Is it nuts to eat almonds?

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

Pamela Cuthbert
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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?