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Growing Good

Almonds, Health + Sustainability: Behind the Headlines

Keto, Vegetarian, Paleo, Flexitarian…

However you choose to eat, almonds are the perfect addition to a healthy diet and are packed full of nutritional benefits such as B vitamins (B2, B3, B1 and B9), magnesium, fibre and plant-based protein.  

But for many of us, it’s not enough anymore to just eat foods that are good for us. We want our food choices to be good for the planet too. 

While determining if a food is healthy is fairly simple, it’s not always the case when it comes to a food’s sustainability credentials. In fact, it’s a pretty complex and confusing area. Which is why we’ve asked third-generation almond farmer and the Almond Board’s Senior Sustainability Manager, Danielle Veenstra, to take a look behind the headlines and give you the inside scoop on how California almonds are grown.

In this article we will find out:

  • How the California Almond community is committed to reducing the amount of water to grow a pound of almonds by an additional 20 percent by 2025
  • How honey bees routinely leave the almond orchards stronger than when they arrived.*
  • Why California almonds have a lower carbon footprint than many other nutrient-dense foods
  • Why water usage alone is not the best way to decide which plant milk is best for you
  • Almonds, like all nuts, need water to grow

    There is no getting around the fact that plants need water to grow. While this is true for almonds, they are not unique. In fact, almond trees require similar amounts of water to grow as most other California fruit and nut trees.1

    California also happens to be one of only five places in the world with the right climate to grow almonds. But with climate change making the region more susceptible to water scarcity, farmers have learned to use this precious resource wisely.

    Since 1982, California almond farmers have supported over 200 different water research projects, working with a number of partners including the University of California. For example, using micro-irrigation techniques, which conserve water by applying it directly to a tree’s roots, we reduced the amount of water needed to grow each pound of almonds by 33 percent between the 1990s and 2010s.2

    And as the popularity of almonds and plant-based milks continues to grow, our drive for continued innovation and improvement does too - so much so that we have committed to reduce the amount of water to grow a pound of almonds by an additional 20 percent by 2025.

    Keen to find out more? You can read more about almond water efficiency here or check out this article from The Atlantic exploring how California almond farmers are adapting to and trying to find solutions to climate change.

    Sustainable Living Advocate
    Chef and cookbook author, Alexandra Dudley, is a passionate advocate for sustainable eating.

    Curious about the sustainability credentials of one of her favourite foods, Alexandra visited California’s almond orchards to see first-hand, the work that goes into growing them. Read more about her trip to California's almond orchards.

    I was aware that California can experience droughts so it was reassuring to hear from the growers I met that water is a key area where the almond community is making constant improvements. Every drop is used with the utmost efficiency.
    Chef, cookbook author and sustainable living advocate, Alexandra Dudley

    Almonds need bees and bees need almonds

    Every almond we eat exists because a honey bee pollinated it, so it’s in everyone’s interests – farmers and beekeepers alike – to make sure California’s almond orchards are a safe and welcoming place for bees. Almond orchards actually help to strengthen beehives because almond pollen is their first natural food source of the year, providing all ten of the amino acids their diet requires.3

    Saying that, we know there are important questions to address about honey bee health and there’s no escaping the fact that honey bee health is complex and involves a range of factors from in-hive pest management and genetics to floral diversity. And while honey bees only spend two months of the year pollinating almonds, we are dedicated to caring for them for all twelve and want them to leave our orchards stronger than when they arrived.4

    Some of the most important work that we do is partnering with experts outside of the almond industry to fund research and find solutions to honey bee health challenges. To date, we have funded over 125 studies looking at bee health, more than any other crop.

    This research has led us to develop the Honey Bee Best Management practices (BMPs), which provide important recommendations on ensuring honey bee health on-farm to everyone involved in the pollination process. As one of the authors of the BMPs, I’m proud they have been recognised by leading bee health experts and are now used as an example for other crop producers to follow.  

    But our work doesn’t stop there. We’re also involved in a number of honey bee health initiatives including a Bee Friendly Farming programme, created by the Pollinator Partnership, the world’s largest non-profit dedicated exclusively to the protection and promotion of pollinators and their ecosystems.

