Almonds are one of the world’s popular snack foods in a variety of forms. Almond milk is taking up larger shelf space and available in most stores now as people look for alternatives to cow’s milk. In China, where they are viewed as a healthy snack, the growing middle class is driving increased consumption. The crop yield is swelling as demand spirals up – that is the problem. The growing popularity of the almond is a growing problem in drought-devastated California.
The state almond crop extracts a huge price from California’s increasingly dry land. It requires more water each year than all the clothes- and dish-washing, showering and other household use of all 39 million state residents.
Each tiny nut takes about a gallon of water to grow. Throughout the state, almonds are now requiring 1.07 trillion gallons in water per annum. With the state in its fourth year of grappling with a drought problem and mandatory statewide water cutbacks for residential use, the $6.5 billion crop and its burgeoning popularity is fueling a debate about water use and appropriate agricultural interests.
California growers provide 80 percent of the world’s supply. Consumption of California almonds is 1,000 percent over what it was a decade ago. This has prompted the state’s agribusinesses to plant a more than 60 percent increase in almond trees in the past decade.
Today, the almond crop is the top one exported from the U.S.’s top agricultural state. The crop is now considered to be big business. Large worldwide corporations as well as investment funds that are eager to capitalize on the growing demand dominate ownership of the crop’s production. In a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey last year, 77 percent of almond farmers in the state indicated that they intended to expand their acreage despite the drought.
Almond trees now cover almost 1 million acres in California. Many of those new acres in use are on previously virgin hillsides or in areas with little local water, which is making the problem even worse by taking water resources from other areas. In addition, unlike most crops or land use being displaced, new trees require water year round.
Farmers and investors are now defending their cash crop. Almonds are now in the spotlight as “the poster child of all things bad in water,” noted one grower. Another pointed out that tomato growers use more water.
An economist quoted in Fox News pointed out that agriculture uses 80 percent of the water drawn from the state’s groundwater and surface supplies. But, in spite of the global impact of California agribusiness, it reportedly produces just 1.5 percent of the state’s gross domestic product.
The governor and his cabinet have publicly defended almonds, which are drawing more criticism for their water needs, as a high-value crop. “We’re going to try to maximize all beneficial uses, not pick one we like better than the others,” noted the head of the California Water Resources Control Board Felicia Marcus.
Whenever there is tightening resources, things are bound to get heated as people scramble for increasing smaller amounts of resources. With the drought in its fourth year, no rain in site and mandatory cutbacks in place, the problem with the growing almond popularity is whether it is appropriate to expand its water requirements with more trees at a time when others are cutting back their water use.
By Dyanne Weiss