Is Almond Milk Bad for the Environment?

Glass bottle of almond milk surrounded by whole almonds

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Almond milk, although positioned as an eco-friendly alternative to cow's milk, gets a lot of flak for being bad for the environment. Almond trees are notorious water guzzlers—bad news for drought-stricken California, the source of most of these thirsty seeds (often falsely labeled as tree nuts for the sake of allergic labeling). What's more, they're often treated with pesticides that threaten honeybee health.

In 2018, the global market size of almond milk was estimated at more than $5 billion. According to Mintel, an international market intelligence agency, almond milk accounted for 64% of the nondairy milk market share in the U.S., while soy and coconut milk accounted for 13% and 12% respectively. While it's still touted as a more sustainable choice than dairy milk, the beloved beverage's footprint is becoming increasingly detrimental to the perpetually parched state of California.

Weighing the environmental impacts of almond milk can be complex—here are some important factors to consider.

The Water Footprint of Almonds

Aerial view of irrigation canal running between California almond orchards

Justin Sullivan / Staff / Getty Images

One of the most harmful and well-known perils of almond farming is the copious amounts of water it requires. Just one seed needs a reported 1.1 gallons to reach milk-level maturity, and nearly 2,000 gallons are needed to grow a pound. Because almond milk is mostly water, there are only a few servings of almonds in each glass.

Popular crops like walnuts, hazelnuts, and pistachios drink just as much—sometimes more, even—but the almond industry receives more criticism because almonds are in higher demand. Almond crops generated three times more cash for the U.S. economy than pistachios in 2019, four times more than walnuts, and 72 times more than hazelnuts. Peanut consumption, on the other hand, far outweighs almond consumption in the U.S.—2.26 pounds per capita versus 7.6 pounds per capita—but peanuts need less water to grow, about 4.7 gallons per ounce (with an ounce containing about 35 shelled peanuts).

To put almonds' water consumption further into perspective, one orange requires 13 gallons of water, a cup of coffee 35 gallons, one potato 100 gallons, a glass of dairy milk 48 gallons, and a half cup of tofu 61 gallons. One quarter-pound hamburger alone is the equivalent of 460 gallons of H2O.

Still, almond milk requires more water than any of the other dairy alternatives.

Almonds and the California Drought

One of the leading reasons why almond milk's water footprint is so widely criticized is because 80% of the world's almond supply is grown in California, a state headed for "megadrought" status after two decades of extreme dryness.

California is not only the largest almond exporter on the planet, but it's also the sole source of the U.S.'s $6 billion almond industry. The trees that produce these seeds cover more than 1.5 million acres of the Central Valley. While there isn't firm data that points to the almond industry as a culprit in California's prolonged drought, the consequences of farmers' growing thirst for groundwater are apparent. The Central Valley, the state's agricultural hub, has been gradually sinking (up to 28 feet in total) since the 1920s because water from millennia-old underground aquifers is being pumped faster than it can be recharged.

Farmers will often use water from rivers for irrigation, too, which has left many fish, crustaceans, and mammals starved for habitat, hydration, and prey. Chinook salmon has been one of the greatest casualties. In 2017, the annual salmon run that would normally have filled bears' and birds' bellies with tens (or hundreds) of thousands of fish and allowed the salmon to spawn proved to be the second-lowest return in recorded history. Only 1,123 adult winter Chinook salmon were counted in Sacramento Valley, less than 1% than the number of returning salmon during the 1960s.

Naturally, water scarcity has also taken a toll on crops. Many of the state's growers—of which there are 6,800, according to the Almond Board of California—have resorted to ripping out portions of their almond crops on account of the worsening drought. According to a 2016 fact sheet published by the organization, almond growers had reduced their water usage by 33% over the two decades prior.

Impact of Pesticide Use

Beehives places between blooming almond trees for pollination

Barbara Rich / Getty Images

A myriad of harmful chemicals is sprayed on almond orchards throughout the year to prevent invasions from ants, mites, leafrollers, and the voracious peach twig borer—a major almond tree enemy. Another gaggle of -cides are sprayed to manage weeds and disease. 

According to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, almond orchards were treated with more pesticides than any other local crop in 2017. More than 34 million pounds of "active ingredients" were sprayed across the region, a 15% increase from four years prior. That same year, almond acreage treated with insecticides had increased by 5%, treated with herbicides increased by 6%, and treated with fungicides increased by 12%. 

One of the top five insecticides used, methoxyfenozide, is toxic to bees. The University of California's Integrated Pest Management Guidelines say not to allow two others, bifenthrin and abamectin, to "drift to plants that are flowering" because of their bee toxicity.

Because almond trees are particularly susceptible to bloom and foliar diseases, they are often sprayed when they are in bloom. This common practice is exceedingly harmful to the honey bees, 1.6 million colonies of which are transported to Central California each bloom season. The U.S. Department of Agriculture considers these essential workers livestock because of their key role in pollinating 75% of all food crops. But millions of them die every year from pesticide exposure, diseases, and habitat loss.

