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They Say Almonds Are Unsustainable, I Say It's Actually Wrong!

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Over the past number of years, veganism and the following of a plant-based diet has increased exponentially (Hancox, 2018). As a result, we have seen an increase in the sales of plant-based milks. According to Euromonitor, 12% of sales comes from non-dairy milk alternatives (Naylor, 2018). While it is scientifically true, that a plant-based diet is healthier for humans nutritionally, I wanted to explore if plant-based milks, mainly almond milk, is ‘healthier’ for our planet.

The reason I chose to focus on almond milk is due to the traction it has gained in recent years for its supposed unsustainability. The reason being, it takes 6,098 litres of water to produce just 1 litre of almond milk (Naylor, 2018). That’s 1.1 gallons of water to produce one single almond (Park and Lurie, 2014). These facts are especially shocking as 80% of the worlds almond production occurs in California, USA. The very state which has a long history of water crisis’ and droughts. My aim of this report is to understand the sustainability issues that lie with almond milk and see how these issue compare to cow’s milk.

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Most of the planets almonds are produced in the San Joaquin valley, California (80% of the worlds commercially used almonds and 100% of US commercially used almonds) (Robbins, 2019). Due to water depletion, much of the land has begun to sink. Subsidence as a result is causing a high risk of damage to the state and federal aqueducts, levees, bridges and roads (Earth Observatory, 2016). In some parts of the valley, it is reported that the land is sinking at a rate of approx. 5cm a month. Sinking in the agricultural area of the valley seems to be more affected than any other area due to the land being rich in clay. As they extract the water under the clay, the ground begins to collapse, bringing everything with it (Goldenberg, 2015). Furthermore, it’s causing a permanent reduction of the storage in the underground aquifers which majorly impacts the future of the water supply. The underground aquifers, house water which has been built up over numerous years. Californian State Law states, that the water from the aquifers can be used, but only if it’s for a useful purpose. This loose terminology has allowed almond farmers to abuse the underground water storage systems. Many farmers, especially bigger more affluent farmers, are drilling large and plentiful wells in order to gain access to more of the underground water. As a result, the storage systems are rapidly depleting. Which long term, can have a detrimental effect as the aquifers water supply is built up over centuries, however, is being used at a rapid rate in order to cure short term surface water deficits (Plumer, 2015). In an attempt to monitor and gain control over this situation, ‘The Sustainable Underground Water Management Act of 2014 (SGMA)’ was launched. It is a series of three legislative bills that were devised after 3 years of severe drought. They contain a framework for the management and the increased sustainability of California’s underground water system. Under this act all 127 underground water basins of high and medium importance were required to develop groundwater sustainability plans (GSP) by 30th June 2017. These plans were to ensure water sustainability within 20 years of their implementation as the 127 water basins account for 96% of the groundwater use. By 2020, all local stakeholders must have developed, prepared and implemented a GSP (Moran and Wendell, 2014). When this time comes in the next year, it will be interesting to see if stakeholders have implemented their underground water sustainability plans and if they are having an positive impact on increasing the water levels in the basins.

Further, thanks to the increased popularity of almonds and almond based products, 23,000 acres of California’s natural land have been converted into almond farms in order to deal with the increased demand of the popular food commodity. Of those 23,000 acres, 16,000 acres were previously declared as wetlands. This land transformation all occurred in the midst of the drought. According to Forbes, between the years of 2007-2014, almond acreage increase in California by approx. 14%. Based on that number, they were expecting another 14% increase in the need for irrigation. However, because so much of the land was converted to almond farms, the numbers actually doubled (Pickett, 2016).

Similarly, in 2014 wild salmon were fighting for water in the Klamath river of Northern California as the water levels dropped so low. This is because the water from the river was being diverted to almond farms during the drought. While the wild salmon of California were fighting to stay alive, farmers harvested their largest crops that year (Hamblin, 2014). The prioritisation of water to almonds over living animals is the exact matter vegans protest about. However, many of these people do not realise that they are indirectly influencing endangering species by purchasing almond milk from California.

From these example, we can see the damage almond farming has inflicted on the Californian region and the detrimental effects it has to the regions water supply and local wild animals.

