Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard almond milk uses a lot of water. As much as one gallon per almond, in fact! Does this mean you should stop drinking almond milk? Are almonds worse than animal products? Before you decide to stop buying almond milk out of guilt, I suggest you read on.
How much water do almonds require compared with other crops?
Almond trees do require a lot of water. But they aren’t the only food that does so. Take a look at this chart, taken from a presentation by Blaine Hanson for the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources at University of California, Davis.
You’ll notice from this chart that almonds and pistachios (near the top of the chart), do take quite a bit of water. Less than rice and cotton, and just a bit more than corn.
But, whoah! Check out the amount of water used by crops like alfalfa and forages. They require almost twice as much water as almonds!
At this point you’re probably thinking, well, I don’t eat alfalfa, but I do eat almonds. But that’s where you’d be wrong. Unless you’re vegan, you eat tons of alfalfa and other pasture grasses every year. They just get processed through animals first.
Water used by California’s dairy industry
California, which produces much of the worlds almond supply, is well known for another export: dairy.
Cows require massive amounts of pasture grasses in order to produce milk. According to Dr. Blaine Hanson of UC Davis, dairy cattle alone consume 70% of the alfalfa grown in California.
The dairy industry uses massive amounts of water. 1 gallon of milk requires 880 gallons of water (Source: National Geographic water use graphic)
At first blush, that doesn’t seem that bad. In fact, this is where most people worried about almonds and water usage get tripped up.
You see it takes nearly 2,000 gallons of water to produce a pound of almonds. Which sounds like case closed – unless you actually think about it and do a little math.
Dairy milk actually uses 12 times as much water as most almond milk
Here’s the strange twist: a gallon of commercially prepared almond milk uses just a handful of almonds. Before sweetener is added, a cup of almond milk has just 30 calories. Thus, a gallon of commercial almond milk contains about 69 almonds, meaning that almond milk requires 69 gallons of water to produce, vs. 880 for dairy milk.
I did this calculation myself using Almond Breeze. You can do this calculation for your own particular brand of unsweetened almond milk by taking the number of calories in a gallon and dividing it by the number of calories in an almond (about 7). This actually an overestimate, because most almond milk contains thickeners that slightly up the calorie count.
We haven’t even talked about groundwater contamination
Of course, all of this fails to take into account another important issue: pollution.
A dairy farm with 2,500 cattle produces the same amount of waste as a city with 411,000 people (Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2004). Risk management evaluation for concentrated animal feeding operations. US EPA National Risk Management Laboratory).
Now that’s a lot of waste.
Almond groves do use a lot of water. But aside from a modicum of fertilizer, these groves don’t produce even a fraction of the poisonous waste that dairy farms dump daily. All animal agriculture pollutes groundwater and endangers human health (and that’s before you even eat these products).
And if you’re still on the fence, here’s an easy question: would you rather live next door to a dairy farm or an almond grove?