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

Sustainable Habits – Water

Image credit: eric1513 / 123RF Banque d'imagesLast night I watched a baffling bit of television that focused on people – mostly in the United States – who are busily preparing to survive the end of the world. From what I can tell, they agree more on the impending end of the world more than on the specifics of why the end is nigh. Personally, I’m not very interested in figuring out how to survive in a post-Apocalyptic world if it means living underground for years, or spending a lot of time focusing on disaster rather than on possible ways to avoid disaster. As a schoolgirl during the Cold War, I spent far too many hours under various desks and tables doing ‘duck-and-cover’ nuclear attack drills to ever want to revisit that daily type of fear.

So it was with joy today that I found a quick remedy to the blues of last night’s television viewing: The Water Footprint Network, an organization dedicated to increasing awareness of water use. The WFN focuses on how human consumption and use of freshwater systems can be better understood by examining production and supply chains in their global entirety rather than simply looking at local or regional water levels and usage.

It’s well-known that many companies and countries import water-intensive goods from elsewhere, thus blurring how much water a country actually consumes. I discussed this a little in this post, but the topic is a vast one to which I will be returning.

The stated mission of the Water Footprint Network is to “promote the transition towards sustainable, fair and efficient use of fresh water resources worldwide”.

 The website has a nifty personal water footprint calculator based on use by country. According to this calculator I use well under the national average here in France. This is probably due in part to the fact that we collect rooftop rainwater all year and do all of our gardening and irrigation using garden cisterns.

What astonished me, however was that around half my water consumption was due to one simple fact: I eat meat. Now, the calculator didn’t differentiate between red meat or poultry, or whether the meat was range-fed, local or imported, so I can’t really judge how accurate this measurement is in relation to kind of the meat I eat. Still, I don’t much meat to begin with, and I have a feeling I will be eating even less. Sorry, local meat producers and regional poultry farms.

And I’m guessing – although I haven’t yet looked up whether I’m correct – that the reason 20% of U.S. water consumption actually takes place in China along the Yangtze River (according to WFN) is due to all the manufactured goods imported from there.

Source: WFN

Source: WFN

I liked the comments on how the WFN came up with its footprint logo:  “A dripping foot that is losing an essential part of its structure, a part that is fundamental for human balance(…)The drop of water shown in the water footprint…emphasize(s) that it is water that connects us all.”

This is the kind of survival perspective I can support.