Is it nuts to eat almonds?

Almonds may be everyone’s favourite healthy snack—but they’re proving terrible for the environment



Who doesn’t love almonds? Salted and roasted with just enough olive oil to make them glisten, they’re a perfect snack. Plus, they’re low in saturated fats, high in fibre and packed with protein. No wonder demand is on the rise—from emerging markets in China to Canada, where we rate as one of the highest per-capita consumers. Once a treat for special occasions, they’re sold at Whole Foods and 7-Eleven, raw or roasted or processed into milks and butters.

But now, a growing movement is asking: Is it nuts to eat almonds? Native to the Middle East and Asia, almonds are today the product of intense monoculture in California’s Central Valley, where more than 80 per cent of the world’s supply is harvested. In the past 10 years alone, the crop has doubled to almost two billion pounds; the landmass devoted to almonds now accounts for nearly 323,700 hectares. Both are being blamed by some environmentalists for contributing to no fewer than three current crises: the killing of huge colonies of honeybees, the deaths in droves of wild salmon, and record-breaking droughts.

Almond trees need three basic things to thrive: warm, temperate conditions in winter; plenty of water, especially during summer; and bees to pollinate the blossoms—each nut we eat has been kissed by a honeybee. That’s all fine and well in a Mediterranean valley with a naturally diversified landscape that might include small farms, other fruit trees and vegetable crops.

But, in the Central Valley, where orchards were first planted more than 100 years ago, the scene is more like something out of a high-concept Luc Besson flick than a Van Gogh landscape. Save the absence of frost, the entire process is manufactured. California’s almond trees have always needed heavy irrigation—a problem, given shortages of aquifers and reserves. Natural waterways that once sustained plentiful fish stocks have been diverted for almond groves. Reports of dead salmon floating in shallow rivers prompted a late-August emergency measure to divert water to the Klamath River, where the fish spawn. They’re saved this year, but it’s an ongoing battle between fish and farmers for available water. In its last annual report, the powerful Almond Board of California acknowledges “the mind-bogglingly complex ground and surface water challenges,” and maintains that water usage has declined significantly with new strategies. Still, there clearly isn’t enough to go around.

Perhaps the oddest situation, and the one with the most far-reaching consequences, takes place each year around Valentine’s Day, when more than a million honeybees—over half of the U.S.’s tame (as opposed to wild) population—are transported into the Golden State to pollinate the blossoms. They’re fed a high-octane sugar diet to do the unnatural Herculean task, which lasts weeks. The simple reason: The valley has no honeybees. Without other crops, there’s nothing for them to eat the rest of the year.

Beekeepers call it the “bee bordello.” Michael Pollan, who has campaigned against the almond industry, underscores concerns that chemical exposure makes bees prone to disease; in 2013, as many as 25 per cent of the insects were found damaged or dead on the job, according to the USDA. Questions are being raised about whether the pesticides being used are the source of destruction.“There are mites, funguses, viruses, parasites, diseases,” says David Suzuki Foundation’s Jode Roberts, a beekeeper on the side. “All of these different stressors on bees have come about, largely because we’re intermingling all these hives.”

“The problem with the honeybees is a monoculture problem,” Pollan said in an email interview, noting that we depend on bees for one in every three bites of food we eat, and citing the almond industry specifically.

Yet, not only are almonds California’s top agricultural export, the price keeps rising. Add to this the trend for almond milk as a dairy or soy alternative. In his column “Lay off the almond milk, you ignorant hipsters,” Mother Jones columnist Tom Philpott writes. “Given that it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond in California . . . drenching the finished product in yet more water seems insane.” Peanuts, anyone?

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Is it nuts to eat almonds?

  1. Most honey bee LOSSES can be contributed to insecticides. The chemical companies are in denial of this (of course)
    Our family has stopped buying nuts of whatever variety in bulk. Sometimes we can buy a small package,
    from a “Quality” Brand.
    About one in four nuts ,of whatever variety and price ( of many brands)..almond, walnut, Brazil nuts are RANCID! YUK!!!
    California agriculture is heading for a crash.Greed destroys ANY industry in our “modern world” after a while.

