Almonds and Water Use – What’s The Scoop?

Uncategorized | January 12, 2015 | By

vs-graphic-almonds-water-1000There’s an article in Mother Jones today about almonds and water consumption in California. It states some alarming facts, like how a single almond requires a gallon of water. That seems like a lot! But is it?

There are plenty of other interesting statistics and facts shared in the piece:

  • almonds have become more popular than peanuts
  • Americans on average eat 2 pounds per year
  • almond milk is now outselling soy milk
  • 80% of all almonds come from California
  • 70% are exported, China, who has the greatest demand
  • almonds are the third biggest food produced in CA, after grapes and the top product, dairy
  • 72% of almonds are still grown by family farms
  • almonds use up to 9% of all water for agriculture in California

vs-almonds-squareAnd to compare water use, the article also lists the following examples (per gallon):

  • 0.7 (gallon) per pistachio
  • 1.6 per toilette flush
  • 4.6 per walnut
  • 8 for a dishwasher
  • 25 in a 10 minute shower
  • 41 for a load of laundry

Water use in California is a major concern, and this article highlights many of the issues..but are almonds really the culprit?

Telling us that one almond requires a gallon of water isn’t actually very helpful.

About 377 almonds make up a pound. (At 1.2g per almond, according to multiple sources including this calculator.) Conveniently, 377 almonds mean 377 gallons of water are used in that pound. How does that stack up to other foods? Here’s a handy chart of California water use, thank you Farmscape (unfortunately no relation to a favourite sci-fi series, Farscape):

PyramidforIllustratorSuddenly, almonds don’t look quite so bad. Animal products are significantly worse nearly across the board. (And plant foods much better.)

Here’s another look at it from our friends at TruthOrDrought.com:

vs-graphic-truthordrought-CAwaterusechart

But what about almond milk? According to the first graphic, a pound of cow’s milk requires only 90 gallons, but a pound of almonds demands 377 gallons of water. Doesn’t that make almonds worse?

vs-califiaWell, not at all. You don’t need a pound of almonds to make a pound of almond milk. (That would be very thick milk!) According to another article from the same author at Mother Jones, it’s alluded that there are 28 grams of almonds (about 24 almonds) in a 48oz bottle of Califia almond milk, which weighs 3 pounds. So 8 almonds are required for 1 pound of almond milk, or 8 gallons.

That 8 gallons per pound puts commercial almond milk in another league, compared to cow’s milk, which is 90 gallons per pound.

Homemade almond milk is bit of a different story. Recipes average around 1/4 cup of almonds per cup of finished almond milk (about 25 almonds per 1/4 cup), so a pound of homemade almond milk consumes around 50 almonds. Which means 50 gallons of water, and isn’t really wonderful, but it’s still nearly half that of cow’s milk. (Obviously commercial practices extract a lot more from the ground almond!) It’s also worth highlighting that the remaining almond pulp can be used in baked goods like cookies and other meals like nut burgers, extending the almonds use. And given that most simply purchase almond milk, this isn’t a great concern.

Almonds consume a lot of water, but there are much greater concerns when it comes to water use and agribusiness. The author describing his preference for kefir and bypassing the impacts of animal agriculture is a catastrophic oversight when critiquing water consumption.

UPDATE (Jan 15): The documentary Cowspiracy also illustrates this nicely.

UPDATE 2 (Feb 16): More thanks to this Cowspiracy blog post highlighting this New Republic article, which states that “livestock feed accounts for half of California’s water usage.” That’s just livestock feed, and doesn’t include other uses like the water they drink, or used for cleaning.

UPDATE 3 (Mar 10): We’ve discovered there’s a campaign called TruthOrDrought (Facebook page) focused on this issue as well, here’s their petition on the issue to educate Californians on the significance of animal agribusiness.

Update 4 (Apr 6): Added the graphic from TruthOrDrought, plus The Daily Kos posted a great column on this issue as well, one of the few articles actually talking livestock: “Almost half of the average Californian’s water footprint is due to consumption of meat and dairy”

Update 5 (Apr 8): Another informative story from Gizmodo, who have also spotted the trend from Mother Jones (see below): “Seriously, Stop Demonizing Almonds“. Also, check out this really informative blog from The Vegan Junction – packed with great resources: “Almonds Use More Water Than Beef?!