Honeybee colonies—particularly those of the Western honeybee—have been on the decline since 2006, but commercial beekeepers reported a record loss during the winter of 2018-2019. Fifty billion bees, more than a third of the U.S.'s commercial colonies, died. Large-scale industrial agriculture and pesticide exposure were blamed for the massive die-off. To pollinate almond orchards, honeybees must wake from their winter dormancy up to two months earlier than they would wake naturally, which puts added stress on the increasingly fragile invertebrates.

Pollution From Fertilizer

Rows of almond trees after fertilizer application of white potassium

Barbara Rich / Getty Images

What little groundwater is left in Central California is being threatened not just by extraction for almond orchard irrigation but also by fertilizer pollution, which can spike drinking water with hazardous nitrate throughout the entire state. Unlike other crops, the deciduous almond tree needs an abundance of nitrogen to renew and invigorate fruiting wood. This chemical element is directly linked to production, and in an orchard environment, the trees typically receive it through fertilizers. 

The use of nitrogen-rich fertilizers can contaminate soil and groundwater with a toxic compound that, if consumed in large quantities, can dilate blood vessels and lower blood pressure. High levels of nitrate in drinking water (i.e., over the Environmental Protection Agency's standard of 10 milligrams per liter) are especially dangerous for infants and pregnant women. It can also poison livestock and wildlife because it has no noticeable taste or smell.

To make matters worse, almond trees drop their leaves annually, and all the nitrogen stored in that organic material can be leached into soil and groundwater—especially if it's hit with a sudden shower.

Transportation Emissions

Overall, the production of almond milk emits less greenhouse gas (.3 pounds per glass) than the production of oat milk (.4 pounds), soy milk (.44 pounds), and rice milk (.53), taking into account farming, transportation, packing, and processing. It generates about four times fewer emissions than dairy milk.

The good news is that almond trees can store carbon dioxide as they grow. The bad news is that almonds sold in the U.S. are generally grown in California, whereas other crops, such as dairy and oats, have a wider distribution and can be sourced more locally. 

Blue Diamond's Almond Breeze is the leading almond milk brand in the U.S., generating $80 million more in sales than the second largest, Danone (producer of Silk). Blue Diamond uses HP Hood, a national dairy company based in Massachusetts, to manufacture its almond milk, and while the company does operate a factory just for shelf-stable fluids in California, past incidents of cow's milk contamination in refrigerated Vanilla Almond Breeze suggest some of Blue Diamond's popular almond-based beverages are manufactured in its New England facilities, alongside dairy products. That would mean the seeds travel 3,000 miles from the Central Valley to the opposite end of the country—a distance that would cost the average car about 2,350 pounds of CO2 emissions, based on EPA estimates—then across the country again for distribution.

Emissions From Honeybee Transport

Person in protective gear loading hives onto truck

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In addition to the emissions generated from transporting almonds to the milk processing facility and to retailers around the country, those generated from hauling 1.6 million honeybee colonies on tractor-trailers should also be considered. The state employs 60% of all the managed honeybee hives in the country just for almond pollinating each winter. Lending the pollinators to this lucrative crop now composes half the average beekeeper's income.

The bees travel from coast to coast, pollinating whatever is in season: Washington's cherry orchards in spring, Florida oranges and Michigan blueberries in the summer, and about 90 other crops. Then, they overwinter in the warmest parts of the country—Texas, Florida, or California—and embark on their human-assisted migration of crop pollination again by Valentine's Day. While the process is essential to modern-day food production, it's been criticized for putting immense stress on the bees, which would normally spend the winter resting if they were in nature.

It also has a tremendous effect on the environment, as the transportation sector is now the top domestic greenhouse gas emitter. Ironically, farming practices associated with renewable biofuel crops that could reduce the impact of transporting managed bee colonies could actually pose a health risk to the bees.

Tips for Reducing Your Milk Footprint

Americans are drinking 20% less dairy milk today than they were in 2010. While the shift to plant-based alternatives bodes well for the environment, drinking milk, in general, is impactful—especially if the milk you're drinking comes from a cow. Here are some tips for being an eco-friendlier milk consumer.

  • Alternate between milk types so that the impact is not so concentrated in a single sector.
  • Purchase non-GMO and USDA-certified organic almonds and almond milk whenever possible to reduce the use of toxic pesticides and fertilizers.
  • Look for the B Corp certification, which ensures the product meets the highest standards of sustainability and transparency.
  • Purchase milk that is packaged in sustainably sourced and recyclable materials. Note that Tetra Paks can be recycled, but not typically via your average curbside service.
  • Consider buying shelf-stable milk to conserve energy from refrigeration.
  • Make your own almond milk from organic almonds (bonus points for buying them in bulk to evade plastic waste) when possible.
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