On the other hand, while almond use and consume vast amounts of water, it is still significantly less than the amount of water needed to produce livestock and subsequently cow’s milk. It has been established that almond production uses a large amount of water. However, it’s also worth noting that in 1 litre of commercial almond milk, there is approximately 2% of almonds. The other portion of the litre is made up of carrageenan, xanthan, lecithin etc which are all known binders as well as water. These ingredients are added in order to bulk up the weight of the milk. Therefore, while almonds use a larger amount of resources, they also provide a larger amount of units of the product in comparison to cow’s milk (Emoryhumanhealth.org, 2019). According to BBC, in order to produce one glass of almond milk (200mls) it requires 74 litres of water. In contrast, one glass of cow’s milk requires approx. 125 litres (Guibourg and Briggs, 2019).

Cow’s milk is the clear offender when it comes to water use, closely followed by almond milk. While cow’s milk is more water intensive in terms of feeding cow’s and also growing their feed, the problem doesn’t lie with how much water almonds need, its where they’re sourcing their water from. However, drought aside, it does take less water to produce almond milk, than the amount of water needed to produce cow’s milk. While California are the largest producers of almonds worldwide, dairy is the largest produced commodity in the Californian state, therefore making dairy products more of a water risk than almonds. (CDFA, 2018)

Similarly to being more water intensive, cow’s milk also has a larger carbon footprint. Cow’s are ruminant animals and as a result produce methane which is 28 times more harmful to climate change than CO2 (Grossi et al. 2018). Dairy produces 0.63 CO2 emissions (kg) compared to almond milk at 0.14 CO2 emissions (kg) (Villazon, 2019). In addition to this, almond trees take in CO2 emissions from the atmosphere and subsequently have a reduced carbon emission. As a result, many people are favouring almond milk over cow’s milk. However, due to where they are grown, are almonds creating more bad than good? Consumers need to make a decision on what they deem more important, water depletion or greenhouse gas emissions.

While it has been established almonds are a serious threat to the Californian region due to their high water usage, they also pose another threat. In order to pollinate the vast amount of trees, the Californian almond industry is completely reliant on honey bees

(Hamblin, 2014). According to Stanford University, “the almond industry needs 2 million, 2 thirds of the nation’s commercial supply” and as the drought has reduced the western region honey bee supply, bees are suppled from bee keepers from around the country. However, this has raised many concerns for the safety of the bees as they travel from around the country and while they pollinate the almond crops. There has been a high amount of bee deaths and this is known as ‘colony collapse disorder’. In a report published by The Scientific American, it is reported than 85% of all commercial bee colonies in the United States visit the Californian almond farms (Wilder, 2018). Apart from having honey bees travel across the country in order to pollinate the trees in the months of February and March, USDA pesticide data has found that there are over 9 different pesticides on almonds, some of which are “moderately acutely toxic, highly acutely toxic or chronically toxic to honey bees” (Whatsonmyfood.org, 2019). A study carried out by Wade et al, found that some insecticides and fungicides spread on almond trees during pollination that seemed to be low in toxicity to honey bees, could actually have a dramatic effect on the brood production and subsequently lead to reduction in the species. Diflubenzuron is the insecticide in question. In previous studies, the pesticide in question, has said to have been harmless to honey bees. However, it has been proven that diflubenzuron, regardless of other pesticides it is mixed with, poses a high risk to honey bees. Fortunately, while diflubenzuron continues to be spread on trees during pollination, in recent years, the volume of it being spread has been significantly reduced and therefore reducing the risk to poses to the honey bees and larvae. The conclusion of this study was that while many of the pesticides used in the blooming of almond trees seems safe to both younger and older bees, they still pose a risk of toxicity. This high risk of toxicity may be the cause of a drop in the honey bee population and the reason for the ‘colony collapse disorder’. (Wade et al., 2019) By omitting the pesticides used on almonds during bloom, we can reduce the risk of death in bees and larvae. In 2014, 5% of the bee population sent to California suddenly died. This was due to the toxic cocktail of pesticides used during the bloom period. It now has become common practice to not use pesticides during the blooming stage and as a result of the studies carried out, more studies will be carried out on other food commodities such as pumpkins to see if there are effects to pesticide usage in their production. The potential toxicity and long haul migration of honey bees in order to sustain the demand of a food commodity, may result in the depletion and even possible extinction of the honey bee. (Ohio State University, 2019)

