ALMONDS…

Or mainly, almond milk. Yes, that surprisingly pleasant milk-substitute beloved of Clean Eaters everywhere.

As more of us drift towards a meat-free life, it beckons temptingly. You’re almost elevated to dietary sainthood the moment you whisper with a shudder, “Oh! I don’t do dairy, do you have any almond milk?”

Yes, it’s hugely popular, not just with vegan converts and bearded hipsters, but those unlucky enough to be lactose or dairy intolerant. When I was young, no-one had ever heard of lactose intolerance. I suppose people just suffered in silence and wondered why a milky coffee made them fart like an ancient Morris Traveller.

However, there is nothing virtuous about almond milk. Nothing at all.

I have no idea if this is almond blossom, but it is very pretty and livens up the page a bit.
Photo by Jorge Alvarez on Unsplash

Are Californians drinking dirty water?

On average, it takes 12 litres of water to grow one almond. 12 litres! Almost as bad as avocados

Most of the world’s almonds come from California, so there’s quite a carbon footprint too. According to the Almond Board of California, and they should know, the state “produces about 80% of the world’s almonds and 100% of the U.S. commercial supply. Almonds are California’s #1 agricultural export.”

It’s also the most extensively irrigated crop in the state, in spite of the fact that poor old California has had an appalling drought since 2010.

All trees that produce crops of any kind need a constant supply of water, so when there’s no rain, farmers irrigate their crops with water taken from wells drilled deep down into the aquifers. These are layers of permeable rock containing groundwater.

In normal times, aquifers are refilled with rain. But after 10 years of drought, the higher aquifers are empty. So farmers are drilling deeper and deeper. This means the quality suffers. Why?

  • Salinity increases the deeper you go. Salty water isn’t good for the soil and it’s not nice to drink.
  • In some built up areas, groundwater basins are contaminated by industrial chemicals.
  • Away from the towns, nitrates from fertilisers often pollute local drinking water supplies. This should worry people a great deal more than it does as it can have severe health consequences: hypoxia/hypoxemia***, cancers and thyroid problems.
  • Near the coast, salt water flowing into yet more aquifers doesn’t help crops – and again, it’s not good for drinking. 

It gets scarier. In an op-ed for the LA Times, the distinguished scientist and hydrologist Jay Famiglietti, claims that California is at risk of running out of water.

What drought really does…

We think of drought this way – it dries up what we can see in front of us – brown grass, curling leaves, failed crops etc.

What we don’t realise that it affects the land in a much more frightening way.

There is huge subsidence in the vast San Joaquin Valley, where most of the almonds are grown. The aquifers are slowly collapsing deep underground, and when aquifers collapse, so does the ground we stand on. Land that sinks – no matter how slowly – is dangerous for roads, bridges, levees, buildings – infrastructure of every sort.

This photo, snuck from the Water Education Foundation, shows how far the land subsided in 25 years.

In turn, this makes the mountains ranges running alongside the valley higher, and this increases the likelihood of earthquakes.

Remember, this is in California, which you might call Earthquake Central. This massive subsidence been identified as the largest human alteration of the Earth’s surface. Wow.

In fairness, this is a process that has taken 150 years of sucking the water out of the ground to create farmland out of marsh. But the rush to cash in on the almond milk boom has led to almond acreage in California increasing by over 80% in the decade between 2009 and 2019. Trees need much more water than cabbages.

Thus groundwater depletion is happening quicker and quicker, which means the land is sinking faster and faster, “nearly 2 inches (5 centimeters) per month in some locations“. (NASA).

Eek. Eek, and thrice eek.

You can’t grow almonds without bees…

Almonds are actually fruits, and fruit trees need bees for pollinating.

Just in case you’ve forgotten what a bee looks like, here’s a beautiful close up by Boris Smokrovic on Unsplash. Marvel at the pollen baskets on its back legs!

Let’s hear from the Almond Board again.

  • About 1.6 million colonies of honey bees are placed in California almond orchards at the beginning of the bloom period to pollinate the crop.
  • After almonds, honey bees move throughout the United States, pollinating over 90 other crops and making honey.

This is what’s known as migratory beekeeping, and it leads to bees being stressed.

Actually, the term, “migratory beekeeping” makes me cross because it’s wilfully misleading. Bees are most definitely NOT migratory, In normal circumstances, they feed on a wide variety of nectars.

What it means in reality is that hives are trundled from crop to crop as each needs to be pollinated in turn. While the bees are being driven, perhaps hundreds of miles, they’re in closed cartons, unable to fly.

