What Impact Do Almonds Have on the Enviroment?
Feb 28 2020
Almonds are the second most sought-after nut on the planet, behind only peanuts (which technically aren’t actually a nut, but a legume) and they’ve enjoyed a recent resurgence in popularity due to a global health kick. Celebrities including Victoria Beckham and Kim Kardashian have touted the amazing benefits afforded by these small but delicious snacks, meaning they’re now more in demand than ever before.
Unfortunately, the environmental footprint of almond cultivation is not insignificant. For starters, the diminutive nuts consume a surprising amount of water for such a small foodstuff. Add to that the fact that the vast majority of almonds are cultivated in water-starved California and it becomes clear that they might be more trouble than they’re worth. Finally, the pesticides used to optimise almond yields is poison to the bees that are vital for cross-pollinating the crops, dealing another blow to a species that’s already under serious threat.
It takes around three-and-a-half litres of water to produce a single almond. Given that an estimated 82% of all almonds in the world are grown in California, it’s unsurprising that the industry there is a multibillion dollar one. The number of almond orchards throughout the state has doubled in the past two decades, providing a substantial boost to the local economy.
Unfortunately, the same beneficial effects are not reflected in the crop’s environmental impact. California is a famously drought-ridden state, having suffered one of the most severe and lengthy periods without rain in its history in the last decade. This places a great strain on a finite resource and upsets the delicate water-agriculture interface; Californian farmers are already tapping underground aquifers that took millennia to build up but are being depleted in a fraction of the time.
Meanwhile, irrigation water taken from rivers means that the fish, crustaceans and mammals which live in those waterways are starved of a habitat. What’s more, the monocultured natural of almond cultivation discourages biodiversity in the area, meaning local ecosystems on land (and the flora and fauna which inhabit them) have also suffered as a result of the almond boom.
Bees in decline
At the same time, the practice of spraying pesticides on almond plantations to deter pests has other unwanted side-effects. Almond trees require pollination in order to flourish, so vast armies of bees are often brought in to help with the process. However, the bees cannot cope with the substances sprayed on the crops and so, just like human armies sent off to war, many of them do not survive the ordeal.
This is grave news not just for the survival of bees themselves, but also myriad other species, since the deterioration of pollination habits can have serious repercussions for all manner of other plants and animals. Indeed, cultivation of almost all human crops (not just almonds) rely on pollinators to aid with the process, meaning that a drop-off in bee populations can have a keenly felt effect on food security, as well.
So should almonds be shunned altogether? Well, the nuts are a great source of protein, fibre and other important nutrients and when consumed in moderation, can form part of a healthy diet. However, those concerned about their almond footprint should look to buy only organically produced ones, which don’t employ the pesticides so dangerous to bees. Meanwhile, almond milk is far preferable to dairy – but oat milk and soy milk both represent more eco-friendly alternatives.
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