Almonds are a nutritious and satisfying food source. Not only are the munchable nuts a popular snack, but they are also used in a variety of other consumable products, such as almond butter and almond flour, and can be used in a milk alternative for people with dairy allergies or vegan preferences. Almond milk, a supermarket staple, is used in everything from coffee to baking. But like many other crops, the spotlight has been on whether almonds and the increased demand for almond milk are damaging the environment.

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How is almond milk produced?

It’s important to first understand that almond production is a regional issue. In the United States, California grows nearly every almond in the country and also provides more than 80% of almonds shipped around the world. Needless to say, that level of production affects a significant part of the state’s land, economy and resources. The result is an industry criticized for extreme water consumption and pesticide use.

Related: How to choose the healthiest, most sustainable milk alternative

Water use in the almond industry

The main headline on almonds echoes fears regarding excessive water use. The truth is that farming uses water and a lot of it; almonds are no exception. In fact, a single almond takes about 1.1 gallons of water to produce. However, to put this in perspective, a single pound of beef requires a whopping 1,800 gallons of water, proving that raising cattle is much more resource-intensive than growing almonds. Collectively, meat and dairy production in California uses more water than that of all homes, businesses and government buildings in the entire state. Those figures make choosing almond milk over dairy milk much easier.

Farmers realize water is a precious resource, and it’s been a topic of conversation for decades. As a result, California almond producers have spent two decades reducing the amount of water it takes to grow one pound of almonds by 33%. Additionally, they are dedicated to further cutting water usage by another 20% by 2025. Farmers achieve this by targeting water usage where it is needed rather than spraying large areas. Technology is helping, too, with computer-programmed water probes that measure moisture levels in the soil and respond accordingly.

Pesticides for growing almonds

Another concern centers around the use of pesticides in almond production, as pesticides then end up in the soil and water supply. The answer to this problem is a basic one; simply buy organic. Although the transition has been gradual, an increasing number of almond farmers in California are converting to organic growing methods. 

bee flying toward flowers on an almond tree

Is our obsession with almond milk killing bees?

Then there are the claims that almond milk is killing bees, but almonds are important to bees. Not only is almond nectar the first feast bees have early in the year, but the almond groves support roughly 2 million hives from across the country, making it the world’s largest managed pollination event. With the good comes the bad — pesticides are indeed credited with contributing to colony collapse, enforcing the need to grow and buy organic almonds along with other nuts, fruits and vegetables.

Almonds and the economy

While California remains cognitive of the potential negative impacts of almond production, the benefits appear to outpace those concerns. As far as the economy goes, The California Agricultural Issues Center says the California almond community delivers significant economic value to the state, including providing 104,000 jobs in the state and boosting GDP by $11 billion.

bowl of homemade almond milk

Almond milk’s overall impact on the environment

While the discussion of almond production is important to whether almond milk is bad for the environment or not, it’s also critical to realize that most almond milk uses very few almonds. Most almond milks are high in added ingredients, like sugars, artificial flavors and thickeners. Almond milk packaging and transport both have a negative impact, and all of the added ingredients make the nutrition benefits of almond milk questionable at best.

You can curb the environmental impact of prepackaged almond milk by making your own at home. There are recipes all over the internet that explain how to do so and even offer twists on the traditional almond flavor by using spices and natural flavorings.

So to address the question, “Is almond milk bad for the environment?” the answer is somewhat, but the benefits of a healthy snack producing a healthy economy and a healthy bee population outweigh the water consumption issues. Also remember that almonds offer the same environmental benefits of any other tree, cleaning the air by removing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. Plus, the branches offer shade to the soil allowing for better water retention and less evaporation. When the leaves drop, they add nutrients to the soil through natural composting. In all, the carbon footprint is somewhat small, especially compared to conventional dairy, while the economic, nutritional and environmental rewards are high.

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