  2. Almonds aren’t the problem……Death Valley conditions, no natural bees and pesticide are. Plus they’re still having Range Wars!


    Hi Pamela, this is Molly Spence from the Almond Board of California. These are serious and important topics. We’d like to correct several facts and provide some context:

    1) To correct a fact: Almonds are not the crop that uses the most land in California. Hay is larger and grapes are about the same. The state’s top crops by acreage include not only hay, almonds and grapes but also wheat, corn, rice, cotton, tomatoes, walnuts and oats. California produces more than 400 commodities. http://www.almonds.com/sites/default/files/content/attachments/2013_almanac.pdf (p. 13) and http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/statistics/

    2) On the topic of bees, the reality is that a variety of factors have combined to impact the health of bees, including the varroa mite, a serious pest of honeybees; a decrease in natural pollen sources across the country throughout the year, particularly in the late summer and fall in the Midwest, less genetic diversity in bee stock, and the incorrect application of pesticides. http://www.usda.gov/documents/ReportHoneyBeeHealth.pdf Monoculture is one aspect, but as experts have noted, it’s not a significant issue in California: http://agriculture.house.gov/sites/republicans.agriculture.house.gov/files/pdf/hearings/Pettis140428.pdf

    3) More than 90 crops in addition to almonds depend on pollination. Here in California, almonds are the earliest blooming natural food source for commercial bees following winter when commercial bees are sustained on a diet of supplements provided to them by beekeepers. Bees who arrive in California’s almond orchards face an abundance of natural forage, while those not involved with almond pollination remain on their wintertime supplements for a longer period of time. Almond pollen is very nutritious for honeybees. So, honeybees foraging in almonds do well, and as a result, hives typically increase 20% to 25% after almond pollination and bloom.

    4) To that end, your statistic about 2013 bee losses “on the job” isn’t accurate; that figure refers to overwintering losses, as shown here: http://beeinformed.org/2014/05/colony-loss-2013-2014/

    5) Knowing about the importance of diversity in bees’ diets, the Almond Board is a partner in a project with the California State Beekeepers Association and Project Apis that works with landowners and managers to grow “bee pastures” during the times of year there is not a lot of pollen available. We’re also participating in a USDA grant for advancing “Integrated Crop Pollination.” This approach integrates honeybees, other managed pollinators like the Blue Orchard Bee, native bees and “bee pasture” in addition to almonds.

    6) Overall, it is flat out wrong to imply almond growers aren’t concerned about bee health. Without bees, there is no almond crop. Beekeepers and almond growers are mutually dependent on each other for their respective livelihoods. And in fact, the bee research we’ve conducted since 1976 has contributed to several breakthroughs in the quest to protect bee health. More on our efforts is here: http://www.almonds.com/consumers/about-almonds/bees and here: https://www.keystone.org/policy-initiatives-center-for-science-a-public-policy/environment/bee-health.html

    7) As far as almond growers’ water availability, it’s important to understand that water allocation to almond growers and everyone else in California is a highly regulated, legal process overseen by federal, state and local water authorities, who need to balance environmental, urban and agricultural needs. In an average year 50% of California’s surface water is allocated to the environment (including protected “wild and scenic” river use), 40% to agriculture and 10% to urban use. All of these uses are important. http://www.ppic.org/main/publication_show.asp?i=1108

    8) And finally, in considering the water it takes to grow almond trees, it’s important to know that they produce three “products.” In addition to the nut, the almond hulls are used domestically for livestock feed, primarily in California – and that reduces the need for alfalfa and other feed crops to be grown with California’s precious water. And the almond shells are used domestically as livestock bedding.

    9) The water footprint figure you cited for almonds is from a study that factored the shells into their calculations but not the hulls. To exclude almond hulls is to ignore nearly three-fourths of the produce of the almond tree by weight. And again, these hulls do not go to waste – they are used as a source of livestock feed.

    It’s important that we talk about these important issues. We hope before you or your readers reconsider your choice of nut, you’ll take a look at some of these facts and context. We look forward to continuing the conversation.

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