Cashew Milk vs. Almond Milk: Which Is More Environmentally Friendly?

Bowls of cashews, almonds with milk in glasses overhead shot

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You can make milk out of just about anything nowadays: legumes, fruits, grains, you name it. One of the most popular sources of nondairy milk is, of course, nuts—or, more accurately, drupes.

Almond milk is the most popular example of this, accounting for the largest market share of any alt milk type. But it's not the only nut you can liquidize and pour over your cereal. There's also cashew milk.

The two are made in almost the same fashion and even have a similar flavor, although cashew milk tends to be slightly creamier than almond milk. Where they differ greatly, however, is in their social and environmental impacts. One wreaks havoc on a drought-stricken ecosystem and the other is associated with poor labor practices.

We'll break down the good, bad, and ugly of each so you can decide which is better for the planet, cashew or almond milk.  

Environmental Impact of Cashew Milk

Close-up of cashew apples hanging from tree

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Although cashews are sold with nuts, they're actually drupe seeds. They grow on fruit-producing trees and emerge from "cashew apples," false fruits that resemble boxing gloves or red bell peppers.

The evergreen cashew tree grows only in the tropics. Cashews are farmed in Brazil, India, Vietnam, Africa, Southeast Asia, and a small sliver of far-south Florida. The trees are not equipped for temperatures below 50 degrees. They live 20 to 25 years, on average, and harvest lasts about three months from February to May.

Water Use

You've heard of the utterly outrageous amount of water almond trees drink? Well, cashew trees aren't too far behind them, requiring only about 12% less. What separates cashews from almonds—and what makes them eco-friendlier, in one sense—is where they get their water.

About 90% of cashew trees' water needs is met by rainwater (aka "green" water). The tropics where they grow provide water aplenty, so there's no need to drain vital aquifers à la almond trees.

To put their water consumption in perspective, cashews need more H2O than oats, coconuts, soybeans, and rice combined, but still less than almonds and cow's milk.

Land Use

Aerial view of vast almond orchard and winding river

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Cashews grow on evergreen trees mostly in the Global South. The Ivory Coast produces the largest amount globally, followed by India, Vietnam, Burundi, the Philippines, and Tanzania. Cashew trees were first introduced in Ivory Coast around 1959 and were planted primarily to combat deforestation and prevent fires in the area. Now, they drive deforestation by demanding clearance for more farming areas and compete with other lucrative crops like shea, cotton, and mango.

Whereas cashew trees originally helped curb soil erosion in Ivory Coast, they now compromise soil quality because they're grown in extensive monocultures that deplete nutrients and cause the soil to become less fertile. What's more, with the rainfall irregularities and temperature increases caused by climate change threatening crop health, farmers are becoming increasingly inclined to protect their cashews with pesticides and fertilizers.

A 2020 survey of cashew farmers in three high-production areas of Ivory Coast revealed that 69% used agrochemicals on their crops.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The U.S. is the leading importer of cashews globally, collecting nearly 100,000 metric tons annually from Vietnam, Thailand, and India, primarily. Suffice to say the food miles accumulate, and so, too, do the greenhouse gas emissions.

Thankfully, cashews grow on trees that naturally absorb carbon dioxide, partially offsetting emissions from distribution. What's more, the byproducts of cashew kernels can be used as biofuel and for a type of livestock feed proven to drastically reduce methane emissions from animal agriculture.

Social Impact

Person squatting on ground, shelling cashews by hand

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The main reason people boycott cashews today is because of the poor working conditions associated with their farming. Child labor is rampant in the cashew industry, which is known for its long hours and little pay. In 2013, The Guardian reported that cashew nut workers in India were making only $0.40 a day while exposing their hands to corrosive liquid in the shelling process.

It's for this reason that cashews get a special shoutout under the "Labour Conditions" clause of the Fairtrade's Standard for Nuts, which states that "workers within the processing units must be adequately protected from cashew nut liquid." Under this standard, proper training, monitoring, and protective gear must be provided.

Environmental Impact of Almond Milk

Close-up of almond inside fleshy fruit on tree

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Like cashews, almonds are drupes—not true nuts—that grow on trees best suited for warm climates. Unlike cashews, grown mostly in the Global South, 80% of the world's almond production takes place domestically, in Central California.

