Are Nuts Bad for the Environment? 3 Facts (You Should Know)

Are Nuts Bad for the Environment

published on December 8th, 2022

You might have heard that a plant-based diet is better for the environment and wondered where nuts fit in, as there are many claims about almonds being bad for the environment.

While some nuts, like almonds, have a big environmental footprint, other kinds, like chestnuts and peanuts, are more sustainable.

Nuts may not be good for the environment, but overall, they’re a more sustainable protein than animal products.

Note: Although peanuts are not nuts but legumes, we still included them in this article since most people regard them as nuts.

Here’s everything you need to know about the environmental impact of nuts. 

1. How Do Nuts Affect the Environment?

Food Miles

One of the biggest ways food impacts the environment is transport, as you can find food in your grocery store from all over the world that cannot be grown in your region’s climate. 

Food miles refer to how far food travels before getting to consumers’ plates; approximately 6% of greenhouse gas emissions are due to food transportation.

Research found that emissions stemming from food emissions could be reduced by 0.11 GtCO2e and food mile emissions by 0.27 GtCO2e if we were to rely on domestic food. 

Many nuts are grown in tropical regions. For example, most of the world’s almonds and pistachios are grown in California. 

Even though Spain also produces almonds, the country still imports almonds from California.

Peanuts are also suited to warmer climates, with most peanuts grown in southern US states like Texas, as well as in Asia, Africa, and South America.  

Most hazelnuts are grown in Turkey, and Brazil nuts in Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia. Chestnuts are mostly grown in China, Korea, and Portugal. 

So, unless you know the nuts were grown locally, they likely traveled a long way before arriving on your grocery store’s shelves. 

Mono-Crops

Not all nuts are grown and harvested the same.

However, some kinds of nuts are often grown as mono-crops, meaning they are the only crop grown in the area.

Monocrops are bad for the environment because they reduce biodiversity, which can leave animals and insects without food and shelter as land is cleared to make way for commercial farming.

Biodiversity can protect plants from pests and disease.

Moncropping can generate huge amounts of waste as it is much easier for pests or diseases to spread throughout the crop, rendering it useless. 

This farming method can also leave the soil depleted of nutrients, which reduces the lifespan and yield.

Almonds are commonly grown as a mono-crop, as are hazelnuts, pistachios, and peanuts.   

Water Use

Different kinds of nuts will also have different water requirements.

The water use can also vary depending on species, climate, rainfall, and whether they are organic. 

Hazelnuts grown in Oregon in the US were initially grown without the need for irrigation, but as the climate becomes hotter and drier, this has become a more common practice. 

For example, approximately 12 liters of water are needed to produce only one Californian almond, while it requires 12 to 14 megaliters of water per hectare to produce 2,900 kg (6,400 pounds) of Australian almonds. 

A kilogram of almonds requires 13,080 liters of water.

To produce the same amount of peanuts, you would use 3,740 liters and 2,606 liters for chestnuts

It takes 10,515 liters to produce one kilogram of hazelnuts and 9,280 liters per kilogram of walnuts.

To grow one kilogram of cashews, you would need 14,220 liters of water and 11,366 liters of water for the same amount of pistachios. 

So, while almonds are the biggest offender, most nuts are still pretty water intensive.

Pesticide Use

Nut crops can also be treated with pesticides, which can be harmful to the environment. 

Pesticides can cause pollution due to run-off and are also harmful to pollinators such as bees. 

Exposure to pesticides can reduce populations of these insects, which leaves plants unpollinated. 

By extension, this can also mean less food for other animals due to lower yields of other crops and plants in the area.

2. What’s the Carbon Footprint of Nuts?

The carbon footprint of nuts varies.

Producing one kilogram of almonds could release 0.23 kg of CO2e. 

Producing the same amount of hazelnuts could release 0.40 kg of CO2e, while pistachios could release 0.53 kg of CO2e, and peanuts approximately 0.631 kg of CO2e.

The carbon footprint can go up again depending on how the nuts were processed as it takes more energy to deshell or toast nuts or turn them into pastes and spreads. 

Meanwhile, frozen chestnuts had a higher carbon footprint and could release from 0.6 to 2.9 kg of CO2e per kilogram, but the same serving of fresh chestnuts was between 0.4 to 2.7 kg of CO2e.

Cashews are also believed to be high emitters, but it’s unclear what the CO2e per kilogram of these nuts is. 

3. Which Nuts Are the Most Sustainable?

When compared to other nuts, chestnuts and peanuts used the least amount of water and released the least amount of emissions. 

Almonds and cashews could be the worst for the environment. 

With that said, most nuts seem to be more sustainable than animal products. 

It requires 15,142 liters of water to produce only one kilogram of beef, but these exact figures can vary based on animal species, farming methods, and location. 

For example, it takes 5,000 liters for one kilogram of pork in an industrial farm in the US, but this figure is twice as high when pork is sourced from pigs grazing n China. 

To produce the same amount of poultry from grazing chickens and turkeys, the water use can vary from 5,000 liters per kilogram in China to 10,000 liters per kilogram in Brazil.

As for carbon footprints, non-organic US beef can emit 22 kg of CO2e per kilogram of meat, while the same serving of pork and chicken can release 5.77 kg of CO2e and 3.65 kg of CO2e, respectively.

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