Nuts are simple. They’re grown on trees, harvested, hulled, and brought to market. They need water, of course, but the only other major input is sunlight. At Kite Hill, we source local, GMO-free almonds. They’re not organic, which means that our farmers do use some targeted fertilizers and pesticides. However, almonds grow inside a shell and a hull, so neither the fertilizers nor the pesticides are ever in direct contact with the nuts themselves.
It is often cited that almonds require a little over one gallon of water per nut; but this is a fraction of what it requires to raise animals, according to Waterfootprint.org. Other nuts and pulses (lentils and beans) also require a high water input, as do crops like olives, rice, and avocados.
Our almond farmers use a mix of watering techniques, and all of the new orchards employ micro-sprinklers, which spray water only 2 to 3 inches above the ground and target all of the water at the tree. Any water that does not get immediately used by the tree is recycled into the groundwater and used again.
Healthy dairy cows can eat up to 100 pounds of food per day, which itself requires its own water and land to grow. According to a report from UC Davis, the number one water consumer in California is alfalfa grown for meat and dairy cattle feed. Much of this alfalfa is exported as animal feed overseas. This same report argued that it made more economic sense to grow high-value crop, like almonds, during the drought than low-value crops, like alfalfa or grain. After feed is accounted for, cows still need their own water, plus any resources needed to maintain their health and productivity. That’s a high tally.
Besides the nuts themselves, almond agriculture has very little output. There is a small amount of energy required to run harvesting and hulling machinery, but these emissions average about 0.4 pounds of CO2 per pound of almonds — that’s a tiny number compared to the 17.6 pounds of CO2 needed to produce a gallon of dairy milk. Plus, the almond trees themselves trap carbon and grow blossoms that are a valuable pollen-rich feeding ground for bees.
Livestock, on the other hand, are responsible for the emission of much of the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere; they emit 37% of the methane, 65% of the nitrous oxide, and 64% of the ammonia in the environment. Cattle also produce a great deal of manure, which when not properly treated, can leach into our valuable groundwater. The Food and Water Watch estimates that industrial dairies in the Central Valley alone create around 300 million tons of waste per year. In addition, dairy operations require high amounts of energy for transport and pasteurization, leading to those high carbon dioxide emissions mentioned above.
In short, tree nuts like almonds do require water and land use, but their environmental impact is relatively small compared to that of the average dairy operation.