Almonds have become topical when it comes to sustainability, as many people are quick to point out that many plant-based foods still have an environmental impact.
Almonds are bad for the environment due to their high water use, large carbon footprint, and pesticide use.
Here’s everything you need to know about the environmental impact of almonds.
1. How Do Almonds Affect the Environment?
Most of the world’s almonds come from California, but they are also grown in Spain and Australia.
So, if you don’t live in these regions, the almonds in your grocery store travel a long way to get there.
Food transportation actually makes up 6% of greenhouse gas emissions, known as food miles, so sourcing food from other regions is not sustainable.
With that said, despite growing almonds themselves, Spain also imports California almonds, so it’s hard to avoid these food miles.
They’re a Seasonal Crop
Almonds are a seasonal crop typically harvested from August through to October in California, but the harvest season can vary depending on the species and location.
However, you’ve probably noticed that almonds are always in the grocery store.
So, it takes a lot of energy to keep almonds fresh and available for purchase all year round.
One of the biggest critiques regarding almonds and sustainability is water use.
Not only are almonds a water-intensive crop, but they’re also grown in regions that commonly experience drought and water shortages.
So rather than relying on rainfall, water must be sourced for almond orchards.
It takes around 3.2 gallons (12 liters) of water to produce only one single almond from California.
In Australia, it takes around 12 to 14 megaliters (million liters) of water per hectare to produce 3.2 tons of almonds in mature orchards.
Although Spain also experiences drought and water shortages, almond production appears to be somewhat less reliant on full irritation, unlike California and Australia, and partially relies on rainfall.
Almond production has grown in recent years.
In 2015, there were almost 450 thousand hectares of land containing almond orchards, which is more than an 80% increase from the decade before.
So, more almond orchards mean more pesticide use.
Many kinds of pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides can kill bees and other pollinators.
This is concerning given that almond trees need to be pollinated by bees; fewer pollinators mean growing food will become more difficult.
Pesticides also impact more than pollinators – they can leach into the soil and water supplies, harming insects, other plant life, and animals.
As demand for almonds increases, more almond trees are planted to meet this demand.
Large almond orchards, which are typically industrialized, reduce biodiversity as they are essentially a mono-crop.
Mono-crops disrupt the ecosystem as there is little to no other plant life or animal life in the area.
More biodiversity may actually protect crops from disease as different plants and animals can limit the spread and naturally reduce pests as part of the food chain.
So, if most of an orchard suffered from disease, this would result in the farmers having to discard the almonds and potentially the trees.
While almonds and trees are naturally biodegradable, there is no guarantee that this waste will be disposed of sustainably.
Should they be landfilled, they will not actually break down as the conditions for this process are not met in that environment – instead, they can release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Mono-crops can also cause soil erosion and exhaustion as some nutrients begin to run out in the soil, which can impact the yield and the lifespan of the orchard.
Like all trees, almond trees release oxygen and store CO2.
However, almond trees are often cut down when they are 20 to 25 years old as they are no longer as productive as younger trees.
When trees are cut down, they release CO2 back into the environment; younger trees do not store as much CO2, so this process can contribute to climate change.
2. Are There Eco-Friendly Almonds?
There are not necessarily eco-friendly almonds, but there are moves to make almond production more sustainable.
Applying regenerative agriculture to almond orchards is promising.
This kind of agriculture focuses on responsible water use, recovering topsoil health, and encouraging more biodiversity.
Plus, farming practices that use compost and restore understory vegetation are also more sustainable as the soil stores more carbon, and there is more biodiversity.
Organic almonds are more eco-friendly than non-organic almonds.
Different watering systems are more sustainable.
Many farmers rely on flood irrigation, which essentially means flooding the field; this method can waste water due to evaporation.
Some farmers are moving towards drip and micro-sprinkler irrigation, allowing water to drip slowly into the plants to reduce waste.
Subsurface drip and deep root irrigation are even more sustainable again as they completely eliminate evaporation.
3. Are Organic Almonds Better for the Environment?
Organic crops are better for the environment.