    And thanks to our partnership with Project Apis m.’s Seeds for Bees programme, California almond farmers have planted over 41,000 acres of bee pasture in and around their orchards, providing additional food sources to support the health of bees and other pollinators.5

    With a crop that relies primarily on honey bees for pollination, it is in almond farmers' best interest to ensure their orchards are a safe place for bees each spring... Almond farmers continue to be good partners as we develop and deploy collaborative solutions for healthier pollinators and a more secure food supply.
    Billy Synk, Director of Pollination Programs, Project Apis m.

    California is a long way from the UK but that doesn’t mean California almonds have a large carbon footprint

    California almonds have a lower carbon footprint than many other nutrient-dense foods.
    Dr Alissa Kendall, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of California

    Due to the special climate needed to grow them, almonds can’t be produced in the UK. But as we learn more about the footprint of our food, understanding where it comes from is important.

    Currently, 63 percent of California-grown almonds are exported overseas, including to the UK. But unlike fresh fruit and other perishables, almonds have a very long shelf life, lasting over two years, and don’t need to be flown. Instead, they are shipped to countries in airtight containers to prolong shelf life, where they are then stored and distributed locally. This method of transportation – by sea - has the lowest carbon emissions of common food transportation methods, producing 50 times less CO2 emissions per ton kilometre than transportation by aeroplane.6

    And when it comes to growing almonds, farmers have taken a zero waste approach for many years. When we say zero waste, we mean using everything. Almonds grow in a shell, protected by a hull, on a tree. The hulls become livestock feed, offsetting the need to grow other crops, and the shells are used as livestock bedding. Researchers are also looking at how to use these co-products to cultivate mushrooms, strengthen post-consumer recycled plastics, and even brew beer!

    The trees themselves are essential to life, removing carbon dioxide from the air and storing it in their wood until the end of their lives when it can be mulched back into the land to create healthier soils and help fight climate change. Known as “whole orchard recycling,” farmers are increasingly adopting this approach, which has been found to sequester 2.4 tons of carbon per acre.7 That’s the equivalent of living car-free for a year for each acre of land it’s used on.8

    As a keen cook and lover of natural ingredients, I was eager to understand how California almonds were grown and how sustainable the practices were. During my visit to California’s almond orchards, I saw for myself the steps almond growers are taking to become zero waste, from upcycling husks and shells to create materials that add strength to recycled plastic, to extracting the natural sugars to feed and look after the bees.
    Alexandra Dudley, chef, author and sustainable living advocate

    The skinny on almond milk

    The popularity of almond milk means more questions are being asked about almonds’ sustainability credentials versus dairy and other plant-based milks.

    All popular plant milks use different amounts of water, and the amount of water used to grow almonds is similar to other nuts. And water usage alone is not the best way to decide which plant milk is best for you.  A University of Oxford study that examines the impact of various plant-based milks also considers the land use and the CO2 emissions – two areas where almonds win.9 You also need to consider the different nutritional values each milk offers. Creamy, delicious and lactose-free, almond milk is a low calorie and low sugar option, when unsweetened, compared to dairy milk and other plant-based products.

    Growing Good

    Like others working in agriculture, California almond farmers know that when you grow a healthy food, you have to do right by the planet too. Find out more by taking a look at how we're Growing Good.

    *Ellen Topitzhofer, et al. Assessment of Pollen Diversity Available to Honey Bees in Major Cropping Systems During Pollination in the Western United States. Journal of Economic Entomology. 2019.

    1 Larry Schwankl, et al. Understanding Your Orchard’s Water Requirements. University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Publication 8212. February 2010.

    2 University of California, 2010. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2012. Almond Board of California, 1990–94, 2000–14.

    3 Ramesh Sagili. Department of Horticulture, Oregon State University.

    4 Ellen Topitzhofer, et al. Assessment of Pollen Diversity Available to Honey Bees in Major Cropping Systems During Pollination in the Western United States. Journal of Economic Entomology. 2019.

    5 Billy Synk. Director of Pollination Services. Project Apis m. November 2020

    6 Ritchie Hannah & Roser Max. Environmental Impacts of Food Production. Our World in Data. January 2020

    7 Michael Wolff, et al. Whole Orchard Recycling report for the Environmental Farming Act Science Advisory Panel. 2019.

    8 Seth Wynes, et al. The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions. Environmental Research Letters. 2017.

    9 J Poore and T Nemecek. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. University of Oxford. 2018