Almond Dilemma

Almond plant. Source: Franz Eugen Köhler / Wikipedia

Almond plant.
Source: Franz Eugen Köhler / Wikipedia

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.

Pulling out almond trees, 2013. Tree crops, like almonds, are a long-term investment and must be watered every year, regardless of drought, to maintain the productivity of the tree - which can produce for up to 25 years.  Photo: AP/Scott Smith

Pulling out almond trees, 2013. Tree crops, like almonds, are a long-term investment and must be watered every year, regardless of drought, to maintain the productivity of the tree – which can produce for up to 25 years.
Photo: AP/Scott Smith

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.

Almond blossom Photo: Golona

Almond blossom
Photo: Golona

Monday Rain

This is what I get for complaining about the searing summer heat over the weekend: A Monday of torrential summer rain.

We’ve had an impressive display of window-rattling thunder and showy mountain lightning over the past twelve hours, and the kind of non-stop, utterly vertical precipitation that is actually a warm joy to dance in if you aren’t trying to revive your electrical power or to keep the garage from flooding.

For the moment, fingers crossed, we’ve got power and the flooding has been averted, so I found myself thinking about where all this precious sweet fresh water might go. We have a couple of water cisterns for our roof run-off – we use it to water the plants when the inevitable summer drought conditions set in. But whither the rest of this watery plenty?

Drawing Water Source: David Wicks via sansumbrella

Drawing Water (2011)
Infographic: David Wicks / sansumbrella

I couldn’t find information for France, but I did find this intriguing image of water flow in the United States. Called Drawing Water and created by David Wicks, it illustrates the relation between where water falls to where it is consumed, based on government data. From Wicks’ site, sansumbrella:

“Each line in Drawing Water corresponds to a daily rainfall measurement. The length of the line and its initial placement are determined by the amount of rainfall measured and where it fell. The final placement and color of each line are determined by the influence of urban water consumers. The more water a city uses, the stronger its pull on the rainfall.”

It’s worth heading over to sansumbrella to play with the interactive links for this illustration and read the more extensive descriptions of how the image was created.

Meanwhile, I will listen to the steady millions of drops falling outside, picture their onward journey across, through and under the ground, and learn to complain neither about the heat, nor about the rain. Because, for the moment, the water table where I live has plenty of water from which to draw.