Another issue with almond milk I have come across during my research is the transportation footprint of almond milk. As 80% of the world’s almonds are sourced from California, almond milk has to be exported to different countries. Therefore, many people are concerned about the amount of airmiles their food is travelling before reaching their destination. The distance between California and Ireland is 5,004 miles (Google Maps, 2019). This amount of airmiles as calculated on a carbon footprint calculator creates 2.27 tonnes of CO2 emissions.(Carbon footprint calculator, 2019) This may not seem like a lot but when this is just the airmiles for one destination, the carbon footprint of almond milk increases quite dramatically. For comparative purposes, it is said that the whole world emits 4.49 tonnes of CO2 emissions per person (The Guardian, 2009). However, most people are not fazed by this impact on the environment. For those who are more environmentally conscious, making oat milk using locally sourced oats at home not only cuts down on the airmiles, but also the packaging and water usage. Therefore, in this sense, cow’s milk is more environmentally sound. As Ireland is a small country, with local farms around every corner, cow’s milk is more sustainable from a transportation perspective. Cow’s milk has a very small transportation footprint as it is sold locally, unlike almond milk which must be exported in from overseas (Miles, 2017). It’s no surprise that locally sourced foods are better for the environment than those that are sourced from international suppliers. While California is the main producer and supplier of almonds and subsequently almond milk, other countries such as Spain, Iran and Morocco are also large producers and suppliers of almonds around the world. All of which are closer to home than America. Spain is the second largest producer of the nuts and produces approx. 202,339 tonnes annually (Sawe, 2018) Alpro, one of the largest producers of plant-based milks, states that they, where possible, source their ingredients as locally as possible. I.e. in the UK market they will try and source their ingredients in the UK. However, the UK are not known for their production of almonds and their ingredients are sourced from the Mediterranean. While this is closer than the U.S. there is still an environmental cost due to this importation.(Franklin, 2017) In summary, cow’s milk is less costly to the environment as it is mostly locally sourced, therefore, reducing the transportation distance from farm to plate (or glass in this instance) compared with the long haul transportation of almond milk, whether it is sourced from the US or closer to home in Europe. Either way it is contributing to the CO2 emissions.

Similarly, in order to survive the long haul flights, almond milks are usually UHT treated (Ferragut et al., 2015) and later packed in Tetra Pak packaging, which while it is recyclable, it isn’t very easily recycled. (Miles, 2017) Unlike Cow’s milk, which customers can make the conscious effort of buying in a reusable glass bottle, almond milk purchased in Tetra Pak’s means the consumer cannot reuse the bottle. While the packaging is technically recyclable, they are not they most environmentally friendly method of packaging food items. According to Tetra Pak’s website, in 2018 their global recycling rate was 26%. While it was up 1% from the previous year, this packaging company, which claims to be more sustainable, has a very low recyclable rate. The company has made a conscious effort to increase their recyclability and by next year wants to have their recycling rate at 40%. However, they only managed a 1% increase from 2017-2018, so hopefully they’ll be able to fulfil their target. Tetra Pak’s are used in 40% of the world’s packaging, and according to their website, they are collected in 77 markets in the world. By increasing the collection markets they could decrease the amount of cartons that go to waste. (Tetra Pak, n.d. )In many recycling facilities, carton recycling bins are not provided and therefore the fully recyclable packaging, ends up in landfill. While I am aware that almond milk is not the only item packaged in Tetra Pak’s, majority of almond milks are packaged in this material. Consequently, it isn’t the worst packaging material however, some larger almond milk manufacturers may, in the future, consider plant based, biodegradable packing rather than recyclable Tetra Pak’s. Therefore, if the packaging does end up in landfill waste, it would decomposed in a much shorter time than its other counterparts.

While at the beginning of my research, I was of the opinion, like many others, that almond milk was doing more bad than good for the planet. After this research, I feel I am more equipped to defend almond milk when its unsustainability is brought up in conversation. While it does use large amounts of water especially in a region notorious for some of the worst droughts in history and there is some evidence proving that almond production is responsible for the killing of honey bee colonies, many of these problems have been or are in the process of being rectified. The Sustainable Underground Water Management Act has been put in place to increase the lifespan of the underground water supply. The banning of pesticides during the bloom period. These are both methods of resolving the problems associated with almond production. In terms of the transportation footprint, it is down to the consumer on whether or not they choose to purchase the products. There are other non-dairy alternatives to choose from, however, are these too being imported and contributing to airmiles? Furthermore, almond trees have a lesser negative impact on climate change as they release less greenhouse gases. As well as that, they intake the emissions from the air and help to cleanse the air around them. In contrast to this, they contribute to emissions released during their transportation to destinations around the world. Almond milk is doing no worse for the environment than cow’s milk and I think this is the main point to be taken. While it does have its negative impacts, as do most other food commodities, it does also come with some positives. As previously mentioned, people need to make a decision on which environmental issue they deem the most important the next time they are shopping for their carton of milk. While I know I personally won’t be rushing out to buy a carton of almond milk, I also won’t begrudge someone for doing so!

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