant in the room regarding why I have been railing against almonds for years now. That issue is water. Almonds not only take a lot of water to produce, but they also tend to do best in places where water isn’t exactly abundant. Talk about a double whammy! If you have any almonds laying around, please go get one. Hold it in the palm of your hand. That one little nut took over 3 gallons of water to produce. Start doing the math and you’ll see that almond farming takes almost 3.5 billion cubic meters of water a year. Want a reference point? The city of Los Angeles consumes less than a billion cubic meters of water. If California were abundant with water, this might not necessarily be as awful as it truly is. However, severe and extended drought conditions have made water scarcity a hot-button issue for the entire southwestern parts of the US.
The almond industry is hitting back with a pretty weak claim. They are stating that almonds don’t really take more water to produce than other tree nuts. Technically, that is true. Walnuts take way more water to produce. Here is the problem, though. Walnuts, acorns, chestnuts, etc. can be grown in other places besides a dry-ass Central Valley!!!!!! We can spread the consumption over larger areas, not concentrate it into a region that is forcing farmers to take water that is necessary for other needs. We have basically allowed a select group of farmers to take whatever they want water-wise and are demanding more assistance to satisfy the increasing global demand that they helped foster. I don’t want to prevent someone from making an honest living, and if almonds were more sustainable, they absolutely should be produced and consumed with joy. Unfortunately, the impact of expanding this industry is going to be very harmful to all of us, not just residents of California.
Many of the people who consume almond milk, butter, and flour are self-proclaimed environmentalists. They might even insist that the coffee shop they frequent do away with plastic straws and cups because it’s not good for the planet. Individuals like this often cause me to shake my head in sadness, because while their intentions are good, their actions aren’t congruent with what they claim to champion. We haven’t even covered the devastating impact that almond-related pesticide use has caused, or the impact of over-using the commercial bee supply and damaging them. We haven’t covered biodiversity challenges or the cascade impacts of monoculture. Salmon are struggling in California. Do almonds shoulder some of the blame for this? Actually, yeah, they do.
Certain things get labelled as really bad for the environment. Oil, plastic, and beef are leading contenders. Why almonds have escaped this labelling is very difficult to answer. What I do know is that consumers can shape markets and demand, and the most sustainable decision right now is to encourage almond growers to start converting their groves into something far less water-intensive. If someone is drinking almond milk because they don't like promoting the dairy industry, then the best solution is actually oat milk. Businesses are driven by supply and demand. If we want to force CA almond growers to substitute their product, then we must lower demand. Make them grow produce that is native to the environment and far less water-intensive to grow. Prickly pear cactus could be the next big thing, if only we could figure out how to make a trendy milk out of it.