Organic almonds need less water because the soil is better at storing it, which is promising as many almond-growing regions regularly experience drought.
Organic crops also store more CO2, which can limit the greenhouse effect.
Organic almonds are somewhat better for pollinators since they do not use pesticides.
But since organic crops take up more space than non-organic crops to produce the same yield, they can still result in a lack of biodiversity, which is not good for pollinators.
4. What’s the Most Eco-Friendly Environment for Growing Almonds?
Almond trees require very specific conditions.
You might think it would make more sense to grow American almonds in other states with a warm climate and more rainfall.
However, the lower humidity levels in Southern California and the lack of cold weather in winter make it the ideal environment for almonds – despite unsustainable production.
So, it is arguably more productive to focus on more sustainable practices than finding a new environment to grow almonds.
With that said, it is possible to grow almond trees in greenhouses, but they would need to be manually pollinated to account for the lack of bees.
This can cut down on water evaporation, transport, and pesticide use.
5. Are Almonds Worse for the Environment than Meat?
When it comes to looking at the carbon footprint of agriculture, meat is a much bigger offender.
But almonds require much more water than meat, so both of these products are bad for the environment in different ways.
Agriculture accounts for more than 90% of the world’s freshwater footprint, and almost 30% of this is from animal sources.
Around 4,000 gallons of water (15,142 L) are needed to produce only one kg of beef, while it takes 3.2 gallons (12 L) to produce only one almond in California.
How much water production uses varies depending on factors such as location, whether it’s organic, or the type of products being made.
It required approximately 1,320 gallons (5,000 liters) to produce one kilogram of pork when industrially farmed in the US, but this figure doubled when it came to sourcing pork from pigs grazing in China.
Poultry usually needs less water than beef and pork.
The highest poultry water usage came when it was sourced from chickens or turkeys grazing in China and Brazil; in this instance, it needed more than 1320 gallons (5,000 liters) but less than 2,641 gallons (10,000 liters).
One kilogram of chicken can release 3.65 kg of CO2-equivalent, while the same amount of pork could release 5.77 kg of CO2-equivalent per kilogram.
But again, bear in mind these figures can change based on location and other factors.
Meat is also linked with deforestation.
In the Amazon in Brazil, around 65% of deforestation is linked to cattle ranching.
Chicken and pork can also cause deforestation since much of the world’s soy crops are intended to feed livestock, so forests are cleared to make way for soy crops.
Meanwhile, almonds can reduce biodiversity, and cutting down older almond trees can release CO2.
6. Which Nut Is Most Environmentally Friendly?
Peanuts and chestnuts appear to be the most eco-friendly nuts.
Almonds require 3,455 gallons of water (13,080 liters) per kilogram, while chestnuts require only 688 gallons (2,606 liters) and peanuts 988 gallons per kilogram (3,740 liters).
In terms of emissions, fresh chestnuts ranged from 0.4 to 2.7 kg of CO2 equivalent per kilogram, but frozen chestnuts rose to 0.6 to 2.9 kg of CO2 equivalent per kilogram.
As for peanuts, they can be as low as under 0.6 kg of CO2 equivalent per kilogram.
7. Are Almonds Killing Bees?
Almond production is harmful to bees.
As mentioned earlier, pesticides are harmful to pollinators such as bees.
Mass bloom events, as seen with almond trees and other mono-crops, attract bees because there’s a lot of pollen released at once.
Many beekeepers actually lend their bees to almond farmers to pollinate the trees.
However, as mentioned earlier, mono-crops are also more exposed to pathogens and disease, so bees can pick up parasites in these environments.
8. Is Eating Almonds Bad for the Environment?
Eating almonds is bad for the environment for a number of reasons.
The high water usage is unsustainable, especially in regions affected by drought where the water could have been used elsewhere.
There are also food miles to consider, pesticide use, loss of biodiversity, and the negative impact they have on bees.
Plus, when the almond trees are no longer useful, they’re often cut down, which means there are fewer mature trees to store CO2.