All said, I’m happy to learn more information about almonds and the resources they consume. Perhaps we ought to try and be mindful to consume less almonds when there’s a major drought in California, but the real question might be:

Why is Mother Jones author Tom Philpott out to get almonds? ;)

vs-almonds-tomphilpott

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Comments

  1. Leave a Reply

    vwg
    January 14, 2015

    Great article, but one problem: I don’t think your 377 gallons of water per pound of almonds is correct. According to the source for the above info graphic (the Stein study), a pound of almonds requires 1,200 gallons of water. I’d love to be proven wrong, but to put into context, based on the study (per pound):

    Beef takes 2,400 gallons
    Butters takes 2,050 gallons
    Almonds take 1,200
    Cheese takes 900
    Chicken takes 660

    http://www.vl-irrigation.org/cms/fileadmin/content/irrig/general/stein_2007_water_use_charts-units_converted.pdf

  2. Leave a Reply

    Dave
    January 14, 2015

    Hey VWG, thanks for writing!

    I’m not sure… My math was:

    1 almond = 1.2g
    1lb = 454g
    1lb = 377 almonds (oops – should have been 378 almonds.)
    377 almonds = 377 gallons

    If the Stein chart is correct, then it ought to be 3.17 gallons per almond, not the 1 gallon that is described in the Mother Jones articles I’m challenging. Here’s the piece Tom refers to: http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/02/wheres-californias-water-going

    From what I can tell, this is ‘water used by irrigation’, and maybe doesn’t include natural rainfall..? But I trust the Stein article is in the same boat, which brings us back to square one. D’oh.

    Going with the Stein numbers, the 8 almonds in the pound of Califia almond milk would translate to 25.36 gallons of water, and homemade almond milk is at 158.5 gallons. So the almond milk still consumes less water than cow’s milk, but homemade uses a bit more.

    What do you think?

  3. Leave a Reply

    Chris
    January 26, 2015

    It’s worth mentioning that you are citing facts from someone you are challenging in order to make the case that their information is wrong. :)

    It would appear that you might have misinterpreted the 8 almonds per gallon argument. The author makes the following statement:

    ” Plain almonds are a nutritional powerhouse. Let’s compare a standard serving (one ounce, about a handful) to the 48-ounce bottle of Califia Farms almond milk that a house guest recently left behind in my fridge.

    A single ounce (28 grams) of almonds—nutrition info here—contains six grams of protein (about an egg’s worth), along with three grams of fiber (a medium banana) and 12 grams of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (half an avocado). According to its label, an eight-ounce serving of Califia almond milk offers just one gram each of protein and fiber, and five grams of fat.”

    That isn’t saying only 8 almonds were used to produce the 1 gallon of almond milk, it is saying one gallon has the nutritional equivalent of 64 almonds. Recipes found on the internet mention 1lb of almonds (approx 115 shelled) per 3 cups of water (there are 16 cups in a gallon) meaning that it takes about 5lbs of almonds to make a gallon of almond milk. Thats for home consumers, so even if it took around half of that, that’s still several hundred almonds per gallon, and around a hundred per pound.

    Also its worth mentioning that production almond milk most certainly uses RO water for hygiene and consistency of flavor. which gives you a +40 gallon cost per pound. That alone almost tips the scales in favor of cow milk.

    • Leave a Reply

      Dave
      January 27, 2015

      Heya Chris, thanks for the comments!

      Yes, I’m aware of the irony, but figured I’d stick with the ‘facts’ as presented. ;)

      It’s a bit tricky to tell exactly how many almonds are in the commercial almond milk, I ended up doing a lot of research, and there are a few ways to extrapolate the data; including comparing protein, fat, calories, and other nutrients. Comparing other claims, it didn’t seem very far off from what the author was using to illustrate his point. (And I’d imagine the extraction process of almond milk companies would be highly efficient, getting a lot more out of the almond than a homemade operation ever would.)

