I was in our local French supermarket the other day when I spied some packages of California almonds. Now, the usual almonds we get around here are from Turkey or Israel, and they taste just fine, but I grew up around California almonds in California, so in a moment of expat nostalgia, I bought a package of almonds from the other side of the world.
Of course I know California is the throes of its worst drought in 500 years. Of course I think about the sustainability footprint of sending snack foods aroundthe planet on planes. But our supermarket’s buyer has notoriously fickle tastes – this is the first time I’ve seen California almonds there, it may be the last.
California supplies 80% of the world’s almonds. exporting 70% of its crop to 90 countries (according to the Almond Board of California). Almonds are the state’s top crop export, with the trend increasing due to growing demand in India and China. Just last year, one year into the historical drought, articles were touting the almond boom, with vineyards being sold and ripped out to plant more almond trees. The revenue from almonds in 2012 reached $5 billion.
Meanwhile, almonds are relatively thirsty trees. In the 1960s, I remember driving by almond orchards that used flood irrigation, a profligate method that is exactly what it sounds like. According to almond growers, irrigation these days is more efficient and appropriate for what is essentially a very dry climate, even without the drought.
When I buy a bag of California almonds, or for that matter a pack of Peruvian asparagus, or Spanish strawberries, I’m not just buying the delicious and healthy crop that was produced elsewhere. I’m buying the water that was used to grow those products in very dry regions. Water that has, effectively, been packaged and shipped to me in the form of an almond or strawberry.
Less than a year after the articles on the expansion of the almond industry, images of drought-impacted farmers ripping out their almond trees abound. Entire economies have been successfully built around these crops, and removing them would be devastating locally. Between the complexities of water politics, the weight of old water habits and the urgency for solutions brought on by the drought, the boom of California almonds may turn out to be short-lived.
Do I give up ever buying California almonds again, as I have with several other foods that I no longer buy due to their sustainability footprint? I find myself in a quandary precipitated by an impulse buy, and I’m not sure how to resolve it.