If your barista scowls at you when you order a latte with almond milk because almond growing consumes massive amounts of water, it's time to arm yourself with the facts!
A friend recently related a conversation she’d had with her barista at a well-known coffee chain. The barista confided that she bristles when her customers order almond milk for their lattes because “growing almonds wastes so much water.”
You may have heard similar things about almonds and their negative impact on the environment. For example, you might have heard that it takes a gallon of water to produce a single almond.
Perhaps you've been avoiding almonds and almond milk out of concern about water usage. But, as is so often the case, there’s a little more to this story.
Perhaps, like my friend’s barista, you have been avoiding almonds and almond milk out of concern about water usage. But, as is so often the case, there’s a little more to this story.
How much water does it take?
It’s true that almonds are a very water-intensive crop. But all nuts are water-intensive crops. If we were all to switch to pistachio milk or walnut milk, prompting farmers to start growing more of those nuts instead of almonds, we’d still be using about the same amount of water.
The non-dairy alternatives that have the lowest water footprint are soy and oat.
According to data published in the June 2018 issue of the journal Science, the non-dairy alternatives that have the lowest water footprint are soy and oat. But nut milks still require significantly less water to produce than cow’s milk. And in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, almond milk may actually be one of the better choices, because almond trees trap more CO2 in their leaves than other crops.
But getting back to water issues: The reason that almonds use such a large share of California’s water supply is that they make up such a large share of California’s agricultural economy.
Why California is the world's biggest almond producer
The growing conditions in California are ideal for almonds. Almonds are also a very high-value crop—farmers can earn far more per acre growing almonds than any other crop. Worldwide demand for almonds has also skyrocketed in the last two decades, in part due to sustained campaigns by industry groups to promote the health benefits of almonds.
In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, almond milk may actually be one of the better choices, because almond trees trap more CO2 in their leaves than other crops.
Commodity groups that support almond growers have spent millions of dollars funding research into almonds’ effects on cholesterol, appetite, blood sugar, body weight, and more ... all in an effort to convince consumers that almonds are a super healthy food.
And it worked! Although our consumption of other nuts has stayed relatively steady, our intake of almonds has quadrupled over the last half-century. In addition to eating more almonds, we’re buying more almond butter, topping our salads with almonds, and baking with almond flour. And even though almond milk doesn’t really deliver the same benefits as almonds, it is also perceived as being very healthy. For consumers who want to avoid both dairy and soy, almond milk has been the go-to choice.
Worldwide, almond consumption is increasing by about 10% every year. As the demand for almonds has grown, hundreds of thousands of acres of California farmland have been converted over to almond farming.
California is running out of water
Unfortunately, California has also been experiencing a historic mega-drought. So far, in the Western U.S., the 21st century has been the driest stretch in over a thousand years. As Californians nervously eye their dwindling fresh water supply, almond growers are suddenly in the cross-hairs for using up more than their fair share.
More of California's precious water supply is used to grow alfalfa to feed cattle than to grow almonds.
But switching to other less water-intensive crops would have serious economic impacts. Almonds use a lot of water, but they also pump an enormous amount of money into the local and regional economy. Converting almond groves to lettuce or strawberry farms would use less water but would also take billions of dollars of revenue out of the system. Besides, according to data published by the Pacific Institute, more of California's precious water supply is used to grow alfalfa to feed cattle than to grow almonds.
Almond growers are reducing water use
Finally, no one is more invested in a sustainable solution than almond growers themselves. If they can’t (or can’t afford to) irrigate their almond groves, they go out of business. Consequently, they are working hard on programs to reduce water use. And they have made quite a bit of progress.
Over the past 20 years, California almond growers have cut the amount of water they use by a third, largely by investing in more efficient irrigation systems. They’ve pledged to cut water use by another 20% by the year 2025.
The bottom line
Almonds use up a lot of California’s water supply simply because they grow so many almonds there. But they also generate more revenue and nutrition per gallon of water than most other crops. If you’re concerned about the water footprint of your latte, soy or oat milk would be the best choice, followed by rice milk, almond milk, and lastly, cow’s milk.