In addition, transporting them from one monoculture to another deprives them of a balanced diet. Almonds are grown in great monocrops – acres and acres of nothing but almonds. Come on, you’d get sick if you ate nothing but chocolate for three weeks and then moved on to baked beans for a month, followed by a fortnight on eggs. This is basically what is required of these “migratory” bees.

Shunting them about the country also increases the risk of spreading parasites and diseases, not only amongst managed hives but also among the depleted wild bee populations they might just encounter round the edges of these monocultures.

In fact, all crops are more effectively pollinated by a mix of honey and wild bees than by honeybees alone. But there are no other foods for the bees, so the farms rely 99% on these “migratory honeybees” with virtually no extra input from other pollinators.

Slave bees, more like.

And then there’s insecticides, upon which almond growers are so dependent. A study last year which looked at the toxic combination of insecticides and fungicides on bees in almond orchards reported the following:

  • increased larval mortality,
  • increased deformed brood
  • a significant number of colonies completely dead.

The decline of bees around the world should make this a matter of deep concern.

A busy bee going about its business on what might be almond blossom – who knows? Marvellous. We must fight their corner. Photo by Zuleika Sequeira on Unsplash

While I’m at it, let’s not demonise farmers. They’re making a living, and many of them are at their wits end as to how to improve farming. The safety of bees, the absurdity of monocultures and the use of groundwater needs to be dealt with by legislation at state and national level.

But St Gwynnie of GOOP drinks it!

Yes, the fragrant Gwyneth Paltrow, the not-as-vegan-as-you-thought goddess with the noxiously idiotic lifestyle website GOOP, apparently has a smoothie made with almond milk every morning – whether or not she is detoxing! So it must be the superest of super things evah, hey?

A random smoothie. Nothing to do with the Blessed Gwynnie. But is that her face appearing in the lime??? Photo by Alina Karpenko on Unsplash

Oh yes, the internet is awash with any number of clean eating influencers promoting the virtue of replacing dairy with almond milk.

So how nutritious is it?

Go to the Alpro website and you will find this list of the benefits of drinking “almond original”. My comments in italics.

  • Naturally Lactose Free
  • 100% plant-based
  • Vegetarian (er… isn’t that the same as 100% plant based?)
  • Naturally low in fat
  • Naturally low in saturated fat (Surely that’s just a subheading under “fat”?)
  • Low in sugars (But since you can get unsweetened almond milk, I think we can assume the these sugars are added…)
  • Rich in Fibre (except all the nut is taken out)
  • A source of calcium. Contains vitamins B2, B12 and D.
  • Source of calcium and vitamins D and B12. (Sorry guys, you just said that!) Vitamin B12 contributes to the reduction of tiredness and fatigue.

Search as I might, I can’t find any evidence to say it’s any better for you than old-fashioned cow’s milk or, for that matter, any other non-animal milk.

Lactose intolerance and veganism

Some people are lactose (dairy) intolerant. Others hate the milk industry and make a moral choice not to drink it. For both groups, doing without milk is a serious nuisance. And this isn’t a perfect world and frequently we have to make quick choices that we know aren’t good for the planet.

But if you do decide to change from almond milk, and I hope you do, oat milk and coconut milk seem to be a wee bit less damaging, even though they come in Tetra Paks which are much less eco-friendly than you might think. (But that’s for another time…)

Better still, make your own almond milk. Buy almonds grown near you (they’re grown in Australia, Europe, Asia and North Africa) and get bottling. Here’s a handy recipe to start you off. Chefs don’t like the pulp, I gather, but there are any amount of recipes out there for using the by-product. Or use it to make an exfoliating scrub.

My final question…

Is it worse for me to buy cow’s milk delivered in a glass bottle which will be used again and again (yes, we still get ours like that!) or a Tetra Pak of almond milk that goes on fouling the planet long after you’ve finished with it?

Ahh, life is so complicated!

***Request for my brother Frank

*** Frank, am I correct in stating that hypoxia and hypoxemia (low oxygen in your tissues/blood) will occur when the mechanism by which methemoglobin is formed is affected, “thereby inhibiting the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood“? My research seemed to point to this.

Note to the rest of you. My brother Frank is an eminent surgeon, and therefore a proper Man of Science. And yes, I could have asked him before publishing, but I don’t think it hurts to show my areas of ignorance and my efforts to redress this! And besides, I’m off on tour any minute, and want to get this out there!

