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.
Among the different types of nuts, almonds do indeed have a relatively high impact on the environment, which is mainly due to their high water consumption and CO2 footprint.
However, compared to animal protein sources, they only contribute a fraction to climate change.
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.
Almonds are seasonal, 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.
With the exception of cashew nuts, almonds consume significantly more water per kilogram than all other types of nuts that were included in the study.
Interestingly, almonds grown in southern Spain can benefit – at least partially – from rainfall, which reduces the need for irrigation somewhat.
However, in other regions – such as California – there is almost no precipitation in the almond-growing regions, which means that the almonds grown there are almost completely dependent on irrigation.
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 aren’t 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.
Moreover, some irrigation systems are more sustainable than others.
Many farmers rely on flood irrigation, which essentially means flooding the field; this method wastes 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 generally better for the environment than conventional crops.
Organic almonds need less water because the soil is better at storing it, which is promising as many almond-growing regions regularly experience drought.
The soil in organic farming can also store 15-28% more CO2, which limits the greenhouse effect.
Organic almonds are also much better for bees and other pollinators because no conventional pesticides are used in their cultivation.
Moreover, organic farming consumes up to 30% less energy – not only because the very energy-intensive synthetic pesticides are not used – which means fewer greenhouse gases.
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 taking all things into consideration, meat (i.e. the meat industry) is much more harmful to the environment than almond cultivation.
It is true that 1 gram of protein from almonds requires more water than some types of meat:
However, as you can see, this is only true for pork and chicken.
Beef as a protein source, on the other hand, consumes significantly more water than the same amount of protein from almonds.
Agriculture accounts for more than 90% of the world’s freshwater footprint, and almost 30% of this is from animal sources.
In this regard, the meat industry as a whole has a much greater impact on water consumption than almond cultivation.
Apart from that, the emission of greenhouse gases is particularly relevant for assessing the environmental impact of different foods.
When comparing the CO2 footprint of almonds with meat alternatives, the following chart paints a revealing picture:
So if we look at the CO2 emissions per kg, then almonds are actually much more eco-friendly than any other meat source.
Even eggs and tofu cause more CO2 emissions per kg than almonds.
In fact, the contribution from almonds to global greenhouse gas emissions is almost negligible when compared to that of the meat industry.
Meat also causes 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.
Due to the specific environmental requirements of almond trees, no rainforests are cleared for their plantations because the climate there would be too humid to grow almonds.
6. Which Nut Is Most Environmentally Friendly?
Almonds have a relatively big environmental impact compared to other types of nuts.
A study that quantified the CO2 emissions for various types of nuts showed that cashew nuts have the largest CO2 footprint, directly followed by almonds and pistachios.
Hazelnuts and peanuts, on the other hand, cause the least CO2 emissions.
In terms of water consumption, cashews are the worst offender as well, directly followed by almonds and pistachios.
Chestnuts consume the least water, but peanuts and walnuts also consume relatively little water compared to all other types of nuts.
Of course, the environmental impact of a given nut product also depends on the region it was grown in as well as the cultivation method used.
Moreover, an important factor is whether the nuts are processed after harvesting them (e.g. into nut butter), because additional processing steps require energy and cause further greenhouse gas emissions.
For a complete overview of different types of nuts regarding their environmental impact, check out our article here.
7. Are Almonds Killing Bees?
Conventional almond cultivation can be harmful to bees.
As mentioned earlier, this is because 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 susceptible to pathogens and disease, so bees can pick up parasites in these environments more easily.