Are Almonds Really Water Villains?

Despite the El Nino weather pattern that is bringing much needed rain to California, experts say it will likely not be enough to lift the state out of drought. So, water conservation will be on the radar for the foreseeable future. 

Agriculture in California is a sector that is being most scrutinized for its water use. The reason is that it uses 80 percent of California’ water supply. And almonds are one crop that is getting a bad rap for high water use. However, there are crops or agricultural uses in the Golden State that use much more water than almonds do. Alfalfa and cattle are the state’s two biggest agricultural users of water, according to statistics compiled by Blaine Hanson from University of California, Davis’ Department of Land, Air and Water Resources. 

Although the acreage of perennial crops, including almonds increased during the 2000s, the total amount of water that went to farms remained virtually the same. Almonds growers have reduced their water usage by 33 percent over the last 20 years thanks to production developments. Over 70 percent of almond orchards responding to a 2014 California Almond Sustainability Program (CASP) survey said they use micro-irrigation systems, which conserve water through decreasing water runoff, applying water directly to the root zone, and provide precise timing and rate of irrigation. 

Other water efficiency measures almond growers reported using include:

• 83 percent of surveyed growers said they use demand-based rather than scheduled irrigation, which means they can monitor weather, soil moisture, and trees to decide when and how much to irrigate.
• 62 percent of almond growers use soil maps to better understand the soil characteristics in their orchards and decide the design of irrigation systems to enhance water infiltration and distribution.

Almond growers have made other environmental gains. They continue to improve nitrogen management. Almonds are among the most efficient nitrogen-using crops. Nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) in almonds is 75 to 85 percent, compared to the overall agriculture NUE of less than 50 percent. Almond trees also accumulate and store vast amounts of carbon over their 25-year life cycle. And almond farmers surveyed by CASP said they use orchard prunings for in-orchard chipping, composting, or energy generation.

So, almond growers are not the water villains some portray them as being. However, there is a case to be made for eating a variety of foods. Take peanuts, for example, which have the most efficient water use among all nut crops. Add to that the fact that they are grown in the Southeast, an area that on average receives about 50 inches of rainfall a year. Only 35 to 40 percent of the peanut crops in the U.S. are irrigated, and peanut farmers who do irrigate practice water efficiency measures. That makes peanuts a very water efficient crop.

There is also a case to be made for eating regional produce. Foods that are grown in one region of the country have to travel by truck or train to get to another region. That means that fossil fuels are used for fuel, resulting in more greenhouse gas emissions than if foods are transported a shorter distance. Therefore, if you live in California eating almonds and almond products such as almond butter makes environmental sense. And conversely, if you live in the Southeast it makes environmental sense to eat peanuts and peanut products. It's all about considering the entire environmental picture when considering what foods to buy.

Photo: David Strand