Almond trees can live up to 30 years—given they survive the fires increasingly turning portions of their drought-stricken region to ash—and are ready for harvest between August and October. Almonds, despite composing the most popular vegan milk type in the U.S., are the most widely criticized for their water usage. Learn more about that and other reasons why almond milk might not be the most environmentally friendly milk option.

Water Use

Shelled or peeled almonds require, on average, 12% more water than cashews. It doesn't seem like a lot, but naturally occurring "green" water makes up only 58% of that water footprint versus 90% of cashews'. Nearly a quarter of almonds' water needs are met with groundwater, and groundwater is dwindling so fast in California that the past century has seen portions of the state's cropland sink by more than two feet.

After decades of dryness, California entered a "drought emergency" in 2021. The water used to sustain crops has dropped to dangerous levels, exacerbating a problem already growing due to climate change and reduced snowmelt on the Sierra Nevada mountains. Gov. Gavin Newsom has urged businesses and individuals to reduce their water use by 15% compared to 2020. Currently, the Almond Board of California is working toward a target of 20% water use reduction by 2025, its website says.

Land Use

Overhead view of almond orchard with mountains in background

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As of 2021, almond orchards occupied 1.6 million acres in California alone. They're also grown in Australia, China, the E.U., and Turkey. Almond trees are deciduous and flower from mid-February to mid-March in the Northern Hemisphere. When in bloom, their pink flowers bedeck California's agricultural center with ornamental pink flowers.

Unlike with cashew orchards, there's no evidence that almond orchards are replacing native forests in California or anywhere else. What is a known problem, however, is the crop's reliance on agrochemicals.

A 2018 report from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation revealed that 450-plus chemicals, including a handful of petroleum derivatives, were used on almond crops that year. These pesticides are sprayed to deter insects like the peach twig borer, a common almond tree pest, during the blooming season when vulnerable pollinators are brought to the region.

While conifers don't usually need fertilization, the added nitrogen is beneficial to deciduous varieties like the almond tree and can lead to higher crop yields. In the Central Valley, where these almond trees grow, agrochemicals coat the leaves of trees like snow. They contaminate the drinking water and have in the past caused people to break out in rashes.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Almond trees naturally absorb carbon dioxide. The process of growing and making the milk, with its sequestering qualities in mind, equals about a third of a pound of greenhouse gas emissions per cup. Then, you must factor in the emissions from distribution. Almond orchards are even more geographically concentrated than cashew orchards, so high food mileage is almost unavoidable.

It's unclear which has a lower carbon footprint, almond milk or cashew milk, but data shows that almond milk is the clear winner over oat milk, soy milk, rice milk, and dairy milk.

Animal Exploitation

Honey bee hovering over almond blossom


Many vegans avoid almond products because of animal exploitation. Both cashew and almond trees need to be pollinated to produce fruits, but the almond industry in California is notoriously hard on commercial bees.

Every year, 1.6 million bee colonies are transported from out of state to California's Central Valley on trucks. They must wake from their winter dormancy—a long sleep key to maintaining health and immunity—to pollinate almond trees from January to March, often after the trees have been sprayed with harmful agrochemicals. When researchers held a national survey in 2016, commercial beekeepers attributed 9% of bee colony loss to pesticide exposure.

Which Is Greener?

Cashews and almonds with jug of milk on striped towel

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When you compare apples to apples, the needs of cashew trees and almond trees are extremely similar. They require similar amounts of water and have comparable impacts on soil health because they live for decades in monocultures. Most of the time, inorganic orchards are riddled with agrochemicals that harm wildlife and the environment.

But having similar needs doesn't necessarily mean they have an equal impact. Almond trees might drink only 12% more water than cashew trees, but they're almost completely reliant on underground aquifers that are rapidly dwindling amid California's drought emergency. And while poor labor conditions can be avoided with Fairtrade certification on the cashew front, the almond market wouldn't survive without mass pollination, which is innately unsustainable.

Ultimately, cashew milk is a greener option than almond milk, but make sure you purchase only varieties that are organic and Fairtrade.

View Article Sources
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