Meanwhiles, welcome to all of you who have joined recently, and thanks to chuttersnap on Unsplash for the photo of the almonds at the top. Honestly, without the wondrous Unsplash’s free photos, this blog would be very dull to look at.

But of course, the best picture of all is the one of the… yes… wait for it… the One And Only beloved Mutt who has a starring role in this blog.

Quite rightly. She is a very eco-minded Person-Dog as she loves to lick the plates in the dishwasher before the cycle starts, thus extending the life of the machine. She firmly believes that hygiene is less important than waste.

What a clever dog!

BELOVÉD ECO-MUTT!

Her Ladyship in wistful mode, gently fantasising about killing rabbits.
Photo by Jaimondo Sharpe, who is Piper’s second favourite human bean after me.

31 thoughts on “ALMONDS…

  1. I have an almond tree in my garden…just sayin’

    And as for the beloved Mutt. She is merely contributing to saving the planet by dispensing with the need for a pre-wash programme.

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    • Lucky you! Does it produce much? We had one in the front garden (Southsea, so well warm enough) when I was growing up, but in spite of me hoping every year to find ripe almonds (I suppose I must have always been interested in growing things) it only ever produced the odd little wrinkled, failed drupe. Very disappointing.

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  2. Another pet hate for me…all these so called “milks” Milk comes from mammals(usually cows or goats if we drink it) not from fruits or cereals.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yesssss! I read somewhere that in the EU (an organisation somewhere abroad, you may have heard of it) you have to refer to it as ‘mylk’ as dairy farmers felt that calling these products ‘milk’ was misleading.

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  3. Thank you so much for continuing your amusing and very informative emails. Please come and perform in Bristol again soon!  Whenever there is a usable venue, that is. Much appreciation, Dena

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  4. Thank you for highlighting this con. It is concerning that so many unwittingly buy into it and thus perpetuate an industry that is harmful to the environment and does nothing for their health (but does deplete their wallet). Almonds as tree nuts (actually, as you say, botanically fruits) are fine nutritionally, but they are expensive compared to, say, peanuts (actually legumes) but nutritionally grouped with tree nuts (most of which are drupes or seeds anyway). All “nuts” are pretty much the same in health terms. Still with me? 90% of world’s almonds are grown in Central Valley of California (and in Europe some in Southern Spain and Italy but not exported much). In California almond cultivation is an impressive and highly mechanised monoculture with a capital “M” and the negative effects on the environment are documented in your post. Bad for the water table (80gal water per oz shelled almonds vs <5gal per oz shelled peanuts Source: UNESCO). Bad for the soil – continuous cultivation means no rotation and necessity for artificial fertilisers that leech into the water table,etc etc. Bad for bees – stress diseases when bees are transported thousands of miles and made to do what they do not do naturally and then trucked off again elsewhere. And not beneficial for health when turned into "almond milk" either. "Milked nuts" are mainly water. Leading brands are less than 3% almonds. All the nut milks are pretty much like that. Really, what's the point other than virtue signalling? Unless one is intolerant to dairy, the best thing is to find a brand of milk from cows that are well husbanded, is full fat and drink/cook with that. But this is whistling in the wind because the margins in dairy production are wafer thin (thanks to competitive supermarkets) and producers are going out of business because of that and because of the pressures the know-nothings who buy nut/soy/hemp/chia seed/oat and whatever next milks are exerting in the market. We won't know what we are missing until it is gone.

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    • Yes, indeed. All these points are made in my piece, apart from the point about soil which I left out because unless the trees are uprooted to plant something else, it’s not immediately relevant. I agree with you about opting for decent cow’s milk, but I refrain from too much didacticism in the pieces because in the end, people must make their own choices and I can only push so far without alienating. Thanks for your thoughtful and considered reply.

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  5. I once heard the chairman of company being interviewed about the dairy substitute his company produces.
    The interviewEr said “I prefer my milk natural“

    Chairman replied “you must have a very understanding mother“

    Fell off my chair!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. We should all be turning our backs on dairy milk for the simple reason that it it involves great suffering. Cows have been bred to have enormous, uncomfortable outsized udders, which is bad enough, but they have to be in a state of perpetual pregnancy in order to provide the milk. Soon after the birth the calf is taken away from its mother so that the milk meant for it comes to us, who, as weaned adults, have no need for it. The mother bellows night and day for her lost infant, sometimes throwing herself against metal gates or trying to tear through hedges. The calf cries for her pitifully until after a short time most are shipped off to the abattoir. This is not conjecture – for a while during adolescence I worked on a dairy farm and later lived close to one for many years. It was heartbreaking. We don’t drink milk of any kind and have plant based alternatives to yoghurt and cheese if possible. The main problem with the latter is simply that there are too many of us on the planet to make any food production environmentally friendly.

