Is California almond consumption to blame for the statewide drought?
California almonds are becoming one of the world’s favorite snacks — with consumption up 1,000 percent over the past decade— and are creating a multibillion-dollar bonanza for agricultural investors. Unfortunately, the crop extracts a staggering price from the land, consuming more water than all showering, dish-washing, and other indoor household water use of California’s 39 million population.
As California enters its fourth year of drought and first-ever mandatory statewide water cutbacks are put into effect in cities and towns, the $6.5 billion almond crop is helping drive a sharp debate about water use, agricultural interests and how both affect the state’s economy.
Almonds are now front and center as “the poster child of all things bad in water,” California almond grower Bob Weimer said.
People around the world are eating over 1,000 percent more California almonds than they did a decade ago, and last year almonds became the top export crop in the nation’s top agriculture state. China’s booming middle class is driving much of the almond demand.
That strong Asia market is producing up to 30 percent returns for investors, prompting the agriculture businesses to expand almond planting throughout the state by two-thirds in the last decade. The crop has come to be dominated by global corporations and investment funds as it has become widely popular.
A New York Times food columnist noted, disapprovingly, that California exports most of its almonds to other countries, “which means effectively, that we are exporting water.” He concluded: “Unless you’re the person or company making money off this deal, that’s just nuts.”
It is true that almonds need water year round, which is not the case with many other crops. In the last 20 years, most almond farmers have worked hard to reduce their consumption, with techniques such as drip irrigation. Though the number of almond trees has increased more than 60%, water consumption has remained flat, the Los Angeles Times reported.