Should we stop eating and growing almonds?

Photo via Flickr user Harsha K R

Photo via Flickr user Harsha K R

At breakfast this morning as I grabbed a handful of almonds for my oatmeal, I stopped to count them: 32. It took over 35 gallons of water to grow those 32 nuts, according to a report in Mother Jones. With increasing concerns about California’s drought, where 80% of the world’s almonds grow, I couldn’t help but wonder if we should stop eating and growing almonds altogether. It’s not a simple question, I realized.

1. Almonds are a high-value crop. They’re worth $11 billion to the California economy and employ over 100,000 people, according to a U.C. Davis study. Of course, as the almond business has boomed, so has the water needed to grow them.

2. Water-use data doesn’t tell the whole story.  The gallon per-nut figure doesn’t account for the value of the whole crop, the Almond Board of California told me. Along with the kernels—the part we eat—the hulls are quite valuable as cattle feed, and the shells are used for animal bedding.


3. Per gram of protein produced, nuts have a lower water footprint than meat—but a higher water footprint than pulses (lentils and beans), according to a UNESCO report (if you read it, go to section 3.4).


4. California’s climate is ideally suited to almond production. Only 5 or 6 places in the world have the Mediterranean climate almonds need to thrive, the Almond Board told me. But given California’s dire water situation, will they go the way of the Wooly Mammoth?


5. It’s complicated. We sure don’t have all the answers, but I know each time I nibble on almonds, I’m going to be thinking hard.




  1. Robert Bassila

    Raw almonds will give you a strong and healthy heart. My father always told me that. He died at 91 years old and the doctors say the reason he lasted that long is that he had the heart of a 20 year old. Enough said.

    July 8, 2015 at 2:00 pm
  2. Elaine Johnson

    Joe, it’s good to hear the perspective of someone who grows our food.

    May 8, 2015 at 3:57 pm
  3. Joe

    I come from a 3rd generation farming family. My grandfather started farming shortly after his service in WWII, growing cotton and tomatoes in Kern County on 10 acres of leased dirt. My after college partnered with my grandfather and continued the farming tradition. In 1982, a bank took a chance on my father and loaned him enough money to purchase his first piece of ground which he planted to almonds. Fast forward 33 years and now I find myself along with my two eldest brothers carrying on the farming tradition that started over 65 years ago. My oldest brother manages our bees that are so vital to our almond crop. My middle brother manages our farming operations and I have the blessed opportunity to market & sell my families almonds to customers all over this great nation.

    So yes, you can call me an almond farmer but to my family and I, this is so much more than just an almond. This is a livelihood, a passion, and a love.

    May 8, 2015 at 11:57 am
  4. Elaine Johnson

    Joe, are you an almond farmer by chance? ; )

    May 8, 2015 at 11:33 am
  5. Joe

    Elaine, when you consider the fact that the almond industry is essential 4 different industries rolled into one (Almond kernel, Shell, Hull, and Almond Oil) the 1 gallon per one kernel argument is erroneous. Yes, it is true that it takes approximately 1 gallon for not just the kernel but also the shell, the hull and the 2-3% of almonds used for oil that are not accounted for. The fact that the almond industry is able to use every part of the almond for beneficial uses makes it among the most efficient agricultural commodities around. When you look at it this way… what other food source provides the same nutritional benefit per ounce, storability, economic benefit, and environmental efficiency as an almond?

    Let’s not forget, you cant just grow commercially viable almonds just anywhere…. but you can grow cotton, corn, soy, oranges, watermelon etc in many different places around the world. In addition, CA Agriculture may be small portion of California total economy (8th largest economy in the WORLD) but when you realize that CA grows over 70% of USA fresh produce and essentially 100% of our almonds you begin to see the importance. Especially when you consider that GOOGLE, APPLE and 95% of Silicon Valley can be run from anywhere else in the world but you cannot just stop growing the worlds food.

    May 8, 2015 at 11:17 am
  6. Elaine Johnson

    Joe, thanks for sharing that look at almond growing and for the information on oil. I guess it’s a question of how much almond growing is the right amount for California, in terms of sharing a valuable resource–and that’s a complex issue, isn’t it?

    May 8, 2015 at 10:58 am
  7. Joe

    Thank you Elaine for the insightful look into almonds and the industry as a whole.

    Don’t forget that 2-3% (approximately 40-60 million lbs) of almonds is used for oil stock which is used to produce lotions, cooking oils, cosmetics etc… This is not accounted for in the numbers either.

    Here is a great video that gives a look into what CA agriculture is really like:

    May 7, 2015 at 4:22 pm
  8. Bruce N. Goren

    Here is another water shortage solution we should be implementing on an agricultural scale.

    Why not California ?

    May 6, 2015 at 10:21 pm
  9. Bruce N. Goren

    Seriously Elaine? Maybe they misunderstood your question; or maybe you only heard what you wanted to hear in their answer; but I will now show you easy to research and clear evidence that the Almond Board is vigorously disputing the profoundly misleading and demonizing data point that Mother Jones and The Atlantic have set fire to the prairie with. Please follow and read these two links and then elaborate on how the Almond Board “confirmed” those “facts” for you.

    Here —

    And Here —

    Thanks in advance . . .

    May 6, 2015 at 10:11 pm
  10. Elaine Johnson

    Bruce, thanks for sharing your thoughts on almonds and California’s water shortage. You expressed concern about the source (Mother Jones) for the 1.1 gal. it takes to grow a single almond. I just wanted to let you know that while I was researching this piece I did confirm that figure with the Almond Board of California. There’s certainly a lot of competition for the little water we have. The Water Fence you mention sounds like a great idea for capturing more rainfall.

    May 6, 2015 at 7:58 pm
  11. Bruce N. Goren

    I am not ready to scapegoat Almonds for California’s water shortage. First off, consider the source. Mother Jones, a publication with a long history of publishing biased and false information, has cherry picked a data point for dramatic effect and the idea has gone viral, everyone loves an easy villain. Go back to the actual study they cite and the first inconvenient truth you find is that the gallon per nut number assumes the use of irrigated water only. Are almond trees actually grown under such conditions? Of course not! It rains! Even in so-called drought years it rains, so a good portion of that gallon per nut does not get “stolen” from the drinking water supply.

    Considering that this year’s rainfall was pretty close to normal in most of the state it is time for the politicians to shut-up about the drought and start talking about California’s chronic Water Shortage ! While conservation is generally a good thing, clearly we can not conserve our way out of this problem, contrary to the lying politicians and water Nazi extremists.

    Here are some ideas on how to relieve the shortage of water —

    May 2, 2015 at 11:54 am

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