      I feel like you overlooked the second half of my blog! I also browsed a number of almond milk recipes, and referenced a typical recipe. I think your math might be off by a significant factor for homemade – does 5lbs of almonds for 8.34lbs (the weight of 1 gallon of water) of almond milk really make sense? Here in Vancouver, a 2lb bag of almonds is ~$13 (on sale). That means making a gallon would cost ~$32, or $2 per cup. That just doesn’t sound reasonable. (I have friends who sell homemade almond milk, and they’d be losing money a lot of money on every bottle if this were true.)

      You bring up an interesting point with Reverse Osmosis filtered water, if that’s what they’re using. I’m doubtful it would still weigh too heavily however.

  4. Leave a Reply

    Fred Z.
    February 9, 2015

    I think you’re missing the point. The point is that the almond industry is not sustainable. Animal agriculture is also not sustainable in California. You eat almonds, California takes one more step towards catastrophe. You don’t need to compare the two types of milky beverages and how bad they are. You just need to stop eating almonds and stop rationalizing your behavior. Or be part of the problem.

    • Leave a Reply

      Dave
      February 10, 2015

      Hi Fred, thanks for writing!

      I don’t think your response is proportional – all one has to do is go to a grocery store and compare how many cartons of almond milk there are compared to cow’s milk. I would imagine for every 50 gallons of cow’s milk sold, 1 gallon of almond milk is sold. Which means there are a LOT more cows out there than almond trees. Almonds use up a lot of water – for sure. But perhaps if we didn’t have destructive, inefficient livestock, we would be able to sustain this luxury.

      I’m also responding to specific claims: the author seems fine vilifying almonds, but continuing to eat dairy. It’s textbook hypocrisy. If he was truly concerned about the water crisis, he’d give up animal products first, then almonds.

      As a vegan, I’m already saving tremendous amounts of water (relatively speaking). But with that said, I do try to be mindful with almonds as well. I just don’t think they’re anywhere near the level of livestock. I invite you to prove otherwise! =)

      • Leave a Reply

        Fred
        April 6, 2015

        Almond production uses ***1.1 trillion gallons of water*** in California every year. Livestock does not directly consume nearly that much water. The water consumption comes from the feed and the feed can easily be grown elsewhere.Your argument is not accurate at all in any of your comparisons and you are riding an agenda. Almonds are not sustainable to grow in California, end of story.

        • Leave a Reply

          Dave
          April 8, 2015

          Hi Fred, thanks for coming back!

          Yes, but if you look at our updates, especially the one from Gizmodo, you’ll see that while almonds use 10% of California’s water, alfalfa (which is fed to livestock, and shipped overseas….to feed livestock) is at 15% of the state’s usage (presumably about 1.6 trillion gallons of water, by your figures.) And a further 35% us also required by livestock.

          I’m not qualified to say whether nor not almonds are sustainable in California…and I don’t know how long 1.1 trillion gallons of water per year could be sustained, but it would be a lot more possible if people stopped eating animal products, which are a much greater culprit on many, many levels. If you look into it, you’ll find the GHG from livestock globally is greater than the entire transportation sector (see Livestock’s Long Shadow, a 2006 report from the UN FAO) – and I suspect these changes in climate are playing a part in California’s drought as well. Animal products are implicated in a number of the most prevalent health issues, from heart disease to cancer to diabetes. And there are the animals themselves, 10 billion sensitive, sentient being who are obliterated each year (those are the numbers just for land animals in the US.)

          As I wrote in the piece – maybe we need to examine almonds too, but there’s a much more pressing issue that has much wider implications (and solutions to these problems) than almonds.

  5. Leave a Reply

    Russell Martin
    March 22, 2015

    Doesn’t the original article decrying hipsters love of almond milk state that it takes 1.1 gallon of water grown an almond? Isn’t 1.1 gallons/almond x 378 almonds = 416 gallons of water per pound of almonds? Am I missing something here? I still think your calculations regarding water usage are gonna show almond milk to be less water intensive than cows milk but I think that your 377 almonds = 377 gallons of water is a bit off. Otherwise, thanks for the great article.

    • Leave a Reply

      Dave
      April 8, 2015

      Hi Russell, thanks for stopping by!