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    • You obviously feel very strongly about this, and you make good points. Your last sentence particularly rings home – I think the best single thing I’ve done for the planet is not to have children.

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      • Same here Dillie, no children, our gift to the world. Sadly a drop in the (heavily polluted) ocean.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. It should also be mentioned that there only appears to be a small % of almond in each carton…so RIP off comes to mind.. .Just give up milk, and drink espresso!!!

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    • I decided not to get into this for a couple of reasons – when fortified with vitamins, etc., it has nearly the same nutritional value as cow’s milk, though it’s not superior to it. Also the articles then get so long… But you’re quite right.

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  8. You are absolutely right of course – those beautiful pink-blossomed trees are water hogs, bee enslavers, and Tetrapak subsidizers. It’s painful here, in California, to drive past acres of almond kindling – neat rows where every other tree has been pulled out to conserve water. You rightly equate the water use for almonds as being nearly as bad as that for avocados – but perhaps I could use your forum to mention that beef production uses a lot more water -15,414 L/kg compared to 9,063 L/kg – but, interestingly, pound-for-pound, less protein at 112 L/g for beef to 139 L/g for nuts (https://www.sciencedirect.com). That was in 2012, and those numbers are probably worse now because, well, just about everything is. Oat milk is the all-around good guy on the team. According to the Sustainable Agriculture, Research, and Education website (https://www.sare.org/Learning-Center) oats “suppress weeds, prevent erosion, scavenge excess nutrients, add biomass …” and are so good for you!

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  9. ‘scuse my ignorance, but I still don’t know how you milk an almond. Even if you sit on a very, very low stool, you need the patience of a saint and rather tiny fingers. Seriously though, thanks Dille for this post, I read about the California situation some time ago, but it seems nothing has been done to ease the drought – Money talks, eh?

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  10. ‘scuse my ignorance, but I could never understand how you milk an almond. Even if you sit on a very, very low milking stool, have the patience of a saint and tiny, wee fingers. Seriously though, thanks for posting this Dillie. I read about it some time ago but it doesn’t seem like anything has been done to ease the drought, save the bees, or anything else to benefit the future of the planet. Money talks , eh?

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  11. Lactose free milk is available (Arla do a good one). It’s normal dairy milk treated with lactase and it works fine. I’m the son of a dairy farmer and don’t really see any major problem in drinking milk. I like cows (as Bill Bryson said, “you can talk to them for hours, tell them all your troubles and faults and they will never criticise you and when you are fed up, you can eat them”).

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I didn’t know of lactose free milk, but then I don’t look for it as I don’t need it. I went through a phase of getting ghastly eczema which was, in part, dairy induced (grrr) and then used goat milk which I learned to love. But there’s still nothing like a glass of cold, full fat milk. Yum.

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    • I grew up on a dairy farm (as I mentioned before) and Dad used to send over a couple of gallons of milk after milking in the morning. Mum used to make clotted cream and we kids grew up drinking gallons of milk. And then gradually in my teenage years I started getting what the doctors said was IBS. It wasn’t of course. Eventually, about five years ago the connection between drinking milk and the excruciating hours spent on the loo suddenly hit me. Found Arla’s range of lactose-free dairy products and switched to them. Everything suddenly seemed much brighter (except that their brand of lactose free cheese looks and tastes like bath sealant). Cautious experimentation established that as long as most of the lactose has been fermented out (yoghurt, cheese) or squeezed out (butter) I’m reasonably OK. Liquid milk sends me dashing to the loo. Like you I would still drink cold, full fat milk, if I could. But the payback is just too much.

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  13. Grow your own scourer! I grew a loofah plant two years ago – a perfect cucumber shape, only one grew to full size.. quite tricky removing the skin but I now have a small scourer, own-grown!

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  14. Given the interest in how California almond production work as an industry, readers might like to see this contribution from Prof Marion Nestle where she wades into the controversy about how bees are used and abused in US almond tree pollination. It’s on her Food Politics blog today. Not a good look for the almond growers if only 10% of them are using the “bee friendly farming initiative”.
    http://www.foodpolitics.com/2020/02/bees/ Her call for regulation is timely.

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  15. Thanks very much indeed for this excellent post and link. I believe it’s not just almonds that are to blame, it’s the way fruit is grown in the US so the bees are trucked from crop to crop as they come into flower.

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