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Monday, July 6, 2015

Thirsty? Suck On an Almond, Because They're Not So Bad

Posted By on Mon, Jul 6, 2015 at 3:30 PM

click to enlarge So tasty, so nutritious, so thirsty. - WIKIPEDIA
  • Wikipedia
  • So tasty, so nutritious, so thirsty.

Perhaps it was inevitable. As the drought, now in its fourth year, has dragged wearily on, Californians began to point fingers – at the wealthy, the environmentalists, the bottled water industry and, finally, at almonds.

Almonds? If you've been paying any attention at all, the state's almond growers have emerged as arguably the most visible bogeyman in our battles over water allocation and usage. When Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in January last year, he called upon the state's cities to cut back their water consumption. Almost immediately, the state's urban residents began asking why the state's massive agricultural sector wasn't being required to make serious cuts of its own.

That, said Robert “Bob” Curtis, was really the punch that gave the state's second largest commodity the black eye it's been working hard ever since to overcome. Curtis is director of agricultural affairs for the Almond Board of California. From that point on, the punches kept coming. Stories in Atlantic Monthly, Mother Jones, and The New York Times, among others, identified the little brown nut – a seed, actually, and a relative of the peach – as one of the state's biggest aqua profligates.

In the nation's most populous state and the world's ninth-largest economy, big businesses are big indeed, and the almond industry is no exception. California produces more than 80 percent of the world's almonds (with Spain and Australia trailing behind at a paltry 6 percent each), and after U.S. markets have consumed about half of the 180 billion tons the state is expected to produce this year alone, China and Europe grab the next largest shares. (Canadians, incidentally, eat more almonds per capita than anyone else).

So, what happened? Somewhere along the line, people pounced on an illustrative point that almond growers have been struggling to get out from under ever since. It requires one gallon of water to produce a single almond, reported Mother Jones with a handy little graphic back in February 2014. The almond industry has been dodging attacks ever since.

“We've engaged quite a bit with the media, in particular,” Curtis said. “We've got a good sound story and we've been responding with the correct information.”

But, he added, the industry really isn't putting out any new information in response to the outcry. The correct information revolves largely around the irrigation methods the industry has been researching and implementing for the past 20 years, primarily drip irrigation using control systems that can identify, down to the square inch, where water is being sent. 

One number the Almond Board often pulls out is 33. That's the percentage they say by which they've reduced water usage over the past two decades. Almonds have proven remarkably lucrative, however, and even as they continue to curb the amount of water each orchard drinks, the total acreage of almonds in California continues to increase as more and more existing agricultural land is turned over from thirstier, but less profitable crops to almonds.

Consequently, even as water conservation decreases the demand for water per tree, more almond trees are planted and the over all demand for water rises — which has resulted, at least for now, in a sort of equilibrium. And, while the vast majority of almond farms are held by small farmers on parcels of less than 100 acres, bigger interests are taking note and buying up holdings (and not just in California) anticipating much more growth.

Both almond farmers – and Gov. Brown – insist that almonds are returning the cost of water in their monetary value, but critics argue that the state could do without growing water intensive crops altogether. Oranges, dairy, and beef suck down far greater amounts of water than do almonds, and other water-intensive crops such as alfalfa and cotton are beginning to disappear from the state's farmlands altogether.

Nowadays, they're often being replaced by, of course, almonds.

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Eric S. Burkett


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