Are almonds destroying the earth?

Admittedly I feel a little guilty when preparing foods that require so many almonds. I’ve baked many dessert recipes that showcase almond flour. Not only do pricey almonds and their derived ingredients put a dent in my wallet, but also take a bite out of my conscience. Here’s why:

As low-carb fads like the paleo diet gain popularity, so does the consumption of almonds. With the explosion of almond butter, almond milk, almond flour and novelty foods made with almonds, like macarons, it’s no wonder that the supply is struggling to keep up with demand. The increased production for the nuts requires costly labor to create a suitable environment for their growth, at least in the United States. Although they are native to southwest Asia, California produces 80 percent of the world’s almonds. In fact, in 2011 almonds knocked grapes out of the water as the state’s leading crop industry, and the nut just keeps getting more popular.

So, what does it take to supply the globe with the trendy health food that has become the staple of so many diets? Thousands of acres of modified landscape, which includes an artificial water supply in a time of drought and a seasonal shipment of bees from across the country.

According to the Reveal podcast episode, Water Wars, almonds are one of the main contributors to California’s inequitable distribution of water. During California’s water crisis, not only is our natural resource becoming a scarce commodity, salmon have even fought for water to survive, but the process of irrigating and pumping water into crops is creating an environment ripe for disaster. According to Reveal,”farmers are pumping up enormous amounts of groundwater to keep their crops alive. This is taking a serious toll on the land, which has been deflating steadily – like a leaky air mattress.”

As corporate farming potentially sacrifices future land use and water reserves for a crop that makes millions in profits for Big Agriculture, it also employs costly methods of sustaining crops by importing bees. In 2016 bees were added to the endangered species list because they are declining in numbers due to stress, parasites and pesticides. Although it’s not unusual to import bees to pollinate plants, Planet Money provides a good look at how it’s done for almond farming. In brief, bees are raised in Louisiana then driven cross-country without stopping, to an orchard in California, where they will work hard to pollinate thousands of almond blossoms. This is a timely  procedure that has to be executed with military precision. The bees cannot be disturbed by stopping the vehicle, since they will try to escape.  And who can blame them for seeking freedom? Many of them die in transit.

There are lot of questions as to whether or not almond production is harming the environment. Many argue that almonds are still more sustainable than meat production.  I suppose only time will tell. In the meantime, I can’t help but think twice about the next nut I eat.

Below, the not so environmentally conscious almond butter cookies.