Here’s the real problem with almonds

Tom Philpott and Julia Lurie, MOTHER JONES

Almonds: crunchy, delicious, and…the center of a nefarious plot to suck California dry? They certainly have used up a lot of ink lately—partly inspired by our reporting over the past year. California’s drought-stricken Central Valley churns out 80 percent of the globe’s almonds, and since each nut takes a gallon of water to produce, they account for close to 10 percent of the state’s annual agricultural water use—or more than what the entire population of Los Angeles and San Francisco use in a year.

As Grist’s Nathanael Johnson put it, almonds have become a scapegoat of sorts—"the poster-nut for human wastefulness in California’s drought." Or, as Alissa Walker put it in Gizmodo, "You know, ALMONDS, THE DEVIL’S NUT." It’s not surprising that the almond backlash has inspired a backlash of its own. California agriculture is vast and complex, and its water woes can’t hang entirely on any one commodity, not even one as charismatic as the devil’s nut almond.

And as many have pointed out, almonds have a lot going for them—they’re nutritious, they taste good, and they’re hugely profitable for California. In 2014, almonds brought in a whopping $11 billion to the state’s economy. Plus, other foods—namely, animal products—use a whole lot more water per ounce than almonds.

So almonds must be worth all the water they require, right? Not so fast. Before you jump to any conclusions, consider the following five facts:

1. Most of our almonds end up overseas. Almonds are the second-thirstiest crop in California—behind alfalfa, a superfood of sorts for cows that sucks up 15 percent of the state’s irrigation water. Gizmodo’s Walker—along with many others—wants to shift the focus from almonds to the ubiquitous feed crop, wondering, "Why are we using more and more of our water to grow hay?" Especially since alfalfa is a relatively low-value crop—about a quarter of the per acre value of almonds—and about a fifth of it is exported.

It should be noted, though, that we export far more almonds than alfalfa: About two-thirds of California’s almond and pistachio crops are sent overseas—a de facto export of California’s overtapped water resources.

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