Almonds are good for you-- and bad for the environment

I eat a ton of almonds—and it’s one of the least unique things about me. According to The Atlantic, almonds are the most popular nut, and we’re actually eating 10 times as many of them as we did in 1965.

But while almonds are delicious, versatile, and super good for me, they’re not so great for the environment. In fact, they’re pretty awful—and today on National Nut Day, that’s probably worth a second look.

Slate recently reported on just how relevant almonds are to current social and environmental crises, with the headline that almond farming commands 10% of California’s water usage:

California almonds use a stunning 1.1 trillion gallons of water each year, or enough for you to take a 10-minute shower each day for 86 million years….

Here’s the calculation: California as a whole diverts or pumps 43 million acre-feet of water each year to supplement its meager rainfall.  In total, agriculture consumes 34 million acre-feet of that… In 2013, there were 940,000 acres of almonds in California, according to the USDA (PDF). Each acre of almonds uses three to four acre-feet of water each year, most of which are delivered via river diversions or groundwater.

All this leads to one important question: should we even be eating almonds anymore?

Unfortunately,  that’s a tough question to answer. California is facing the worst drought on record, so it’s dangerous that almonds require so much water.

At the same time, it makes total sense for California’s economy to continue almond production: California produces 80% of the world’s almond supply (in addition to 99% of all the U.S. almonds), and almonds are premium products that command high prices.  If we stopped eating almonds, we’d cut jobs.

(By the way, California also produces 98% of all pistachios in the U.S. and 99% of all walnuts in the U.S.)

It’s true, of course, that all the produce and meat that we eat also have high water footprints. For example, a single head of broccoli uses 5.4 gallons of water. (And California produces 95% of all broccoli in the US).

Why focus on almonds so much?

  1. They’re already a premium product: because they’re already expensive, producers don’t have that much room to add an additional price hike for an organic variety. In other words, there isn’t much incentive to make sure that more almond farming is gentler on the planet.
  2. Almonds are a superfood. They’re known for lowering blood pressure, contributing to healthy skin, and building a heart-healthy diet. They come up in health and lifestyle magazines frequently—and given that they’re likely to stay popular, it’s worth examining their environmental impact.

So what can you do, instead of cutting almonds completely out of your diet? You can take steps to mitigate their negative impact.

Being a conscious consumer means that a little extra awareness about your purchases can go a long way.

To offset the 38.5 gallons of water required to produce the one ounce serving (about 20-24 almonds) that most nutritionists recommend, here’s what you’d have to do:

1. Skip flushing the toilet 6 times a day.
2. Mind your shower usage. The average 10 minute shower uses 50 gallons of water.
3. Skip nearly 4 dishwasher cycles. (Each one uses about 10 gallons.)
4. Skip one load of laundry in your washing machine. (Each load is about 40 gallons.)

The average American family uses over 300 gallons of water per day, which doesn’t include the water footprint of the food you eat. When you do include your daily diet into the calculation, the number skyrockets. I used this water calculator for my apartment and discovered that I require 1,115 gallons of water when you take into account food.

Eating almonds (or choosing not to) isn’t a clear-cut issue. But the more carefully I can think about my purchases, the better my impact on the environment (and on the economy) can be.

Katy Gathright is the Special Projects Manager at Groundswell. She’s a D.C. area native, Williams College alum, and co-founder of Designed Good, an online marketplace for socially responsible products. She’s also the one constantly listening to pop culture podcasts and trying to turn them into article topics.