      You’re correct, there are a few different figures (as there are for nearly every stat in this, depending on who you’re referencing!) My piece is in response to the Mother Jones article linked at the very top, which states 1 gallon, and since I’m critiquing that article, I’ve chosen to use their numbers for this but agree it could vary a bit (and who knows, maybe the next research will say almonds are only .9 gallons each! ;) It’s still in the ballpark I hope!

  6. Leave a Reply

    Cam
    March 22, 2015

    About 15 to 20 years I ago I say a news report about how drinking too much water was bad for you. Already, a suspicious person, I knew not to take that news report too seriously. i just thought how said the big soda companies are upset that their soda sales are going down. If notice Coke and Pepsi, now sell lots of bottled water. I believe this too be the same. The standard producers of meat are worried about meat sales going down. Let’s face it alot more of us are eating less meat whether we are vegan or not. What better way to scare people away from healthier foods than to let them believe that OMG almonds use up so much water. Either way cows I am sure use up more water if you go from farm to market to table. I don’t suppose the water usage here for cows includes the water used in processes the cow meat all the way to your dinner table. Let’s face it almonds need water to grow. Then they are shelled or not shelled and package,. Do you wash your almonds when you get them home or do you just eat them. I bet you wash off your meat and wash the countertop and the dishes and pots and pans. Almonds you take them out of the bag and eat they. Maybe you throw them in a salad or not. Not much water goes into almonds after they are grown. Also there is no air pollution from almonds. If you have ever driven down the 5 from Northern California, cows product alot of waste. Just my two cents.

    • Leave a Reply

      Dave
      April 8, 2015

      Hi Cam – you’re actually right! On Twitter there was a campaign by the dairy industry to attack almond milk, using hashtags like #MilkTruth, #DairyTruth and #GetReal, but it actually backfired spectacularly as activists and the informed also used those hashtags to speak about the truth of the matter. They even had commercials bashing almond milk because it had lecithin in it (which is fairly common additive to dairy cow feed too). Thanks to all who challenged this, they gave it up fairly quickly. ;)

  7. Leave a Reply

    Thomas
    April 9, 2015

    Without passing judgment on any related issue, my comment is about methodology:

    I agree with the comment(s) above that full cycle use cases should be the baseline (i.e. including transport & processing).

    But also, any byproducts should also be considered. For example, butter is generally not made by itself – the process typically yields milk & perhaps cheese and other products. So, the total amount of watee used should be allocated across all of these products – otherwise, the amount of water used will be over counted.

  8. Leave a Reply

    Molly Spence
    April 11, 2015

    Hi, this is Molly Spence from the Almond Board of California. I saw your graphic on Twitter, which led me to your blog. Thanks for all the work you’re doing on this. I wanted to supply a correction, which I bet you’ll like — it’s actually false that almonds consume 10% of California’s total water supply. This figure has been clarified by its original author, a Slate reporter: http://ow.ly/LoXpz. Here are our own calculations: http://ow.ly/LoXwB And if you want to keep up on the latest almond info from the growers’ groups, you can follow @AHPA and @almonds on Twitter…including some really great defense we’ve had in the past few days from Greenpeace, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Thank you so much!

    • Leave a Reply

      Dave
      April 17, 2015

      Thanks for all this, Molly! Good to know almonds use even less water – the second link says 3% of total water use in California is a more accurate number? That’s quite a jump! Either way, it’s still MUCH less than what livestock require in California…hopefully people are shifting attitudes, and shifting to almond and other non-dairy milks. =)

  9. Leave a Reply

    Stuart Woolf
    April 28, 2015

    I believe 1 gallon per almond is overstated to begin with. Almonds represent about 25% of the annual biomass produced by the tree. The balance includes almond hulls and shells, both sold locally for feed and “green” energy/co-generation. Water is also used by the tree to absorb carbon, etc. The point here, it is likely more accurate to suggest an almond represents no more than 20-25%…if not less, of the total water used by the tree. I gallon per nut overstates this by 4-5 times. Also…China demand is actually declining. In the 2011-12 crop year, CA exported 236MM pounds to China. In 2013-14 it was 144MM lbs. The most recent number represent about 7.2% of the total marketable crop…not 70%. California Exports…in total, are +- 70% of the crop. We export vastly more to Europe!

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